Who should get the CSO baton after Muti? A choice short list—if the job is still open

Tue Feb 01, 2022 at 1:01 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Next June Riccardo Muti’s tenure as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will come to an end at the conclusion of the 2022-23 season. 

Who should be next to ascend the CSO podium?

Judging by emails and aisle conversations—and even with the upheavals caused by the Covid-19 pandemic—-few topics remain of as much engaging interest to regular classical concertgoers in Chicago.

First, in an ideal world, what kind of qualifications should a conductor possess to succeed Riccardo Muti? 

He or she must have already conducted CSO at least a few times with consistent success. They must be available and able to devote sufficient attention to the job in Chicago to maintain current standards. They should be professional and respectful to the players, and well-liked by most if not all CSO musicians. And they must have a sufficiently wide repertoire to keep things interesting for musicians and audiences alike. 

I believe there are five strong contenders to be the CSO’s next music director who should make any informed short list. Four of the conductors have a demonstrated record of success with the orchestra but all would not only bring excitement and artistic consistency to concerts but expand the rather straitened range of European repertoire that has come to characterize the Muti era.

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Any discussion of who should succeed Riccardo Muti as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra must begin with an asterisk.  

A rumor has arisen in recent months—and grown increasingly persistent of late—that CSOA president Jeff Alexander and the CSO board have already settled on the next music director: Marin Alsop. 

Without directly addressing the specifics, Alexander released a statement Monday that appeared to refute that rumor—sort of.

“The search for the next Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is a process that is being carried out by a committee made up of members of the Board, Orchestra and Administration that, in time, will make a recommendation to the Board of Trustees.  The committee has not yet made a recommendation.”

Another indication that no final decision has yet been made is that the musicians’ search committee has only recently started work. For a successor to be chosen without any input from the players would be a slap in the face to the CSO musicians—if true. For that reason alone, it seems unlikely that any secret podium appointment has already taken place. But, hey, this is Chicago.

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So, assuming the job is still open, who should get the Chicago Symphony Orchestra baton handoff from the mercurial Italian conductor?

Like any regular audience member who has attended weekly CSO concerts over the past decade-plus, one can make up a solid short list of conductors who could—and mostly, should—make the final cut.  

Let’s look at each of these potential CSO music directors: 

Manfred Honeck led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Mahler's Symphony No. 5 Thursday night. File photo: Todd Rosenberg
Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Manfred Honeck

Manfred Honeck has become one of the most reliable of CSO guest conductors, popular with audiences and orchestra members alike, and bringing consistent excitement with his appearances. Some skeptics attribute that to his tendency to go loud and fast. But Honeck, 63, has also shown the ability to go deep, as in his Schubert Unfinished last November and his striking, if somewhat idiosyncratic Mahler Fifth.

The fact that he recently re-upped his contract with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra through 2028 would seem to indicate that the CSO has dilly-dallied too long and Honeck is no longer available. But these things can be finessed if all parties are willing.

Honeck’s emphasis on the German-Austrian Romantic repertoire fits the orchestra like a glove. New music is more of an open question, though he has led strong performances of music by Mason Bates and Jessie Montgomery.

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Jakub Hrůša 

Yes, Jakub Hrůša has only conducted the CSO on two occasions: Smetana’s Má vlast in 2017 and a program of Dvořák, Barber and Coleridge-Taylor last November. But both were outstanding events and highlights of each year. 

The CSO has traditionally gone with big names and Hrůša may not be familiar enough for wealthy board members who only know what they know.

But the Boston Symphony Orchestra tapped Andris Nelsons just before his meteoric breakout career. Hrůša already conducts most of the world’s leading ensembles regularly, including the Berlin Philharmonic. At 40, he’s the youngest of the short-list candidates plus the Czech conductor offers some worthy intangibles—he brings a charismatic presence with an exciting podium style and appears well-liked by many of the CSO musicians.

Susanna Malkki conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the world premiere of Melinda Wagner's "Proceed, Moon" Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Susanna Mälkki 

Though she has not been back at Orchestra Hall—sadly—since 2017, the Finnish conductor has been a high-profile international presence for decades. She is currently music director of the Helsinki Philharmonic, her homeland’s finest orchestra, as well as principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

From her 2011 debut, Mälkki’s concerts have been consistently stellar in Chicago, both downtown and at Ravinia, where the latter including a soaring Sibelius Second in her most recent CSO stand. Mälkki, 52, would bring the strongest new-music credentials of anyone on the list, and is experienced in a dizzying range of 20th- and 21st-century composers. One could see her create fresh excitement at CSO concerts.

