The popular image of the orchestra conductor is that of a grand seigneur: imperious, authoritarian and, more often than not, old. Concert music, goes the conventional wisdom, is something so emotionally and spiritually complex that no one who has not reached at least his 60th year can possibly plumb its depths. What Beethoven, who died at 56, Mozart, who died at 35, or Schubert, who died at 31, would have thought of this manifestly ridiculous proposition hardly needs asking.
For too long, the myth that great age is required for great musicmaking has been accepted uncritically by audiences, performers and boards of directors alike. Now, with the surprising appointment of Claudio Abbado, 56, to succeed the late Herbert von Karajan at the august Berlin Philharmonic, and the even more unexpected engagement of Finland's Esa-Pekka Salonen, 31, to lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic, two new generations are finally laying claim to the world's great orchestras. Coming shortly after the selection of Myung-Whun Chung, 36, to lead the Opera de la Bastille in Paris, the appointments indicate a fresh breeze whistling through classical music.
Few can deny that the choices are sound ones. Abbado is a conductor of great range, equally at home, as Karajan was, in opera and symphonic music. His repertoire, however, is wider than Karajan's largely meat-and-potatoes Central European diet. "Musical history does not end with Puccini," Abbado declared after his election by the self-governing orchestra. Salonen, whose photogenic, blond good looks are sure to be an asset in image-conscious Los Angeles, is even more adventurous. "The Salonen appointment in Los Angeles indicates an orchestra possibly trying to change the image of what an orchestra might be about," says Leonard Slatkin, 45, the innovative conductor of the St. Louis Symphony.
One reason that Karajan, Karl Bohm, Carlo Maria Giulini, Sir Georg Solti and the other gerontocrats who dominated the musical scene after World War II were able to last so long was that there was simply no seasoned competition: the conflict killed off a whole generation of Europeans and some Americans, from whose ranks their successors might ordinarily have emerged. Partly as a result, the repertoire stagnated as Karajan and his contemporaries grew increasingly out of touch.
Coupled with this was the problem for young conductors trying to learn their repertory out of the spotlight. An overnight success could make a name, but at what cost? Michael Tilson Thomas, for example, sprang to fame in Boston by substituting for William Steinberg and then spent the next two decades dealing with the consequences of sudden celebrity. Still only 44, Thomas has matured into a fine conductor, and now leads the London Symphony Orchestra. Perhaps in recognition of the pitfalls of premature success, Soviet emigre Semyon Bychkov, 37, started out in Grand Rapids and then went to Buffalo before taking charge this year of the Orchestre de Paris. Similarly, Britain's Simon Rattle, 34, a leader of great promise, has obdurately remained with his City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in England, taking his career at his own pace.