It is likely one of the indelible star-is-born moments in music historical past: Leonard Bernstein, the 25-year-old assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, fills in at quick discover for an ailing maestro and leads the orchestra in a live performance broadcast dwell over the radio, inflicting a sensation.
“It’s a good American success story,” The New York Times wrote in an editorial, following a front-page assessment of the 1943 coup. “The warm, friendly triumph of it filled Carnegie Hall and spread over the airwaves.”
Fifteen years later, Bernstein was the Philharmonic’s music director. And the dream of ascending from the assistantship of a significant American orchestra to its management — like rising up a company ladder — was cemented within the widespread creativeness.
There are nonetheless assistant conductors, shiny, gifted 20- and 30-somethings employed by orchestras for stints of some years. Indeed, there are extra of them than ever, and so they go by quite a lot of titles: assistant, affiliate, fellow, resident. Almost each main orchestra has not less than one, and so they nonetheless fill the normal duties of Bernstein’s time: sitting within the live performance corridor throughout rehearsals to verify balances and mark up scores; conducting offstage teams of musicians for sure items; and, after all, being prepared to take the rostrum in case of emergency. But it’s uncommon to see them ascend to the highest jobs.
And that could be a missed alternative. When Marin Alsop steps down from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this summer season, it should depart the highest tier of American ensembles because it was earlier than she took the publish in 2007: with no single feminine music director. This group has had just one Black music director, and only a handful of leaders have been Latino or of Asian descent.
“It’s been a paternalistic industry to some degree for a long time,” Kim Noltemy, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s chief govt, stated in an interview. “In the last 20 years it’s changed quite a bit, but there’s lag time for the top-level leadership, whether it’s management or conductors.”
But it’s a very totally different story whenever you take a look at the nation’s assistants, a much more numerous group through which ladies and musicians of shade have discovered success lately.
Now there’s a likelihood for these assistant conductors to develop into extra than simply one other set of ears in a darkened auditorium. They present a chance to fast-track larger variety at traditionally slow-evolving establishments. The query now’s how quickly they’ll enter the topmost ranks — and whether or not, as main orchestras seek for music administrators within the coming years, they’ll look towards the gang proper below their noses.
“It’s great to have a BIPOC assistant conductor,” stated Jonathan Rush, the assistant conductor in Baltimore, who’s Black, referring to the acronym for Black, Indigenous and folks of shade. “To have that in place is awesome. But there are still not many opportunities for you to be that person that a younger musician can look up to. Yes, I get education concerts, they’re awesome, but we would have greater impact if we were music directors.”
As neighborhood engagement and outreach efforts have broadened nationwide, and develop into extra central for main orchestras, many assistants have added these actions to their portfolios, too. And through the coronavirus pandemic, when many artists overseas had been grounded, some assistants took on new prominence. Vinay Parameswaran, the Cleveland Orchestra’s affiliate conductor, who had spent a number of years primarily doing household concert events and main the ensemble’s youth orchestra, unexpectedly discovered himself conducting a number of main applications on Cleveland’s subscription streaming platform.
The variations between the assistant ranks of the highest 25 American orchestras and people orchestras’ music administrators can hardly be overstated. The Dallas Symphony, for instance, has had three assistants since 2013, all ladies; certainly one of them, Karina Canellakis, is now the chief conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and principal visitor conductor of the London Philharmonic. Both of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s conducting apprentices since 2015 have been ladies. In that interval, the Minnesota Orchestra’s assistants have been Roderick Cox, one of many few Black conductors showing with main orchestras and major opera houses, and Akiko Fujimoto, who became the music director of the small Mid-Texas Symphony in 2019.
Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, who was a conducting fellow and then an assistant conductor with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, has become a star, leading the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in England and making recordings for Deutsche Grammophon. Gemma New, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s resident conductor until last year, is now principal guest conductor in Dallas and led the New York Philharmonic’s Memorial Day concert at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
But there are still pervasive, sometimes pernicious assumptions about what a music director must look and act like — who can hobnob with donors, who can help sell tickets. And, Bernstein’s model aside, there is no clear pipeline from assistantships to directorships at top American orchestras, the way there are at many corporations.
Of the current music directors in the top tier, only a handful started as assistants at the kind of orchestra they now lead. (And, in a sign of how insular this world is, two of that handful, Michael Stern, now in Kansas City, and Ken-David Masur, in Milwaukee, are the sons of musical royalty, the violinist Isaac Stern and the conductor Kurt Masur.)