Her results in more standard repertoire are less well known locally but Mälkki has yet to lead a CSO concert that was anything short of first-class. Consistency, adventurousness, and no backstage drama.

The rumor mill is running hot that the New York Philharmonic will move heaven and earth to name Mälkki as their next music director. Still smarting over Riccardo Muti choosing Chicago over New York, the Philharmonic is not likely to let the CSO edge them out over a conductor again.

Photo: Adriane White

Marin Alsop 

Why not Marin Alsop?

There is one very good reason not to hire Alsop: a world-class orchestra deserves a world-class conductor. And, to be brutally honest, despite her occasional successful nights, Alsop is not on that level.

Her CSO appearances—like her Baltimore Symphony Orchestra tenure, by most accounts—have been wildly inconsistent. She’s solid in her party pieces—Bernstein, Tchaikovsky and selected American repertoire—and at her best in big splashy showpieces like Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade and Bernstein’s Mass. Alsop, 65, is leading CSO concerts next week in a program of Romantic favorites and will likely do well in that repertory.

But the more complex the score and the more the music requires a fine ear and nuanced direction, the more quickly her limitations become apparent. Balancing has been a regular problem in her local appearances. And—whether due to feeling intimidated or just ineptness—she doesn’t fix crucial things in rehearsal that need fixing. Alsop’s Mahler 4 at Ravinia last summer was a shambles as was a downtown Copland Third—repertoire that supposedly is her strong suit.

The main reason she is being pushed hard is that Alsop has friends and supporters among the CSO board’s deep-pocketed donors. Which is also likely the reason she was suddenly—and inexplicably—named principal conductor at Ravinia by the outgoing CEO.

Would CSO admin hire a second-tier conductor no one is enthusiastic about because they have people on the board who would pay her salary? Let’s hope not.

With nearly a hundred players in the CSO, you can find a hundred different opinions on conductors. But Alsop manages to unify opinion like no one else—no CSO musicians seem to like her or want her as music director. If management taps Alsop against the wishes of the players, there could be a rebellion at 220 S. Michigan Avenue. And there should be.

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

A Dark Horse

Mälkki’s countryman Esa-Pekka Salonen is a less likely candidate to be sure, in part for the same reason as Honeck. He is currently music director of the San Francisco Symphony through 2025, and there is an unwritten law against holding the top job at two American orchestras simultaneously. Still, the CSO post could easily be kept open for a couple seasons, until EPS is available.

No conductor on this list has a longer history with CSO or a greater track record of terrific results. Salonen always manages to achieve an ideal blend of precision, flexibility and emotional depth. These include a remarkable Mahler Ninth and a haunting concert performance of Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande. In addition to his mastery of a wide range of standard and contemporary repertoire, Salonen, 63, is also one of the most intriguing composers of our time. It would be exhilarating to hear him conduct his own rocking, kaleidoscopic works regularly in Chicago. Also Salonen appears ego-less, approachable, and, as his occasional hosting events have shown, he can be hilarious

Photo: Oliver Herbig

A Really Dark Horse

As long as we’re entertaining long shots—what about Sir Simon Rattle? Granted, this may sound a little crazy since he has never conducted the CSO downtown and his only previous CSO stand dates from when Jimmy Carter was president (two 1979 Ravinia concerts leading music of Mahler, Sibelius and Ravel). Also Rattle—who holds top posts with the London Symphony Orchestra and Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra—rarely makes stateside appearances these days.

But at the time Daniel Barenboim announced he was leaving Chicago, did anyone on Planet Earth think that the next CSO music director would be Riccardo Muti? 

In many ways Rattle seems more ideal for the job than anyone. Former music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, he is just as hip to music of the 20th and 21st centuries as Mälkki or Salonen. The British conductor is long acknowledged as one of the world’s leading podium musicians, one who conducts nearly everything well, with especially notable achievement in the Austro-German rep that is the CSO’s primary staple. 

At 67, Rattle is still relatively young for all his many decades of fame and a high-profile international career. And how great would it be to have one of the world’s finest Mahler conductors leading the orchestra again? 

A venturesome move like this would require imaginative, even visionary leadership from CSO management to get Sir Simon in here for concerts and see if things click. Is Jeff Alexander deft and aggressive enough to pull off that kind of an artistic coup?

