Living Colour at Highline Ballroom
Near the End for City Opera

A New Director For the Phil

 by FoM Matthew VanBesien(Photo: Bloomberg)

Talk about a recess appointment: while I was out of the country last week, the NY Phil went ahead and announced their new choice to replace Zarin Mehta, who's been trying to leave his Executive Director post for more than a year. His name is Matthew VanBesien, and he comes to us from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in Australia, where he's been credited with helping to steer that orchestra out of labor issues and into a new concert hall, which opens later this year.

But, make no mistake about it: VanBesien, 42, is a relative neophyte. An American and a former horn player with the Louisiana Philharmonic, VanBesien is a graduate of the League of American Orchestra's Orchestra Manager Fellowship Program: a primary feeder - some might say indoctrinator - of American orchestra directors. (Disclosure: I once considered enrolling in the same program after participating in the League's Essentials in Orchestra Management seminar, but demurred.) Prior to his position in Melbourne, where he's currently in his second season,VanBesien's only director-level position was at the Houston Symphony, where he got the top spot after the prior executive director left during labor disputes in 2005: one Houston player described it as a "battlefield promotion." I also can't seem to find a good explanation as to why VanBesien would relocate halfway around the world to accept the Melbourne position.

All of which begs the question: why would the top spot at the Phil, the oldest orchestra in the U.S. and supposedly one of the most prestigious in the world, be so hard to fill? Well, as Dan Wakin put it in November's Times, the job - which at least 1/2 dozen better-qualified candidates have turned down - comes with "a special set of disincentives":

"The Philharmonic is saddled with an unsatisfactory auditorium, Avery Fisher Hall, which has been mired in unresolved renovation plans. The orchestra has also been running million-dollar-plus deficits in recent years...and has unfinanced pension liabilities amounting to $23.8 million. It lacks an established, lucrative summer home like Tanglewood or the Hollywood Bowl. And because it resides in a global cultural capital, the New York Philharmonic must compete with a parade of world-class orchestras marching through Carnegie Hall dressed in their Sunday-best programs...In addition, its players — however unjustly — have a reputation of being cantankerous. Their contract has expired and negotiations are continuing."

I would add to that list an aging subscriber base that is among the oldest and most conservative (not to mention ill-behaved) of any orchestra in America, if not the world (and I've seen more than a few.) By any measure, VanBesien is walking into a difficult situation.

But, hey, what young gun doesn't like a challenge? (Just ask Barack Obama.) If VanBesien manages to deal with even some of these issues succesfully, he'll be seen as something as a savior. And, early reports are that VanBesien and Alan Gilbert - only 44 himself - are of the same mind when it comes to programming. Which, despite Zach Woolfe's cranky-pants piece to the contrary, has been more forward-thinking than any in recent memory. 

But, please dude: leave the Doctor Who and Lord of the Rings crap in Australia. This is New York: home of the world's best jazz, new/experimental music, indie rock, and at least 1/2 dozen other subgenres. Get to know it. All of it. Shouldn't be hard: you can already hear it all right in your own backyard.

Good luck, man. See you soon.