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Classical 101

How Long Should a Conductor Stay?

Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Marco Borggreve
Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin";

Benjamin Franklin famously said that, "Fish and visitors stink after three days." That is certainly true about fish - and it depends upon the guest. What about conductors, however? How long should an orchestra expect, or want, a conductor to stay?

When New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert recently announced he was stepping down from his post after the 2016-2017 season, I admit I was surprised. Maybe I shouldn't have been, but I would think that there are few things more exciting and fulfilling than being at the helm of such a revered orchestra.

Yet, with the upcoming renovation of Avery Fisher Hall, expected to begin in 2019 and take two years, Mr. Gilbert said, "It’s just longer than I want to stay around. It’s actually that simple.”

Gilbert has done some amazing things with the orchestra. In a recent New York Times article, Michael Cooper wrote that "Mr. Gilbert has been credited with shaking up the philharmonic. He collaborated on a groundbreaking performance of Ligeti’s opera Le Grand Macabre and another of Stravinsky’s Petrushka, which starred ballet dancers and dancing and juggling members of the orchestra.

He conducted daring productions like Philharmonic 360, in which the orchestra surrounded the audience in the cavernous Park Avenue Armory and played works by Boulez, Mozart, Ives and Stockhausen."

While the artistic direction of an orchestra is the product of many things, the music director is the main cog driving the engine. When the NY Phil hires a replacement, that person will, most likely, have their own vision of what direction the orchestra should go. It might attract new audience, or it might begin tearing down what was built over the last eight years.

On the other end of the spectrum is the Philadelphia Orchestra, which recently announced the contract extension of music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin through 2022. His response, according to Washington Post writer Anne Midgette was, “What can I say? I’m a faithful guy, I like long-term relationships.”

At 40, Nézet-Séguin seems to know exactly what he wants to do, in Philadelphia and elsewhere. Gilbert, at 47, seems uncertain. I wish them both the best with their respective decisions. Only time will tell whether one, or both, were correct.