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Manfred Honeck, Jakub Hrůša, Susanna Mälkki, Esa-Pekka Salonen or Simon Rattle would all be estimable music directors, potentially among the finest to lead the orchestra in its 130-year history. Hiring Alsop or another lackluster choice for financial or political reasons would be a grave error that could damage the institution for decades to come. 

What do you think? Who would you hand the baton off to?

Posted in Articles


35 Responses to “Who should get the CSO baton after Muti? A choice short list—if the job is still open”

  1. Posted Feb 01, 2022 at 3:43 pm by Steve

    Christian Thielemann, whose current contract with Staatskapelle Dresden was recently not renewed, could be another dark horse. He certainly has a much higher stature than that of Alsop, and he is the only one out of the listed candidates here who regularly conducts the Vienna Philharmonic (which is really the only other orchestra in the world at the level of the CSO). Although, I wonder if he would have as strong of a rapport with the musicians as Muti currently does.

    Salonen or Rattle would be commendable choices as well. Any three of these candidates—Thielemann, Salonen, or Rattle—would be miles ahead of what Alsop offers. Principal conductor of Ravinia? Fine. But definitely not music director of the CSO.

  2. Posted Feb 01, 2022 at 5:05 pm by Paul C

    Very dark horse . . . Gustavo Dudamel. Like Salonen, he is under contract for a few more years.

    Traditionally, the CSO has gone for a big name with the talent to back it up. . . . Reiner, Solti, Barenboim, Boulez, Haitink, Muti.

    Rattle and Salonen fit that bill.

    The only thing Honeck lacks is the big name . . . on the merits, he’s certainly worthy.

  3. Posted Feb 02, 2022 at 3:21 am by Chuck

    I SERIOUSLY hope Marin Alsop is NOT on the list of possibilities to become the 11th Music Director of the CSO. I can’t remember every performance of hers I’ve attended, but I do remember disappointment after disappointment. What a waste of the CSO musicians’ superb abilities that would be and a downer for the audiences as well. We all deserve way better.

    I will be attending one of the performances next week that Marin Alsop is conducting, and expect more of the same. The thing of interest I guess will be the nature of the disappointment.

    I like–a lot–most or all of the other conductors named by Lawrence A. Johnson above.

  4. Posted Feb 02, 2022 at 6:25 am by Plush

    Your speculative article lays a good basis for consideration. First off—Alsop is unworthy and disliked at so many orchestras. Let her labor for a few years at Ravinia.

    My fear is that the milquetoast president at the CSO will choose poorly. The musicians committee is very strong at the CSO and it is only their recommendations that should carry weight.

    Loved Honeck on each of his appearances. He would be excellent as a leader and fund raiser.

    However, like Muti, the CSO musicians REQUIRE the best person available. Rattle or Salonen fit that bill. I do not believe Rattle would accept the position.

  5. Posted Feb 02, 2022 at 8:14 am by Daniel K

    Thielemann?! I don’t think so…his extreme right-wing politics would not, I do not believe, settle well with the orchestra, management, or board. He may skate by in Germany and Austria, but there’s a reason he is not regularly engaged in the US.

  6. Posted Feb 02, 2022 at 8:17 am by Roger

    I’d be happy with anyone on your primary list (and emphatically not Alsop). Here are a few others I think are worthy of consideration: Paavo Jarvi, Semyon Bychkov, and Daniel Harding. I’ve consistently enjoyed all three on the Berlin Philharmonic Digital Concert Hall.

  7. Posted Feb 02, 2022 at 8:23 am by Capezio

    Nice…God bless the CSO.

  8. Posted Feb 02, 2022 at 8:27 am by Allen Stuart

    You leave out one terrific conductor – Kirill Petrenko. If you stream the Berlin Philharmonic Concerts on their Digital Concert Hall (A great bargain for about $165/year.) and watch his concerts you will immediately understand his expertise as a conductor. His joy when conducting is great to see. We should see him here.

  9. Posted Feb 02, 2022 at 9:00 am by Howard C

    This is a good short list of conductors.

    If they are available, I am sure Kirill Petrenko (Berlin Phil) and Jaap van Zweden (NY Phil, Hong Kong Phil) would also be among highly desired candidates. van Zweden’s interpretations are fabulous and the CSO responds well to his leadership.

    Among my most well-remembered performances of him conducting was when he conducted Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony (“Leningrad”). van Zweden reminds me of Bernard Haitink in many ways.

  10. Posted Feb 02, 2022 at 9:25 am by Daniel McCauley

    I too was underwhelmed when hearing Alsop perform in Philadelphia on several occasions. Always liked Honeck but for selfish reasons I hope he stays in PBurgh so I can hear him again. Sir Simon – dream on.

  11. Posted Feb 02, 2022 at 9:33 am by Dave

    I think because of the lengths of their current contracts, Salonen and Honeck can be unfortunately ruled out. Rattle isn’t happening either, especially since he has zero experience with the Orchestra.

    If Alsop were chosen, she’d easily be the most disappointing selection for Music Director in CSO history. As mentioned, she has some strengths, but the performances I’ve attended with her on the podium have been some of the worst in memory. One that comes to mind is Mahler 1 at Ravinia a few years back. It was mediocre for three movements but then descended to appalling in the finale. I’ll leave it at that.

    Hrůša or Mälkki would be outstanding choices. Both combine superb musicianship and taste with a charismatic podium presence and exciting programming. The Orchestra always seems in top form with them as well. When they come to town (not nearly often enough), I make sure to get tickets. Though they have different styles and repertoire, either one would bring a fresh and exciting direction after an extremely high quality, but conservative and sometimes repetitive, Muti era.

  12. Posted Feb 02, 2022 at 9:48 am by Frank Kulick

    Marin Alsop is deserving of much better ensembles than the once-great CSO. She is superb, however, at turning challenge into success, and her leadership could help restore a world-class Orchestra to Chicago.

  13. Posted Feb 02, 2022 at 12:09 pm by Maria Athanassiou

    How about Leonidas Kavakos or Ms Kanelakis? Kanelakis is amazing and Kavakos could limit his soloist activities to recordings. He is a genius musician and was artistic director of Camerata Salzburg hand-picked by his predecessor and winning them multiple critical acclaims.

  14. Posted Feb 02, 2022 at 12:26 pm by Christian Vinyard

    Nicely done, Larry. Very thoughtful. Chris

  15. Posted Feb 02, 2022 at 12:36 pm by John Howes

    Jakob Hrusa is a magnificent conductor. He would be fantastic. Another is David Robertson. Still another is Myung Whun Chung, although I don’t think he would even consider it

  16. Posted Feb 02, 2022 at 1:46 pm by GCMP

    Not being a Mahler fan I am not “up” on conductors of his music, but it seems that whoever gets the post must be a Mahlerian/Brucknerian of some repute. Past CSO music directors that weren’t don’t seem to have lasted long.

  17. Posted Feb 02, 2022 at 2:00 pm by Tim

    While I have not heard the orchestra under Hrusa’s baton (I desperately desire to), I had a chance meeting with him, during the strike, when we both attended a new music concert in Chicago at another venue.

    This guy is an absolute blast and extremely personable. He casually, without ever introducing himself–just as a fellow concertgoer–offered comments expressing interest in the city’s wider music scene and its performance spaces. He was even very humorously moved by one of the pieces. If someone else in the audience hadn’t recognized him at intermission, I never would have imagined that this “regular guy” was supposed to have led CSO subscription concerts that week.

    The sort of community engagement which he might make with Chicagoans, then, is exactly the kind of thing that the orchestra needs. So often music directors are sincere but personally distant, such that the non-active concert- going urban dwellers don’t identify with CSO at all. Maybe Hrusa’s presence could lead to renewal of interest and city pride of its substantive music scene, inspired by his personality.

    I’m also intrigued by Matthias Pintscher.

    If Nathalie Stutzmann had not just signed on with Atlanta, I’d suggest her, too. Minnesota, where she has an excellent relationship, should have been quicker to sign her, first.

  18. Posted Feb 02, 2022 at 2:06 pm by Philip A Kraus

    Anybody but Rattle….the world’s most overrated and overhyped conductor.

  19. Posted Feb 02, 2022 at 2:40 pm by Alan Hammer

    Salonen, Hrusa and what about Riccardo Chailly? He’s 68 but he checks all your boxes.

    Co-music directors? Music Director and principal guest conductor?

  20. Posted Feb 02, 2022 at 4:02 pm by Ben

    Forgive me if this has been addressed previously, or for my ignorance, but is Muti for sure done after the 22-23 season? There won’t be any potential for a contract extension of something like that?

  21. Posted Feb 02, 2022 at 4:05 pm by Lisa Hirsch

    This is effectively Salonen’s first year at SFS and he has another job in the state, teaching at the Colburn School in LA. He likes California. I’m amazed that SF was able to sign him. I doubt that he is interested in leaving.

    Petrenko’s first season in Berlin was 2019-20, and again, after such a short tenure, what’s the advantage to leaving one of the world’s great orchestras, sitting in the middle of a continent where there’s plenty of guest work and opportunities to conduct opera?

    My one time hearing the CSO in person was with van Zweden conducting. There were ensemble issues (orchestra not together on downbeats!) and his conducting was otherwise lackluster. He is planning to leave the NY Phil a year after his current (first) contract is out – “reconsidering his life” following COVID, and wanting to spend more time in The Netherlands.

  22. Posted Feb 02, 2022 at 7:05 pm by Thomas

    The best choice for CSO is Riccardo Chailly. I hope the management will try to get him.

  23. Posted Feb 02, 2022 at 7:19 pm by Paul

    Vladimir Yurovsky. Take note of this maestro.

  24. Posted Feb 02, 2022 at 9:27 pm by Stephen V Heller

    I feel that James Gaffigan has been a strong conductor both at the CSO and Lyric Opera, and as he is an American in mid-career, but with much international experience, he could be a long-term choice.

  25. Posted Feb 02, 2022 at 10:15 pm by Nick

    Anyone but Dudamel. EPS was a missed opportunity like Abbado was over Barenboim.

  26. Posted Feb 03, 2022 at 5:15 am by Jouko Saari

    Listen to conductors and orchestras – do not look at them! The agents and money are destroying the scene. Where are the great ones?! Happy to hear CSO, Solti and Giulini in the seventies! Thank you CSO!

  27. Posted Feb 03, 2022 at 9:18 am by John Richards

    What about Andrés Orozco-Estrada? His December 2021 performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 was spectacular – as was his conducting of Hilary Hahn’s Violin Concerto by Dvorak. And back before COVID-19, he put together a masterful program consisting of “The Unanswered Question” segueing into “Also sprach Zarathustra”.

  28. Posted Feb 03, 2022 at 9:29 am by Roger

    LJ, all your first choices are excellent. When Hrusa premiered with the CSO in Smetana’s “Ma Vlast”, Rafael Kubelik’s memorable final concert of this Czech classic came to mind. I felt I was watching a reincarnated RK. Malkki is also excellent as well as Honeck.

    But please CSO, no Alsop. This longtime subscriber finds her concerts wanting. I cannot imagine her leading this great Mahler, Bruckner, Strauss orchestra in their works.

    As for Dudamel, although an excellent, dynamic, meteoric star in the world of classical music, he is LA Hollywood, not Chicago lunch-bucket.

  29. Posted Feb 03, 2022 at 12:58 pm by Jim Zalud

    Young and dynamic is what will sell tickets going forward. Hrusa and Malkki would be excellent choices. If you want a senior, Chailly would be great!!

  30. Posted Feb 03, 2022 at 3:44 pm by Hugh

    If one cannot imagine Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony being boring, you should have been at the concert Alsop conducted in London a few years back.

    B-O-R-I-N-G!

  31. Posted Feb 03, 2022 at 6:57 pm by Donuts4All

    Hmm. Let’s wait until May when Canellakis debuts with the CSO. Some big shot wants to try her out since she was the last and surprising addition to the guest roster.

    Bychkov would be great. Szeps-Znaider can be very interesting. Deneve and Noseda both deserve a look.

  32. Posted Feb 04, 2022 at 8:27 am by Greg Denton

    The CSO needs to get Rattle into Orchestra Hall for a week! See if there is any chemistry. He checks all the boxes to be the next Music Director.

  33. Posted Feb 05, 2022 at 11:53 am by Alan Goldberg

    Susanna Mälkki would be a fantastic choice. The orchestra always sounds wonderful under her, and the breadth of her repertoire, and particularly her commitment to new music, would broaden the orchestra’s audience base.

  34. Posted Feb 07, 2022 at 11:19 pm by martin jones

    1. Charles Dutoit
    2. Sir Mark Elder
    3. Riccardo Chailly
    4. Carlos Miguel Prieto

  35. Posted May 11, 2022 at 11:54 pm by Arnold

    I think Mälkki is the only person on this list that has a chance. I side with many here that Alsop should not be even considered. I played under her in Baltimore, and it was a major disappointment. I had too many conversations with those musicians about their own gripes. There was little joy and energy in that group, and an orchestra needs at least something to be happy about!

    I worked for the CSO and even Barenboim, as divisive as he was, was respected.

    Back to the next MD, I believe it will be either Mälkki or somebody we are not as familiar with.

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