Andrés Orozco-Estrada, now the Houston Symphony’s music director, is the rare conductor to live the Bernstein dream, but he didn’t do it in the United States: He was an assistant at the Tonkünstler Orchestra in Vienna in the early 2000s, then rose a few years later to become its principal conductor. (European orchestras have trailed American ones in codifying assistant programs; the traditional conductor career path in Europe, especially German-speaking countries, goes through opera houses, not symphonies.)
The experience paradox is part of the problem. Top orchestras demand their conductors be seasoned, particularly if they’re going to appear on prestigious subscription series. But if you don’t already have that experience, it’s hard to get it.
“There are some people who are professional assistants, basically, or just they go from assistantship to assistantship,” Stephanie Childress, the St. Louis Symphony’s current assistant, said, pointing to the sense that some talented artists just cycle within those ranks without rising further.
But orchestra officials insist that things are changing, accelerated by the jolt of the pandemic and the calls over the past year for greater racial and ethnic diversity.
“The way it’s always been is all being rethought now,” Noltemy said, adding that resistance has been wearing down among players and listeners. “‘The orchestra won’t accept it; the audience won’t accept it’ — that has been completely deconstructed.”
There are ways of increasing the chances of today’s assistants becoming tomorrow’s music directors. Orchestras could deepen their investments in their assistant programs, adding positions to broaden the pool of talent getting experience and exposure. There should be a greater commitment to giving assistants slots on subscription programs as part of their contracts; this is one Covid necessity that could fruitfully outlive the pandemic.
Ensembles should make a point of looking to other organizations’ assistants when hiring for gigs. That does happen sometimes: Yue Bao, currently the conducting fellow at the Houston Symphony and a major presence in that orchestra’s streaming over the past year, will make her debut with the Chicago Symphony at the Ravinia Festival this summer.
Matías Tarnopolsky, the chief executive of the Philadelphia Orchestra, said he would like to see a kind of consortium program that could rotate assistants among several top institutions, giving them broader experience. “Could a conducting fellowship be multiensemble,” Tarnopolsky said, “either within the U.S. or around the world, bridging symphony and new-music ensemble? Then you really expand the learning.”
And if a young conductor has a success, let it snowball. In Baltimore, Rush appeared just before the pandemic as part of the orchestra’s Symphony in the City series, and was then asked to join its next assistant conductor audition, planned for June 2020.
That audition was canceled as the virus spread, but in July, Rush got another call. “Hey, listen,” he recalled the orchestra saying, “the musicians keep raving about your work in February, and we would like to invite you to be assistant conductor for the 2020-21 season.”
“It’s definitely been different,” Rush added of assisting during the pandemic, which has included regular work with the orchestra’s streaming programs. “But I wouldn’t have gotten as much podium time. I’ve gotten to conduct the orchestra every single week. ”
Ensembles should have a plan for continuing relationships with their assistants as those young conductors move on. Marie-Hélène Bernard, the chief executive of the St. Louis Symphony, said the organization had made a commitment to invite Gemma New every season as a guest conductor now that her resident contract is over.
“For her, we have a trusted relationship,” Bernard said. “She can step outside of her comfort level and take musical risks she might not take with other orchestras she hasn’t yet visited. Nurturing is not just for the time she’s here with us.”
This is the work that can help turn the encouragingly diverse landscape of assistant conductors into the future of the country’s top music directorships. “Getting a replacement for Marin isn’t even a tipping point,” Noltemy said, referring to Alsop’s departure from Baltimore. “The tipping point would be a significant number of women in positions in the top orchestras in the U.S.”
But the field will not get there without taking risks. Ruth Reinhardt had just started as an assistant in Dallas in 2016 when she was tapped to jump in for a subscription program, replacing a veteran conductor who’d suffered a stroke. Scott Cantrell, the Dallas Morning News critic, raved: “Few artistic experiences are as exciting as witnessing a brilliant debut by a young musician.”
It worked for Bernstein; we’ll see if it works for this new generation. “When I started conducting 15 years ago or so,” Reinhardt said, “people would openly tell you that you couldn’t do this as a woman. And things are changing. The jobs are more available. Hopefully as we get older, we’ll move up the ranks.”