I can't remember a time in the past two decades when the music world has been in a greater turmoil. The big headline-grabbing situation these days is the feud going on between Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic [please see the July 3 Monitor]. But it is hardly the only one.
* This spring, Lorin Maazel quit the Vienna State Opera and the uncommonly complex, thorny, even vindictive political morass that is the Vienna music scene.
* Andre Previn severed his ties with the Pittsburgh Symphony when the board decided that a manager was more important to the orchestra than a music director (and a director with prominent recording contracts, a visible TV and media profile, and recognizable musical accomplishments).
* John Williams resigned as music director of the Boston Pops a few weeks ago , after a rehearsal in which a new piece of his was hissed by some players.
In Vienna, a city considered by many to be the nest of political imbroglio par excellence, the history of its Opera has always been inimately intertwined with the surrounding political-social climate. Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, and Karajan are but three of the prominent musicians who relinquished the troublesome post of general director rather than continue what each felt to be an impossible battle with obstreperous officials, a poisonous press, and a vocal public that too often expressed its opinions. Even today, people go the Staatsoper to boo for the sake of booing, period.
Mr. Maazel - who leaves with barely half his contracted term completed - took the job knowing all about the inherent difficulties. What he clearly had not expected was the aggressiveness of attempts by Education and Arts Minister Helmut Zilk to lay down musical/artistic law. It was later revealed that the chief critic of Vienna's major daily, Die Presse, was in cahoots with Mr. Zilk to bring down Maazel, even helping the minister to write the letter that specifically caused his resignation.
Now a musical bureaucrat amenable to Zilk's direction has been given the big job: Claudio Abbado has been appointed music director. Ironically, Mr. Abbado is trading the vipers' nest of Italian politics at La Scala, Milan, for the ne plus ultra of intrigue, and on Zilk's terms (which included relinquishing the London Symphony Orchestra). One can only wonder why.
The Berlin situation is more ominous. In my opinion, the Berlin Philharmonic is the greatest orchestra in the world today. The reason? Karajan. For 28 years he has been honing an already auspicious ensemble into a legendary one. Now, the orchestra wants Karajan out. To distill it as simply as possible, the self-ruling ensemble fears that its authority and fundamental well-being are being threatened by the maestro's insistence on control of appointments within the orchestra, as well as of other crucial musical aspects of the orchestra's maintenance.
Karajan is, in a sense, living in the past: No longer can a music director - even a music-director-for-life, as Karajan is - demand total obedience of his players. And gone, it seems, is a time when the players might have chosen to let an ailing, crochety senior genius be indulged in the twilight of his awesome career. So now, the battle lines have hardened, the Berlin government has been brought in, the pro-Karajan manager has been fired, and it appears very likely that there will be no softening on either side, particularly since the players genuinely believe their autonomy and camaraderie are more fundamental to the Berlin's longstanding status than is the maestro.
It is, I suppose, inevitable that after 28 years of dictatorship, an orchestra would fantasize about finding a nice guy to take it over. But what conductor in history has ever been, or will ever be, able to hone an ensemble of nearly 100 players into something legendary by being Mr. Nice? And if the Berlin players really think that one of the crop of heirs apparent that are bruited about yearly - from Seiji Ozawa to Riccardo Muti (who will replace Abbado at La Scala) - will be able to keep them in the legendary status that Karajan has sustained (and improved upon) year after year, they are in for a rude surprise. Nevertheless, I fear the Berlin Philharmonic has chosen to ignore the fundamental fact that Karajan, irascible and irritating though he may be, is irreplaceable.
Andre Previn may not be irreplaceable, but the exceptional results he has achieved with the Pittsburgh speak for themselves. And his recordings have put the orchestra back on the map as a viable musical force in this land. But to the board there - as so often with arts boards on this continent - internal social standing and power-playing are more important than the well-being of the institution it is supposedly dedicated to nurturing and sustaining. So now the board has allowed Previn to walk away because the pro-manager faction was stronger than the pro-music-director one. (In May Maazel was appointed musical consultant for the next two seasons.) At least Previn goes to an orchestra hungry for a music director: Carlo Maria Giulini had not been around much the past two seasons. Also, Previn began his musical career in Los Angeles, albeit as a jazz pianist.
L.A. is where John Williams made his name as a movie composer, and it is where he will continue to be at his best. His years with the Pops were of a high level. He had the tough task of sustaining a household-word institution without the man who made it that - Arthur Fiedler. Williams was not prepared for the wicked workload involved in a Pops season; he was not strong enough a disciplinarian to be able to rule over the generally unruly orchestra players. What they naively thought to be a silly joke became instead the proverbial backbreaking straw.
Williams will probably play down that act of rudeness rather than use it to pinpoint a manifestation of a collective boorishness that pervades the orchestral-player scene worldwide. Today more than ever, gifted orchestral musicians are trying desperately to keep a profile in a basically anonymous situation. Sometimes it comes out as rudeness; other times it is manifested as a collective power play that might oust a legend.
Whatever the manifestation, I see a conspicuous effort on the part of boards, managements, conductors, players, soloists, and even the paying public to look the other way rather than to confront the basic issue. And until that issue is directly confronted and corrected - reasonably and with goodwill on all sides - orchestras in this country and worldwide will continue to be threatened with a corrosive problem more lethal than the worst financial woes.