How Many Times Must a Man Conduct the New York Philharmonic Before He Conducts Beethoven?


Derek Miller

April, 2016


In a recent What’s The Point podcast at FiveThirtyEight, Jody Avrigan explored the digital archives at the New York Philharmonic. This article offers a short dive into the Philharmonic’s open program data, as an example of the strange patterns and predilections that cultural data analysis can reveal.

Pierre Boulez, who died in January at the age of ninety, was no fan of Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. He is said never to have conducted the Russian composer’s works. A quick perusal of the open program data from the New York Philharmonic’s digital archive confirms that, at least on his 206 programs conducted with that orchestra, Boulez indeed never gave a downbeat for The Nutcracker Suite or the Violin Concerto or the 1812 Overture—though some wounded Gallic pride might lurk in the latter omission. When Boulez conducted, Tchaikovsky was not to be heard.

But the New York Philharmonic still played (and plays) a lot of Tchaikovsky. In 1876, the orchestra first featured the Russian composer’s work with a performance of the Romeo and Juliet Overture. In almost two thirds of the Philharmonic’s seasons since then, Tchaikovsky was among the top five composers favored by the orchestra, as measured by the frequency with which at least one work appears on a program. Of course, that frequency has declined, like that of all nineteenth-century composers.

Figure 1. Tchaikovsky on New York Philharmonic Programs
While the Philharmonic performed Tchaikovsky on 67% of their programs in the 1919 season, he makes it on to only about 16% today. Yet even admist such decline, Boulez’s music directorship did not suppress the orchestra’s (and their audience’s) affection for the composer. 12% of programs during Boulez’s tenure (1971-1977 seasons) included Tchaikovsky. But never, of course, when Maestro Boulez stood on the podium.

Perhaps even more striking is the case of Kurt Masur and Hector Berlioz. Masur was the orchestra’s Music Director for over a decade, from 1991 to 2002. During his entire career with the Philharmonic, he conducted more than 1900 works (458 unique compositions) on 535 programs. Not one of those works was by French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz. Masur seems to have had little affinity for French music generally. He led two concerts featuring music by Claude Debussy and conducted Maurice Ravel’s works on 25 programs, though almost half of those were the orchestral showpiece BolĂ©ro. After his stint with the Philharmonic he even led the Orchestre National de France, though whether he favored French composers with that ensemble remains unclear. But even granting Masur’s lack of affinity for French music, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique is a core piece of the orchestral repertoire. And while Berlioz was never as essential to the Philharmonic as Tchaikovsky (a mere 10% of seasons put Berlioz in the top five composers), even during Masur’s tenure the French composer appeared on almost 4% of programs.

Figure 2. Berlioz on New York Philharmonic Programs
Ironically, Kurt Masur’s son, conductor Ken-David Masur, made his subscription concert debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra by conducting: Berlioz. Maybe the distaste for poor Hector doesn’t run in the family?

And then there’s the story of the man who has never, in almost 100 programs, conducted Beethoven with the New York Philharmonic. Ludwig van Beethoven has been central to the symphonic repertoire since the Philharmonic’s first concert in 1842.

Figure 3. Beethoven on New York Philharmonic Programs
He has been among the top ten most programmed composers in 97.5% of all the orchestra’s seasons, and in the top five in 90%. Even as his importance has dropped from crazy late-nineteenth-century peaks—78% of all programs in the 1860s included Beethoven—he currently appears on around 15.5% of programs. That’s more frequently than one in every seven programs.

So it would be kind of weird—unless you hated Beethoven the way Boulez hated Tchaikovsky—to conduct the New York Philharmonic regularly and never conduct a piece by Beethoven. But that’s just what one conductor has done in his career with this eminent orchestra. Bramwell Tovey, a man who has thus far appeared on 98 programs and raised his baton 764 times for 219 unique works has never led the New York Philharmonic in a work by Beethoven. Not once. Never.

And Tovey is no minute specialist with the orchestra. Since his premiere with the Philharmonic in 2000, he has conducted works by 88 different composers, including mainstays such as Dvorak and Copland (and, yes, Tchaikovsky and Berlioz) and more adventurous names such as Peter Maxwell Davies. Tovey even led the orchestra in his own arrangement of Jimi Hendrix' “Purple Haze.” Unlike Masur, whose anti-Berlioz stance appears to have been nearly universal, Tovey conducts Beethoven with other orchestras, including the Vancouver Symphony, of which he is currently Music Director. Last summer, he conducted part of an all-Beethoven series with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. You can even watch him lead another ensemble, the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg, in Beethoven’s Third Symphony on YouTube.

How unusual is it for a conductor of Tovey’s experience with the orchestra not to conduct Beethoven? On the one hand, only a third of the 552 conductors who have led the Philharmonic have conducted any works by Beethoven. But more than half of the conductors who have not conducted Beethoven appeared on fewer than five programs. Among more frequent conductors, 186 out of 225 (82.7%) have programmed the German composer’s work. On average, conductors for the New York Philharmonic lead a work by Beethoven after appearing on four programs. The median number of programs before Beethoven (call it, the PBB score) is two. Tovey is a remarkable outlier no matter how you slice it. His closest rival in PBBs was Henry Hadley. An early-twentieth-century American composer who championed music by his fellow countrymen and led many Stadium Concerts with the orchestra, Hadley led 90 programs before conducting Beethoven. Number three, comfortably distant, is none other than Pierre Boulez at 39. And then names like singer and crossover artist Bobby McFerrin (22 PBBs) and composers Igor Stravinsky (20) and Aaron Copland (14), none of whom led (or have yet led) Beethoven at the Philharmonic. In short, Tovey’s 98 programs without a work by Beethoven is very, very odd.

The New York Philharmonic’s remarkable digital archive is full of data and digitized records that offer an exceptional, serious peek into orchestral music in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But it’s also a window into the idiosyncracies and oddities of the culture industry, in which organizational needs and individual preferences interact in unpredictable ways. Boulez hated Tchaikovsky; Masur disliked Berlioz. But the orchestra carried on with both composers, even with those men at the helm. And Tovey ... well, in honor of Bramwell Tovey’s centenary program with the New York Philharmonic and in recognition of his unique record among conductors there, I think it’s time we heard what Tovey and the Philharmonic can do with old Ludwig van. So tell the Philharmonic you want a Bramwell conducts Beethoven concert! And when you’re done with that, see what else this new trove of cultural data has in store.