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July 8, 2010

Conductor Watch: Juanjo Mena is up, Kent Nagano is out, Mikhail Pletnev is in deep trouble

This has been a busy few days in terms of conductor chat. In case you missed these bulletins elsewhere, here's the good, the not-so-good and the ugly:

GOOD: Juanjo Mena, the dynamic Spanish conductor who has been a favorite podium guest at the Baltimore Symphony over the past several years, has been winning admirers in many other places, too. He just landed a great gig in the UK as chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic, succeeding Gianandrea Noseda in September 2011.

Mena will also make his Boston Symphony debut July 31, stepping in for an indisposed James Levine.

NOT-SO-GOOD: American conductor Kent Nagano, who once seemed destined to play a big role in this country's musical life (there was a time when he was often discussed in the New York press as a perfect choice for that city's Philharmonic), has been most active elsewhere.

But his current, well-regarded tenure as music director of the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich has hit a bump. Nagano announced he won't seek a renewal of his contract, which expires in 2013. His decision 

speaks to internal troubles of the cultural-political variety, sadly not an uncommon problem in Europe. (Here, where government support is so minuscule, arts organizations usually experience their internal troubles without any political types getting involved.) 

UGLY: Gifted conductor and pianist Mikhail Pletnev, founder and artistic director of the much-touted Russian National Orchestra, was charged this week in Thailand with raping a 14-year-old male at a beach resort. According to the AP, Pletnev, who has long had property in Thailand, called this "a misunderstanding," adding, "I have no idea how the charges came about, but I more or less know where they came from." If convicted, he faces a a long prison term.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:15 AM | | Comments (2)


Nagano was informed that his contract at the Bayerische Staatsoper would not be renewed long before he issued his recent “statement”.

Going back to the day of his appointment by Peter Jonas, the outgoing Intendant at the Staatsoper, Nagano has experienced anything but a “well-regarded” tenure in Munich. Nagano’s seven-year period as General Music Director, once completed, will probably be the least distinguished at The National Theater since the short-lived appointment over a century ago of Hermann Zumpe, an appointment cut short by death. Nagano has consistently received poor, even dismissive, critical notices from the German press for his work in the Staatsoper pit since the day he arrived. Further, Munich audiences never warmed to Nagano—and neither did the rank-and-file at The National Theater.

Nagano has been on the Staatsoper departure list for the last three years, ever since German newspapers reported in the summer of 2008 that the new Munich Intendant wanted to bring in “someone good” to replace Nagano. Everyone in Germany knew, from that day forward, that death bells were tolling and that Nagano’s days in Munich were numbered.

It is odd that the American musical press never bothered to cover Nagano’s deteriorating situation in Munich—but much the same thing happened with Nagano a decade earlier, when he was cut loose from the Halle Orchestra in Manchester after seven miserable seasons. The American musical press never bothered to cover that dismissal, either.

I guess we're a rather lazy lot. Thanks for the analysis. TS

Per Nagano's "not really wearing any clothes", there were few, if any, tears in or out of the orchestra pit when he left the L.A.Opera. I really hope the musical press and management world pays better attention to this man's thin musical foundation before thinking of giving him some post back in the homeland.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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