James Levine turns 72 this year. Even though his health has improved considerably in the past year and he may continue to conduct for a decade or more, it seems inevitable that he will step down as the Met’s Music Director sometime in the next few years to assume the role of Conductor Laureate. This is why the role of Principal Conductor is so critical to the company; the person in that role serves as the unofficial successor to Maestro Levine.
First we had Joe Volpe’s choice Valery Gergiev and now we have Fabio Luisi. Maestro Luisi, after several years of jumping in for Maestro Levine, has seemingly grown tired of serving as Maestro-in-Waiting. Recently, he has taken on the roles of both General Music Director of the Zurich Opera and Principal Conductor of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra. Those new gigs will certainly eat into the time he has available for the Met and his ability to take on the Music Directorship at the Met were it to be offered.
So this year’s season announcement may contain some clues as to front-runners, or even a new name for for Principal Conductor spot. Ideally, the Met would want a conductor with a reasonably starry reputation, interest in a broad operatic repertoire, positive critical reception in their previous engagements at the Met, demonstrated rapport with the Met orchestra and a schedule that would allow for time to conduct multiple operas at the Met each season.
I have no insider information; but instead offer a list of a few potential front-runners based on their existing relationships with the company. The names below are listed in age-descending order. For point of reference, Levine was 29 when he became Principal Conductor at the Met and 33 when became the Met’s Music Director.
Sir Simon Rattle (age 60) has only conducted one opera at the Met, to considerable acclaim and has a plum opening night assignment conducting Tristan und Isolde in the 2016-17 season. He is conveniently stepping down from his role as principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic in a couple of years However, he has not shown much interest to date in conducting much of the core operatic repertory and one assumes that if he was interested in conducting more opera, he would have found a way to do so by now. He seems more likely to take on the occasional high-profile guest conductor engagement at the Met, rather than commit to performances every season.
Esa-Pekka Salonen (age 56) is another conductor who has only led one opera at the Met. He is conducting the much-anticipated new production of Elektra next season. Unlike most everyone else on the list, he actually has time to take on a new role, but ostensibly wants more time to compose. Again, I would assume that if he wanted to conduct more opera, he would have found a way to do so before now.
Gianandrea Noseda (age 50) has substantial operatic conducting experience and certainly his Prince Igor was ecstatically received. Given the operatic funding crises in Italy, one could see how he might want to relocate to NYC where the operatic funding situation is ever-so-slightly less precarious. I don’t know if he’s a big enough name for such a prominent role, but, then again, Fabio Luisi wasn’t exactly a celebrity conductor when he took on the Principal Conductor mantle.
Vladimir Jurowski (age 42) is another with substantial operatic experience and his work at the Met has been very successful. His existing Europe-based conducting obligations would preclude much of a commitment to the Met without jettisoning something else.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin (age 39) is frequently proposed as a likely candidate for a more prominent role at Met. In fact, he is slated to conduct the new production of Otello on Opening Night next season. His base in Philadelphia is extremely convenient, although his work in Rotterdam would probably get squeezed out. I certainly hope for New York’s sake that it wasn’t his idea to cast Mojca Erdmann on either of his Mozart opera recordings.
Andris Nelsons (age 36) has just taken on a new BSO Music Director position that would be very convenient for scheduling in work at the Met, On the other hand, when James Levine held simultaneous prominent roles in Boston and NYC, things didn’t work out so well. The BSO Board might just kibosh the whole idea. Also, while the critical reception for Nelsons’ work to date has been very strong, his conducting at the Met has been less positively received.
Michele Mariotti (age 36) , despite having increasingly prominent assignments at the Met, he has focused his attentions at the Met and nearly entirely on late 18th and early 19th century repertoire. While he has considerable talent, his specialization seems to preclude him from a more expanded role at the Met.
My personal hope is for Vladimir Jurowski, but I’m not optimistic that wish will be granted.