Jaap & Yannick: What is a Music Director?
Jaap van Zweden (seen in the first Youtube clip below) officially began his tenure this week as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, America’s oldest orchestra of its kind. As the Metropolitan Opera’s new season has also just kicked off, Yannick Nezet-Seguin (seen in the second YouTube clip below) is officially the new music director of that storied organization. Two of America’s greatest classical music organizations have fresh and exciting artistic visions at the helm.
So now is a PERFECT moment to help explain one of the most confusing terms in the classical music industry: Music Director. Is the Music Director and administrator? A conductor? The answer: Both.
Music Director is a term used by most American orchestras or opera companies to describe the chief individual in charge of the musical activity of that orchestra/opera company. The music director is almost always a conductor. Why? Because a conductor is the person best suited to shape the musicmaking of the ensemble. And generally speaking, the music director acts as the principal conductor – the conductor that works the most with the orchestra. When on the podium, s/he is in the perfect position to shape the general tone and sound of the ensemble with a combination of overt and subtle decisions.
So the music director is most often a conductor, and is selected because the players and administrators of the ensemble feel that her/his musical vision is how they want the ensemble to develop. Further, because the music director will also be the most frequent conductor of the ensemble, the conductor’s chemistry with the ensemble also plays a huge role.
That said, with bigger orchestras and opera companies, there are often several guest conductors brought in for concerts throughout the season. An orchestra like the New York Philharmonic, for example, performs multiple times nearly every week from September thru May/June. It’s a busy schedule, and an occasional fresh-face in front of the ensemble, helps ensure that the performances remain fresh, and the audiences constantly engaged. Further, a music directors job is more than just conducting.
The Music Director is also an administrative position. As the person chiefly responsible for the musical output of the organization, the Music Director works with a team of administrators to plan repertoire, concert schedule, guest artists (soloists, and guest conductors), commission new compositions of classical music, and hire new members of the ensemble.
Honestly, it’s a time-consuming, life-encompassing job, and a Music Director has a huge influence on the future of a classical music organization- an individual music director’s effects can be felt for decades after s/he has finished their tenure. That’s why there is a massive faff everytime a major organization gets a new music director: the artistic voice of the ensemble changes, sometimes mildly, and sometimes wildly. In the best of circumstances, new and exciting music avenues come to life for audiences to hear. It’s the perfect opportunity to get to know classical music, because everyone is buzzing and excited to be around this new sound.
Also, check-out our Spotify playlists of both of these musicians: