The Cult of Youth

Mathew Gurewitsch had an interesting article the other day in the New York Times on The Cult of Youth:

IN the world of the contemporary symphony orchestra, youth is not so much a stage of life as it is a battle cry. Youth orchestras! Young conductors! At times it begins to seem that nothing else counts.

Last December in Vienna, Christoph Koncz, a cherubic ex-concert master with the training orchestra at the Verbier Festival, in the Swiss Alps, and now, at 22, a principal second violin with the Vienna Philharmonic, recalled the Salzburg Festival debut of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra under the fire-eating Gustavo Dudamel, then 27, in 2008.

“The atmosphere was fantastic,” Mr. Koncz said, unwinding after an ill-starred premiere of Verdi’s “Macbeth” at the Vienna State Opera. “The audience went wild. It was like a party.”

And why does the Cult of Youth appeal to conductors in particular?

Last August in Salzburg, Franz Welser-Möst, music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, explained the appeal. “Professional orchestras are jaundiced,” he said. “Youth orchestras are full of enthusiasm. Old maestros love that.”

Yup. Us old farts are so tired of the music that it’s gone to our livers and turned our skin yellow.

Or maybe what we’re tired of are conductors – especially those that think that because they’re on a podium they actually know more than we do. And, of the rather small minority that really are as good as the orchestras they stand in front of, some are simply not the kind of people that are enjoyable to work for.

I’ve never played in an orchestra that wasn’t thrilled to work for a conductor who was 1) a really good conductor; 2) a really good musician; and 3) a decent human being. It’s unusual enough to see the three combined that the novelty alone is likely to cause excitement in most orchestras. In fact, many orchestras would be willing to give considerable ground on point #3 in order to get the first two.

I wonder if those who push The Cult of Youth really understand what the logical end result is of such thinking. If young orchestras are better than old orchestras, then why bother to support old orchestras? Of course, without the employment opportunities provided by old orchestras, there won’t be very many young musicians of the quality necessary to excite “old maestros.”

I would guess that even the excitable Maestro Welser-Möst might prefer an orchestra full of old farts to young orchestras that can’t play in tune and in time. I wonder if he understands that people devote years of their lives to learning how to play an instrument at a professional level in order to be able to make a living doing so?

There used to be a professional orchestra in south Florida. But the Florida Philharmonic couldn’t compete in terms of funding, board strength, and general sexiness with the New World Symphony, the Miami-based quasi-professional training orchestra that ended up sucking up much of the oxygen in the local ecosystem necessary to support professional arts groups.

It is seldom acknowledged that the greatest irony of the FPO’s loss to the NWS is the fact that a number of FPO musicians were NWS alumni. They went from exciting to – unemployed.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.


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  • “I’ve never played in an orchestra that wasn’t thrilled to work for a conductor who was 1) a really good conductor; 2) a really good musician; and 3) a decent human being.”

    I have! Seems to me it’s a bonding thing: what brings people together faster than a common enemy? To paraphrase Voltaire, when one doesn’t exist, sometimes it is necessary to invent one.

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