Music: Five for the Future

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American maestros preside over a vibrant orchestral scene

When the Cleveland Orchestra recently chose a new music director, it reached across the Atlantic to select Christoph von Dohnányi, a German of Hungarian descent who is head of the Hamburg State Opera. It is a familiar story. Once again a major U.S. conducting post has gone to a foreign-born musician. Where are all the Americans?

Ever since 1943, when Leonard Bernstein, then 25, became famous by stepping in for Bruno Walter with the New York Philharmonic, the musical world has been waiting—impatiently—for the arrival of the next comparably compelling American conductor. Bernstein is now 63, and the wait goes on. Lorin Maazel? Indisputably talented, though sometimes willful in his interpretations, Maazel, 52, was born in France to American parents and, apart from his stint as conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra (1972-82), has made his reputation in Europe. This fall he takes over as director of the Vienna State Opera, the most prestigious operatic post in the world.

André Previn? The Berlin-born music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony, Previn, 53, came to the U.S. in 1939, when his parents fled Hitler. First active as a jazz pianist and arranger—winning four Academy Awards for his film scores—he got his start conducting in a post in Houston but attracted wide notice only after he was appointed to lead the London Symphony. Even in Pittsburgh, he is still strongly identified with English music. Another prominent member of this generation, Thomas Schippers, died at 47 in 1977. The music director of the Cincinnati Symphony was an opera conductor with a solid international reputation.

To find the up-and-coming young American conductors today, one has to look beyond the ranks of the "Big Five" orchestras—New York, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland and Philadelphia—to the smaller but highly accomplished ensembles that have nourished around the country away from metropolitan spotlights. It is from their ranks that the next important American music director may emerge. Five top candidates:

David Zinman, 45, of the Rochester Philharmonic. In eight years, Zinman has taken a demoralized, undermanned ensemble and turned it into an orchestra that plays better today than it did in its glory days under Erich Leinsdorf in the '50s. Zinman's strengths are a buoyant sense of rhythm and a flair for orchestral color, which make his Mahler performances hard-driving and vivid. Zinman is the oldest of the group, and his increasing musical maturity makes him a front runner for a top post. But, in the recesses of upstate New York, he may be marooned in what Leinsdorf once called a "completely unmarked dead end."

John Nelson, 40, of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. Formerly a choral conductor, Nelson has an easy, fluent way with some of the grandest pieces in the repertory, like the Berlioz Requiem. He first came to attention when he organized an uncut performance of Berlioz's sprawling opera Les Troyens at Carnegie Hall in 1972 and then conducted the work the following year at the Met. An imaginative programmer, he has championed offbeat works like Shostakovich's Symphony No. 15, the composer's enigmatic symphonic valedictory.

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