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third ear

BSO’s search, and Gatti’s turn in the spotlight

 

MICHAEL NAGLE FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

Having ambled from Schulhoff to Schubert, Mozart to Miaskovsky, the Boston Symphony Orchestra this week concludes its current subscription season, its second without a music director.

The secrecy enshrouding the search process is often compared to that surrounding the selection of the pope, except for the fact that the auditions take place in front of thousands of people. Even so, the identity of the candidates, the thinking of the search committee, the precise timeline, all remain as tightly guarded as ever.

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What we do know is that in the fall, managing director Mark Volpe said to expect an announcement in the spring. Invited this week to update that timetable, Volpe said through a BSO spokesperson only that “the search is progressing.”

In private, BSO musicians say that no clear consensus favorite has emerged among them. But the field of serious contenders — conductors whose combination of age and stature make them likely candidates — did expand this season, with the sensational Symphony Hall debut of Vladimir Jurowski. After sparking a lot of excitement at Tanglewood last summer, Andris Nelsons also made a notable if less electrifying Symphony Hall debut. And Stephane Deneve returned with a thoughtfully conceived, well-executed program. But at the moment, there seems to be just one conductor on everyone’s mind: the 51-year-old Italian maestro Daniele Gatti.

While the others were given just one subscription week apiece this season, Gatti was handed three mammoth programs in Symphony Hall — the Verdi Requiem, a concert of excerpts from five Wagner operas, and Mahler’s Third Symphony — all programs that might typically be led by a music director. And he then capped his Boston appearances by leading the BSO twice this month at Carnegie Hall. Suddenly he is the candidate front and center as the search enters what could be its final stages. It may be worthwhile then to consider for a moment what a Gatti reign might look like.

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Speculation is tricky, since Gatti, a major musical figure in Europe, has never directed an American orchestra, let alone one with the commitments the Boston podium would probably require, between leading the BSO both in Symphony Hall and at Tanglewood, and working — at least on some level — with the students of the Tanglewood Music Center.

Born in Milan, Gatti has built his career simultaneously in the opera house and the concert hall, having served as director of the Teatro Comunale of Bologna and London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, whose luster he is credited with restoring. He directed the Zurich Opera, is a frequent guest at the Wagnerian shrine of Bayreuth, and has built a close relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic.

It’s clear that Gatti is an intensely serious musician who exudes a confident mastery of whatever score he has before him (or, as is frequently the case, in his memory). He has a muscular and no-nonsense podium technique and a gift for chiseling phrases to suit his interpretive goals. Those goals themselves can, however, be highly personal, idiosyncratic, and at times controversial. While his “Parsifal” was recently hailed at the Metropolitan Opera, his 2009 “Aida” performance in the same house drew booing, as he has on occasion done at La Scala and elsewhere. Similarly, he won raves for his 1996 New York Philharmonic debut in a Mahler symphony only to return years later to harsh criticism of another Mahler performance. In Boston, local critics were far from unanimous on his belated 2002 BSO debut.

Of his Symphony Hall work this season, I found his Verdi Requiem had both dramatic force and a noble wingspan, but in his Wagner evening, while the orchestra often delivered wonderfully responsive playing, Gatti’s phrasing turned maddeningly ponderous in the excerpts from “Tristan und Isolde.” The BSO again played brilliantly during the first of his Mahler performances, but for me the night was marred by perplexing phrasing in the finale, itself interrupted by an unfortunate accident in the chorus. Gatti’s champions point out how much a program can improve over the course of a run. Certainly the Mahler Third seemed to, as by the time the BSO brought this program to Carnegie Hall, the New York Times critic James Oestreich, in a rave review, summarized that Gatti “did much to impress, and nothing to disappoint.”

Whether one views Gatti’s interpretations as inspired or erratic, he clearly has major posts in his future, be they operatic or symphonic. The question is whether he is the right match for what the BSO needs most right now. I remain unconvinced. The next music director must have the boldness of artistic and institutional vision to lead the orchestra more broadly, the charisma to shape the city’s musical life, and fresh ideas to help bridge the world of Symphony Hall with the world outside its door.

The orchestra’s challenge — like many of its sibling ensembles in other cities — is not just the dispiriting sight of empty seats, depending on the week, but a larger issue of perception. Many culturally engaged Bostonians of my acquaintance — and probably yours, too — will eagerly explore a new show at the Museum of Fine Arts or the Institute of Contemporary Art. And yet they continue to view Symphony Hall as a temple of pristine seclusion, a place for classical music insiders that outsiders never (or rarely) enter. As the city’s largest and most visible ensemble, it falls to the BSO and its leader to demonstrate that classical music has a vital place in the wide cultural mix.

Does Gatti have the proclivity or appetite for that kind of broader cultural leadership, for helping the BSO reach beyond itself? Here one wonders. His ambassadorial record was not exactly burnished by an infamous 2004 incident in Naples, Fla., where he shocked an audience with an angry tirade from the stage after a Royal Philharmonic performance on tour. His programming also raises serious concerns.

As conductors such as James Levine, David Robertson, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Alan Gilbert have shown, creative and exploratory program-building can be a powerful tool for bringing excitement and intellectual energy to a season. Yet based on his programs with his current ensemble, the Orchestre National de France, Gatti seems to favor a more old-fashioned approach of grouping masterpieces together with a logic that — at least from a distance — can be difficult to discern. When Gatti brought one such Beethoven-Strauss-Ravel program on tour to the States in 2011, New York Times critic Zachary Woolfe described it as “surely one of the lamest assemblages of symphonic favorites performed in New York this season, the kind of greatest-hits programming that a decent college orchestra couldn’t get away with nowadays.”

His recent track record with contemporary music is also not encouraging. Gatti was actually trained as a composer, but his priorities at present do not seem to lie in advocating for the music of his own time. (He programmed new music with the Beethoven symphonies in Paris this fall, but according to his website, he did not lead a single work by a living composer for the entirety of the 2011-12 season.) After James Levine’s passionate commitment to American high-modernists, it will be essential that the next music director find ways — by dint of charm, intellectual heft, or missionary zeal — to bring the public a more diverse swath of contemporary music.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that, simultaneous to the music director search, the BSO is seeking to deepen relationships with a new generation of guest conductors, as some of its most trusted and regularly returning eminences — Kurt Masur, Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, Charles Dutoit, Christoph von Dohnanyi, and Bernard Haitink — push toward, or into, their 80s. Any of the purported candidates not chosen for the top job could easily enter that stable of regular returning guests, presenting the repertoire they do best, without the burden of leadership beyond the podium.

Gatti, Nelsons, and Deneve will all be returning next season, with Nelsons, interestingly, receiving the largest chunk of subscription real estate: a full orchestral program, plus an enticing concert performance of Strauss’s opera “Salome.” It’s a good reminder that, while Gatti has dominated the spotlight this spring, the orchestra might still pivot sharply and name any of the others in the coming months (though it must be said, Jurowski’s absence from next season’s schedule does not bode well for his prospects).

Next season itself happily promises a number of ambitious programs, and will end with a significant tour of Japan and China. Whoever is named will take the reins of an orchestra in excellent technical shape. In a way, this fact only heightens the potential for what the next music director could achieve. The BSO could use this appointment to honor the Koussevitzkian strands in its DNA, to re-assume a national leadership role, and to heighten the visibility of its art in a fractured and distractible culture. Of course doing so will require an inspired conductor who enjoys great chemistry with the players. Yet it will also take a leader who views the pursuit of sublime performances as not where the job ends, but where it begins.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.
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