In search of a podium to call home

As Rattle, Davis and Slatkin pack their bags, Stephen Fay hears how a global market makes conductors' reputations
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The Independent Culture

Hiring a new conductor is a subtle business. Intentions are normally signalled in code, and a potential chief conductor and the orchestral players are introduced to each other in the manner of an ancient mating ritual - the scent must smell right.

Hiring a new conductor is a subtle business. Intentions are normally signalled in code, and a potential chief conductor and the orchestral players are introduced to each other in the manner of an ancient mating ritual - the scent must smell right.

There has been a lot of scent in the air lately. Earlier this year Sir Simon Rattle was appointed to arguably the most prestigious conducting post in the world, taking over from Claudio Abbado at the Berlin Philharmonic. At a less exalted level, Andrew Davis is soon to move on from the BBC Symphony Orchestra to the Chicago Lyric Opera. And last week traffic was created in the other direction when Davis's successor was announced: the American Leonard Slatkin, who now adds the BBC job to the one he has been doing with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington DC. The Davis-Slatkin exchange was a good indicator of the state of the market, and shows how it operates.

Slatkin's reason for moving is that has had enough of the jetset. His schedule for next month takes him from Washington DC to London, Paris, Manchester, back to Paris and on to Bavaria. "I don't think it serves the music," he says. From next year, Slatkin will concentrate on his new job at the BBC Symphony, and his present position as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington. He may even be setting a trend.

Only 20 years ago, portraits of Leonard Bernstein, Georg Solti and Herbert von Karajan would sell shelves full of new records. But the conductor as superstar is history. Today's recording company executives are not much interested in conductors. Since there are too many orchestral recordings available, the record industry prefers voices.

The glamorous whirl of the superstars, who turned concerts into celebrity one-night stands, is out of fashion. "Simon Rattle and Bernard Haitink can't do it and won't do it," says their agent, Martin Campbell-White of Askonas Holt. Rattle especially exemplifies different, more caring qualities, like loyalty. That was a factor that helped him win the music director's job in Berlin. There is also a musical reason why Slatkin, at 55, no longer enjoys being guest conductor, even with orchestras as prestigious as the Chicago Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. "I want people to hear me with my own orchestra," he says.

Andrew Davis would understand this. When he becomes music director at the Chicago Lyric Opera next autumn, he intends to move there, and build a close relationship with his new orchestra. These conductors may have moved, but they intend to stay.

Andrew Davis had decided a year or so ago that, after 11 years with the BBC, it was time for a change. When the Chicago opera discovered he might be free, he signalled his enthusiasm. Davis, who has been music director at Glyndebourne too, is keen to work on a larger canvas which copes with works on the scale of Wagner's Ring. (He starts one in 2003.) The BBC had known the decision was coming, but when Davis's retirement was announced last March, there were no firm plans for the succession. But they had already admired Slatkin's English repertory, and he was booked for two concerts in the summer. The mating process began in Glasgow; "a wonderful programme," says Hughes, mist rising in his eyes. The second was an all-English Prom late in August. "You could look on the Prom as my audition," says Slatkin. He, in turn, felt a chemistry developing.

Campbell-White describes the process: "They were interested in him, and I let it be known that he would be interested too. That's quite difficult. By letting it be known you're interested, you can become vulnerable." The BBC finally made him an offer only three weeks ago, and Slatkin did not bother to wait for a contract before saying yes. "You might as well put your cards on the table," he says.

In his first season, beginning in October 2000, he will get a minimum of five rehearsals for his programmes - the London orchestras manage only two or three. There will be some touring, and five Proms. Slatkin will be the first foreigner to conduct the Last Night of the Proms: "I think we can have some fun and be serious at the same time," he says.

Leonard Slatkin is a catch for the BBC. The son of musicians in Los Angeles, he made his name as conductor of the St Louis Symphony before moving to Washington. He is a familiar figure in London, as principal guest conductor of the Philharmonia. He has also appeared regularly on BBC Radio 3, where his silky skills as a teacher became evident during a 10-part series called Discovering Music with Leonard Slatkin. First broadcast last December, it covered everything from Handel to hip-hop. He is a notable interpreter of British music from the romantic school of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Walton. "His grasp of the English repertory is extraordinary," says Paul Hughes, general manager of the BBCSO. Slatkin likes contemporary music too; he specialises, and is unapologetic about it.

Slatkin's appointment has been unusually quick and clean. No dirty tricks, or underhand deals. When glamour still counted, negotiations could be byzantine, and the power of the conductor's agent was legendary. They became known as the puppet-masters. It was said to be impossible to obtain a baton in a leading orchestra in the United States without the imprimatur of Ronald Wilford of Columbia Artists' Management. But, as the record contracts dried up, Wilford's influence declined. "I don't think he's quite as sovereign as he might have been," says Campbell-White. Of course, Campbell-White is a competitor, but he confidently expects to be able to make the case for his clients in no fewer than nine conducting posts that will have fallen vacant in the US at the start of the 2002-3 season.

The BBC does not say how much Slatkin will be paid for 14 weeks' work, but it will be plenty, because conductors learned a sense of their own worth from people like Karajan and Bernstein, who were musical multi-millionaires. "It's easy for conductors to earn £250,000 a year," says Campbell-White. Luminaries like, for instance, Rattle, Valery Gergiev, the director of the Marinsky in St Petersburg, Abbado and James Levine from New York all get a minimum $25,000 for a concert - more if it is far away, like Japan. Most expensive of all is Carlos Kleiber, the man universally considered to be the finest conductor of all, about whom it is said that he conducts only when he wants a new Mercedes.

A number of young English conductors earn what is described as "a modest fee". This is between £2,000 and £4,000, more when the engagement is abroad. Not bad for a talented young man like Mark Wigglesworth while he is finding himself another rung on the ladder. But finding a post as music director is the best way to guarantee higher future fees, and that is where agents still behave like puppet-masters.

Take the case of a young Englishman named Daniel Harding, who, at 24, is admired by Abbado, with whom he worked as an assistant in Berlin, and by Rattle. All three are clients of Campbell-White. When Campbell-White heard that the town of Bremen had decided to promote an orchestra to put its name on the map, he decided it would be just the way to put Harding's name on the concert posters. Helped by good references from Abbado and Rattle, Campbell-White got Harding some concerts in Bremen. And the chemistry must have been good because Harding was named music director of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie last week. Campbell-White is modest about his role: "I didn't get the post. You rarely do. You can do nothing without the talent of the artists." He was, however, the broker of the deal, and you can bet that he got a decent price.

It will be interesting to see how long Harding stays.