Where Are All the American Orchestra Conductors?

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Before winning acclaim as a virtuoso composer and a charismatic popularizer of classical music, Leonard Bernstein attained fame as a conductor. In 1943, still green at 25 and assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, he took the podium as a last-minute stand-in for an ailing Bruno Walter. With no rehearsal and everything on the line, he saved the day and gained celebrity overnight.

Our major orchestras had long been in thrall to maestros from abroad, but Mr. Bernstein proved himself the equal of older, foreign-born conductors — “A good American success story” is how The New York Times described his triumph.

Mr. Bernstein was not only an anomaly but also an upstart, an American interloper on European turf. Yet 75 years after his success, we might wonder why his breakthrough has led, perhaps, to a dead end. In a country as vast as ours and as artistically rich in homegrown talent, why have so few American music directors followed in his footsteps?

As we embark on a new season of concerts, a look at our leading orchestras reveals a situation similar to 1943. When Mr. Bernstein shot to fame, each of the so-called Big Five orchestras, in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and Cleveland, was led by a foreign music director (born, respectively, in Poland, Russia, Austria-Hungary, Belgium and Austria), as is each today (with conductors from the Netherlands, Latvia, Canada, Italy and Austria).