Smart symphony orchestra managers around the world like to push the envelope in a bid to attract new audiences and to extend the imagination of their existing subscribers. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra board and management are not smart. They have succumbed to the markets and salespeople who care little for the quality of music, instead focusing on revenue. This is how to explain the ridiculous dismissal yesterday of the MSO’s chief conductor, Oleg Caetani, one year ahead of the end of his five-year contract.
Apparently, according to a report by The Age’s Robin Usher, “audiences had tired of Caetani’s championing of the 20th-century Russian conductor Dmitri Shostakovich”. If that’s true then there is either something seriously wrong with the audiences or the MSO has done a rotten job of selling to its audience some of the finest music of the past 100 years.
Shostakovich is no Karl-Heinz Stockhausen, the atonal composer whose music is dense and inaccessible to many. No, Shostakovich is lyrical, passionate, romantic in the true sense of the word, and the, with a capital T, epitome of artistic subversion of the Stalinist state. His symphonies, film music and other grand choral and orchestral works sell millions of copies around the globe for these reasons. But apparently he’s too much to bear for those who write the cheques at the MSO and who presumably would like to see a stodgy diet of 19th-century classics and treacly rubbish from Shostakovich’s vastly overrated countryman, Sergei Rachmanninov.
Caetani was the best thing to happen to the MSO. He was not a show-off like his predecessor, the media friendly and marketing savvy German wunderkind Markus Stenz. Caetani is a conductor’s conductor. Under Caetani the MSO got away from the provincial ABC Classics, and recorded with Chandos, a high-quality UK outfit. It meant, as the MSO’s then chief executive Trevor Green (who had the foresight to appoint Caetani in 2005), that people in London could hear the MSO for the first time.
In turning its back on a conductor of Caetani’s outstanding quality — he gets rave reviews when he conducts orchestras in Italy and Germany — and opting for boring conservative programming, the MSO is heading for a car crash.
In the US, many orchestras are cash-strapped because of graying audiences, unimaginative programming and because they succumb to the marketing departments, which simply want bums on seats, and therefore prefer a night of Andrew Lloyd Weber to 20th-century giants such as Shostakovich or Aaron Copland. But the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra are bucking the trend.
Both of those orchestras are going great guns because they have been led over the past decade or so by conductors, Esa Pekka Salonen (until recently at LA) and Michael Tilson Thomas (‘Frisco) who program a good deal of 20th- and 21st-century music. They make their audiences grow musically and it has become fashionable among younger people to attend these concerts.
The MSO is also getting a new boss — the current CEO of the Houston Symphony Orchestra in the US, Matthew Van Besien. Van Besien comes from an orchestra known for its conservative programming and cautious board — sound depressingly familiar?