Quick fill-in conductor? Call the Met

Daniele Gatti did a Saturday doubleheader in 2009 (it was planned), and also filled in for the ailing James Levine.
Daniele Gatti did a Saturday doubleheader in 2009 (it was planned), and also filled in for the ailing James Levine.

Sudden cancellations are no longer so scary, with willing aid from N.Y.

Posted: March 06, 2011

When a major symphony orchestra conductor has a last-minute illness, a shudder ripples through the classical-music world, followed by the potentially terrifying question: Where to find a replacement?

Absent soloists can be covered by a change of repertoire, but conductors are some of the most densely scheduled people on Earth. These peripatetic beings are lucky just to arrive on time for long-scheduled engagements - forget filling in for felled colleagues. Yes, there are staff conductors, but apparently none was available last fall when Riccardo Muti had to bow out of a Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert - leaving violin soloist Anne Sophie Mutter to conduct herself.

But in a spate of recent conductor cancellations that has hit Boston and Philadelphia, a resource has emerged where many might not have thought to look - the Metropolitan Opera.

Though Charles Dutoit's illness last week brought a sub from Atlanta (Robert Spano) to lead the Philadelphia Orchestra, a more intriguing scenario emerged in January: The suddenly indisposed Donald Runnicles was quickly replaced at Verizon Hall by the just-as-notable Gianandrea Noseda.

Noseda, who had conducted the Philadelphians earlier in the season, was wrapping up a La Traviata run at the Met and had as many as three free days between performances. The biggest question about his availability was whether he should travel by car or by rail from his Saturday Met matinee to his concert that evening at the Kimmel Center.

"We did have to rearrange our rehearsal schedule in order to accommodate the situation. We had to change the program," said Jeremy Rothman, vice president of artistic planning at the Philadelphia Orchestra. "But I think it [his willingness to take the engagement] speaks to the connection he made with the orchestra during his debut."

Met spillover has been felt in Philadelphia for years. In 2009, Daniele Gatti did a Saturday doubleheader (this one planned) when the convenience of two prestigious engagements only 100 miles apart proved irresistible. Gatti also filled in for the Met's James Levine - but in his capacity as Boston Symphony Orchestra music director, during a recurrence of the chronic health problems that finally led to his resignation from the Boston post on Wednesday. (He remains at the Met.)

The Met's local presence also is felt in less-direct ways. When considering the music-director candidacy of Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Philadelphia Orchestra had to have viewed the unpretentious Québécois differently in light of his five-season agreement with the Met, starting with his 2009 debut. Fabio Luisi's successful Philadelphia Orchestra debut last month was planned before he became principal guest conductor at the Met last year, but this previously European-based conductor now has a greater range of dates to offer American orchestras since his disgruntled departure from Dresden last year left holes in his schedule. Suddenly, a significant, seasoned 51-year-old conductor has taken a place on the U.S. landscape.

"My family and I are relocating to New York City next summer. We are right now looking for an apartment in Manhattan," he said in an e-mail last Sunday. "The way everybody works here is very attractive to me. . . . The audience in the U.S. is respectful, curious, open, and grateful to artists. All of this we are losing in Europe right now."

Another case is Andris Nelsons. Normally, American audiences at first get only glimpses of hot European talents, but after his 2009 Met debut, Nelsons returns this spring for The Queen of Spades - and will conduct the New York Philharmonic (before) and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (after). Many Met conductors have a Juilliard Orchestra date, since that orchestra has a flexible schedule, the Juilliard School is just across the street from Lincoln Center, and the impact they can have on future musicians of many symphony orchestras is powerful.

"They [students] may think they understand a work - and then see a great mind like Yannick or John Adams or Jimmy [Levine], and they're just overwhelmed with admiration and respect," said Juilliard president Joseph W. Polisi.

"We're delighted that this has had a positive effect on other institutions," said Met general manager Peter Gelb, who made conductors a higher priority upon his 2006 arrival. He's happy to collaborate as much as he can, in part because such outside engagements are a value-added factor in negotiations for conducting talent.

"Certainly, part of the difficulty of getting great conductors . . . has been the isolation of the Met from the rest of the European theaters and symphonic halls. The duration of the commitment needed at the Met [four to six weeks, compared to four to six days for a symphony orchestra] has worked against us," he said.

Historically, the Met has depended on house conductors, who may not always have been the most charismatic figures in their field, but were so dependable that one of them, Artur Bodansky, suffered a minor heart attack after Act I of a 1938 performance of Parsifal, but felt well enough to return for Act III. Though chief conductor Levine has cut his Met schedule to 30 performances a season (when his health allows), he was, in his younger years, both charismatic and a workhorse.

Valery Gergiev's principal-guest-conductor appointment in the 1990s added an extra charge to the Met. But such long-sought maestros as Daniel Barenboim, Simon Rattle, and Muti didn't make their debuts until after Gelb arrived, vowing to make conductors a priority. Even Nézet-Séguin's 2009 debut was negotiated as early as 2006, when he was barely known outside of Canada, thanks to a tip from the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Deborah Borda. "Years ago, she said, 'You must get him!' " says Gelb. And now, thanks to Nézet-Séguin's Met contacts, Philadelphia Orchestra audiences can expect to hear more high-profile singers.

"Our proximity to New York has always been an advantage," said the orchestra's Rothman. "And the more relationships he has, the better it is for his career profile and the better it is for us."

True, there might also be days when Nézet-Séguin has to conduct doubleheaders in both cities, which is not always good. The Philadelphia half of Noseda's two-performance day lacked his usual vitality - one reason Rothman doesn't encourage such same-day maneuvering with the Met.

But sometimes, conductors insist on schedule-crunching, the most notorious being Gergiev, who is booked so tightly that he has been seen walking in the front door of the Met only five minutes before he's due in the orchestra pit. "He's a force of nature," says Gelb. "There's no stopping him."

Contact music critic

David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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