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."
Whether craving such magic or out of pure altruism, A-list conductors in ever-increasing numbers attach themselves to ensembles like the Verbier Festival Orchestra (long associated with James Levine), the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra (organized on the initiative of Claudio Abbado) and the Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra (founded by Riccardo Muti). 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."
The typical encounter is too fleeting to go stale on either side, as Mr. Koncz's older brother, the cellist Stefan Koncz, pointed out. "You can definitely say that everyone who goes to work with great conductors in a youth orchestra will be extremely enthusiastic," Stefan said, joining his sibling in the conversation. "The gig lasts maybe six weeks. Once you get a full-time job playing in an orchestra, that's basically your job. But we know plenty of musicians whose work remains their passion throughout their lives." A 25-year-old Verbier veteran, Stefan is switching from the Vienna Philharmonic to the rival Berlin Philharmonic.
While young orchestras have been around forever, marketing them as billboard attractions is something new. A parallel fixation on young conductors may be part of the same trend, though they are nothing new either. Even if conductors only come into their own past 60, as is often said, plenty break out much earlier.
Lorin Maazel began before the age of 10, winning praise from Toscanini soon after. Leonard Bernstein achieved instant celebrity with his unscheduled, nationally broadcast conducting debut at the age of 25. Simon Rattle and Esa-Pekka Salonen, both approaching elder-statesman status, took off in their 20s. So, more recently, have Vladimir Jurowski, Philippe Jordan and Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
Last summer two unrelated events at the Salzburg Festival raised the question what the downside of the cult of youth might be.
First was a news conference announcing the Nestlé and Salzburg Festival Young Conductors Award, open to applicants from 21 to 35. The honoree is to receive prize money of 15,000 euros (nearly $21,000) and a concert date at the festival with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra. Then the party will be over. As Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, chairman of the board of Nestlé S.A., spelled out in conversation that afternoon, "After that, everything is up to the individual. We won't push the person. Our objective is to help a young conductor take a big step forward." (If so, the upper limit of 35 seems high. By that age most of the promising ones would be known brands.)
Hours later, a capacity audience filled the Large Festspielhaus for Beethoven's "Fidelio" in concert, with Daniel Barenboim leading the West-Eastern Divan, the Arab-Israeli youth ensemble founded by Mr. Barenboim and the Palestinian-born literary scholar Edward Said, who died in 2003. "Our orchestra," Mr. Barenboim said, "is the living expression of a humanitarian idea. It is a forum where young people from Israel and all Arab countries can express themselves freely and openly whilst at the same time hearing the narrative of the other."
A noble ideal, and the crowd cheered the players to the rafters. But privately one top European impresario offered a scathing critique. "It was a scandal," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of his close ties within the business. "No opera is harder to perform than 'Fidelio.' Hearing this in Ramallah, I might have been moved to tears. But it did not begin to measure up by the standard of excellence Salzburg audiences have every right to demand."
If on the face of it the concert and the prize had nothing to do with each other, deep down both may root in the same fetish of youth as a fixed ideal, an abstraction. A betrayal of artistic standards (actual or merely potential) in the case of the "Fidelio" has just been suggested. The award is plagued by different issues.
As chairman of a blue-ribbon jury of nine musicians and administrators, Mr. Welser-Möst stressed that candidates will be spared the gladiatorial eliminations of a conventional competition. Instead three finalists will be selected by review of application packages including a performance on DVD, a written commentary on the interpretive approach, repertory lists and related documents.
As of the Nov. 30 deadline 83 submissions had been received, including 16 from women, 14 from the United States and 5 from Latin America. Next month the finalists will be evaluated in Lisbon in the course of working sessions with the Gulbenkian Orchestra. The public is not invited, and there will no performances as such.
Certainly the procedures seem novel. But even supposing the winner were the next Herbert von Karajan (who firmly believed in reincarnation), might the judges' precious time not be more usefully leveraged in master classes, seminars or similar endeavors? And at a time when conservatories everywhere are churning out accomplished musicians more quickly than the profession can absorb them, is the challenge of developing knowledgeable, responsive young audiences not a great deal more urgent?
Andris Nelsons, a 31-year-old conductor now ticking off debuts at the Bayreuth Festival and the Berlin Philharmonic, would not have been tempted to compete for the new award even had he learned of it in time. "I've never competed," he said in January between performances of "Turandot" at the Met. "Music is too important, too majestic for that. Making music isn't like sports or mathematics. Judging musicians against each other isn't healthy. It just gives complexes to lots of people. What you need as a musician isn't another title but chances to perform, to grow."
Well, Mr. Welser-Möst might reply, the kinder, gentler new award responds to just such concerns. "We live in a Hobbesian, Darwinian world," he said in Salzburg, recalling his grief as a young contestant on the prize circuit. "Competition winners don't always make big careers. Our goal is to provide opportunity rather than recognition." Still, at the end of the day, 82 applicants will be out in the cold.
As the only global sponsor of the Salzburg Festival with an unbroken record of support going back to 1991, when corporate sponsorship was introduced, Nestlé has recently extended its commitment — including financing of the conducting award— through 2013. But Alexander Pereira, who takes over as artistic director of the festival in 2011, is frank about his misgivings.
"Launching new talent is not a democratic process," Mr. Pereira said last fall in Zurich, where he runs the Opera House. "As an impresario, you have to go somewhere other people haven't been, hear someone and go crazy. Then you cool down and go back. If you're still fascinated, maybe you go a third time. And then you decide: I'm going to put this person out there, right or wrong. Unless one jury member can bulldoze everyone else, such passion tends to get lost, and you end up with a compromise candidate who is unexciting but safe. Still, we have to see who they come up with. If two or three years running they pick real winners, I might have to change my mind."
Over the years the Salzburg Festival has often gambled on musicians of all ages, and not just conductors, in just this way, without the folderol.
And why not? In the end the time comes when labels fall away and an artist is just an artist. Though not conductors, the Koncz brothers have crossed that bridge at a very tender age. "It's nothing to do with winning a competition or a position in an orchestra," Christoph said. "We were professionals from the time we were children because that is when we started making music for a living, which is what we always wanted to do." Stephan added: "I really couldn't say when you reach this stage. Every time you play chamber music with other musicians, you learn something. I wonder if the time will ever come when I think I've learned enough."