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Significant Changes in the US Classical Music Business - 2001-12-30

The past year has been a period of significant changes in the classical music business in the United States.

The death of American violinist Isaac Stern in September of 2001 marked the end of an era in the world of classical music. During more than half a century as a professional musician, the Ukraine-born Stern appeared on concert stages around the world and served as a mentor to many young musicians. His work has been documented in the award-winning film "From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China." Mr. Stern is also remembered for his performance in the movie soundtrack for "Fiddler on the Roof"

Philip Kennicott, the music critic of The Washington Post, notes that while the American media gave due attention to Isaac Stern's death, they hardly remarked upon the demise of the famous European composer Iannis Xennakis in August of this year. "And that shows the alienation of America from the European modernist tradition. Xennakis has been a major composer, an important modernist, somebody who would be mentioned in the same breath with (contemporary composer and conductor Pierre) Boulez and (20th-century French composer and organist Olivier) Messiaen and so on and when he died, hardly anything was said about it. And I think that really shows how much America has retreated into a kind of musical conservatism at this point," he says.

Mr. Xennakis pioneered the use of computers in music composition in the 1960-s. This is an excerpt from Xennakis' violin concerto, dedicated to famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin.

The music critic of the Washington Post says this past year has been more significant for changes in the classical music business than the production of new pieces. "There were a lot of changes in the administration of orchestras and art centers. Probably the three biggest ones to look at would be the three major appointments to American orchestras. Philadelphia (Orchestra), Boston (Symphony Orchestra) and New York(Philharmonic) in 2001 all appointed new music directors," he says.

A conductor can make or break the reputation of an orchestra so the appointments of new directors draw a lot of attention. The Boston Symphony enticed the head of the Metropolitan Opera James Levine to take over the leadership from the outgoing director Seiji Ozawa. Christoph Eschenbach, a European-born conductor known for his energy and innovative spirit, will be the next head of the Philadelphia Orchestra, replacing the world-renowned Wolfgang Sawalisch.

The Washington Post music critic says, while these two appointments are considered success stories, the New York Philharmonic's choice of a new director, after three years of deliberation, has been somewhat controversial. "They ended up replacing Kurt Masur with Lorin Maazel. And they handled the announcement very poorly and alienated a lot of the press and the audience and I think there is a lot of speculation that the Maazel appointment will really be an interim one," he says.

Lorin Maazel is an internationally acclaimed American conductor who first conducted the Philharmonic as a child prodigy in the 1940-s. He has since served as head to some of the world most respected ensembles, including the Vienna State Opera, the Cleveland Orchestra and most recently the Orchestra of the Bavarian Radio. But critics have expressed doubt that the 70-year old conductor will have the flair and energy to rejuvenate the New York Philharmonic.

The Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington D.C. appointed Michael Keiser, a former manager for London's Covent Garden, as its new president. Philip Kennicott says Mr. Keiser is having a major impact on the Center's organization and programming. He has announced plans to show more works produced at the Kennedy Center, instead of showing works of other organizations.

In addition to the management changes, many American art institutions have been working on improvements in their space and physical appearance. The Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington D.C. is trying to end the relative isolation of its building. New president Michael Keiser has offered an idea to build a plaza over the busy highway, which cuts it off from the rest of the city. And Philadelphia, Pennsylvania has just inaugurated a brand new Kimmel Center, which houses theaters and concert halls, including a new permanent home for the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Unlike Washington's Kennedy Center, the Kimmel Center is located in the busiest center of the city and is designed to appeal to the broadest possible public. Philip Kennicott says the moves to re-haul New York's Lincoln Center complex have been blocked by disagreements among its constituents. "At Lincoln Center, they've been working all year on plans for redeveloping the (Lincoln) Plaza in New York and it's led only to contention and even in some cases a kind of catastrophe. They've lost their president who has resigned, their various constituent organizations are really at each other's throats. So, New York has been in a kind of paralyzed situation musically during this year, which is odd because New York is usually the musical leader for the country," he says.

The managerial and physical changes of major American classical music centers have drawn some attention away from the new music. For example, the Philadelphia orchestra premiered three new compositions this year, commissioned for the celebration of the ensemble's one-hundredth anniversary. The premieres got little attention outside the local media.

The September 11 attacks have had a profound effect on the United States economy and consequently on the arts. Many commissions for new works have been stalled or cancelled due to the insecurity of funds. Instead, music organizations offered concerts honoring the victims of the attacks, raising funds or simply offering consolation.

Philip Kennicott says the attacks have reminded Americans of their mortality and caused some people to re-examine new music pieces. "Philip Glass' Fifth Symphony, which was given its Washington premiere (in November 2001), is really a creation story, but given the amount of religion and mythology and spirituality expressed in it, it suddenly seems to be a piece about the meaning of life," he says.

American composer Philip Glass whose latest Fifth Symphony recently premiered in Washington D.C. And that's a look at the American classical music scene in 2001.

Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001