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A First for New York: New Conductors at the Met Opera and Philharmonic

Category: Art & Culture,Arts

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way, and it’s never happened this way before: New music directors are arriving this season at both the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera, a coincidence with the potential to transform the city’s music scene.

At the Met, the fall of James Levine amid allegations of sexual misconduct scrambled the company’s plans for passing the baton to Yannick Nézet-Séguin. This dynamic conductor was originally scheduled to take over in 2020, but Mr. Levine’s suspension and later firing forced the company into action. Mr. Nézet-Séguin, also the music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, cut back some commitments in order to fully take on his duties at the Met this fall.

At the Philharmonic, Jaap van Zweden was always meant to begin his tenure this month. Still, back when he was appointed, a few months before Mr. Nézet-Séguin in 2016, no one expected that his partner in the orchestra’s executive office would be Deborah Borda, who was lured away from the thriving Los Angeles Philharmonic. So both these institutions are reaching major transitions in a bit of flux.

For all the good will awaiting these maestros, some big questions hover. From nearly 70 performances that Mr. Nézet-Séguin has given at the Met since his debut during the 2009-10 season, as well as his regular appearances at Carnegie Hall with the Philadelphia Orchestra, audiences have come to know him as an insightful and energetic conductor with exceptional feeling for color and texture. At 43, he brings a change in generation. (Mr. Levine is 75.) He fits the times in being nonchalant about his life as a partnered gay man, and his time in Philadelphia has shown he’s comfortable in the role of a public cultural figure.

But for all his excellent work in Philadelphia, he has yet to convey clearly his long-term artistic vision for the orchestra. And so far, he has spoken only vaguely about what he wants to do at the Met: fostering high standards and camaraderie; championing overlooked works; generating commissions, all without getting too specific.

Along with two concerts with the Met Orchestra in the spring, he will conduct only three operas this season, starting with a new production of “La Traviata” in December and moving on to Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” and Poulenc’s “Dialogues des Carmélites.” That’s not much of a presence. Indeed, since the Met needs a music director who will both work with Peter Gelb, its general manager, and stand up to him, the most consequential things Mr. Nézet-Séguin does this season may take place in conference rooms, rather than in the pit.

Mr. van Zweden’s situation at the Philharmonic is the reverse. He has not appeared that much in New York to date, but will suddenly be omnipresent as he leads a flood of repertory in this debut season as music director, including composers as disparate as Mozart, Stravinsky, Conrad Tao, Ives, Schumann, Britten, Bruckner, Louis Andriessen and John Corigliano.

His performances on visits with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (where he was the music director for a decade) and his relatively few guest appearances with the Philharmonic have confirmed his reputation as a technically rigorous and interpretatively powerful conductor; he seems a maestro of the old school, with a penchant for tautly controlled, top-down performances.

The Philharmonic was drawn to him in part for his ability to fire up the standard repertory. Yet recent renditions of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and Act I of Wagner’s “Die Walküre” have lacked subtlety, lyricism and depth. Also, is his reputation as a disciplinarian and orchestra-builder, something he proved in Dallas, what the Philharmonic needs right now? Not to me. I want a music director with clear ideas about what a major American orchestra should be.

Fortunately for Mr. van Zweden, and for this city, the Philharmonic has Ms. Borda, too. It’s reassuring that Mr. van Zweden, from all reports, had worked hard to persuade Ms. Borda to come to New York . He clearly wants her advice.

And this season has several enticing initiatives. Mr. van Zweden will lead five premieres, starting with a work by Ashley Fure on the gala opening night program. A new opera by David Lang, “prisoner of the state,” will be a focal point of a “Music of Conscience” thread running through the year; Ms. Borda has unveiled a few of these organizing thematic pillars. Two new contemporary music series are being introduced. An event called “Phil the Hall” will offer introductory programs with tickets priced at just $5 for teachers, city workers and others who serve New Yorkers.

If some of these ideas came from Ms. Borda, no matter. They are happening on Mr. van Zweden’s watch. And doubtless Mr. Nézet-Séguin and Mr. Gelb are watching this burst of new activities — and hopefully conceiving some of their own — across the plaza at Lincoln Center.

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