Choking on the Pit?

Houston Symphony musicians rate the conductors who dare to replace Eschenbach on the podium

When a symphony orchestra seeks a principal conductor, the process takes on all the bluster and maneuverings of a steamy courtship ritual. A successful pairing of a conductor and an orchestra requires mutual attraction and a special chemistry. If the attraction is one-sided, the marriage is doomed. The Houston Symphony's search for a new conductor -- officially known as the music director -- began shortly after Christoph Eschenbach announced his resignation in 1997. Soon afterward, a committee of six musicians, three staff members, 18 board members and two community representatives organized the search in hopes of replacing the man whose 11-year tenure helped the orchestra reach new artistic heights.

Led by veteran board member Walter Sapp, the search committee drafted a two-page list of criteria that the group is following in securing Eschenbach's successor. The committee is seeking a replacement with not only administrative qualities but also supreme musical talent on the podium. Musicality is essential, Sapp said, followed by a knack for conducting, the ability to raise the orchestra's international rank, a broad repertory and a recording history, among other qualities.

After the 1999 season, the musicians of the Houston Symphony found themselves in the frustrating position of replacing someone who had developed a rare bond with the orchestra. Characterized by chemistry, mutual commitment and a belief in putting the music first, this love affair between Eschenbach and the Houston Symphony, some say, was the envy of orchestral musicians nationwide.

Last year the symphony began narrowing the search for a new conductor. What followed was a parade of top-notch guest conductors of a caliber never before seen at Jones Hall. In a sense, it was a series of first dates. The winner would get an engagement ring, so to speak, from the Houston Symphony.

Here are several guest conductors who have been or are likely being considered for the position. Seven of the symphony's 97 musicians rated how they stacked up in rehearsal and in concert. In some instances, they spoke anonymously to prevent compromising their future relationship with the new hire. Based on these opinions, the Houston Press handicapped each "candidate."

Alan Gilbert
Alan Gilbert

Born in 1967 in New York

Chief conductor, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra (since January 2000)

Career highlights: Assistant conductor with the Cleveland Orchestra (1995-1997). Accomplished solo and chamber violinist. (His parents are violinists in the New York Philharmonic.)

Kudos: Winner of Seaver/National Endowment for the Arts Conductors Award (1997) and other conducting awards

Musicians say: "I think he demonstrates the strongest stick technique," said associate principal cellist Chris French.

"He's not over the top with musical ideas, but as he matures, [he'll stretch]," said a string musician.

"He had good baton technique, but I didn't feel like he was particularly inspired," said a woodwind player. "Some conductors get up there, and you feel like they're doing a mathematical problem instead of painting a picture."

General impressions: A number of musicians were impressed with Gilbert's ability to master repertory and the difficulties of technique at such a young age. But they don't hold much hope that he'll win. He lacks the seasoning the search committee desires.

Odds: 10 to 1. Highly respected, but lack of experience lowers his chances.

Roberto Abbado
Roberto Abbado

Born in 1954; grew up in Milan, Italy

Guest conductor for major orchestras and opera companies worldwide

Career highlights: Makes regular guest appearances with the Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall, Amsterdam's Concertgebouw, Milan's La Scala, Dresden Staatskapelle and others. Before age 15, he wanted to be an aircraft engineer.

Kudos: Numerous award-winning recordings on BMG's RCA Red Seal label

Musicians say: "I thought he was at the top of the heap," said one woodwind player.

"He deserves to be considered on the short list," said a string player. "I don't think he'll make the final cut. I don't think he ought to.He had two weeks to establish some chemistry, and there was a distance."

"By nature, any conductor has to be a dictator. [However,] all of us are together making this, and [in rehearsals Abbado would say,] "I want this.' That would get real old for me," said another string player.

General impressions: Several musicians thought Abbado was a personable, talented conductor capable of growth. One said honestly, "He talks the talk." Another felt he left a good impression and would like to see him invited back as a guest conductor. But during their two-week stint with him, some players sensed a lack of chemistry. The son of the famed Claudio Abbado, former conductor of La Scala and the Berlin Philharmonic, was emotionally detached. Some said he insisted on having things his way. One string musician felt he talked too much during rehearsals because he was inept at using his hands. A woodwind player found his talks beneficial because they encouraged musicians to listen to one another.

Odds: 4 to 1. Though he didn't truly connect with orchestra members, he probably has a decent shot because of his stature and name recognition.

Yakov Kreizberg
Yakov Kreizberg

Born in 1959 in Leningrad, Russia

Principal conductor, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (since 1995)

General music director, Komische Oper Berlin (since 1994)

Career highlights: Regular concert and operatic engagements in major orchestras of Berlin, London, Amsterdam, New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco and others. Piano was his first instrument. Initially studied conducting at Leningrad Conservatory but trained mostly in the United States after immigrating here in 1976.

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