Anthony Fogg got the call on a Tuesday night this past summer. Because of continuing problems with his right hand, pianist Leon Fleisher was canceling his Friday performance at Tanglewood, the Massachusetts summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Mr. Fogg, the BSO's artistic administrator, immediately got on the phone with the concert's conductor, Hans Graf. Their initial impulse was to find a musician as venerable and well known as Mr. Fleisher who could play the piece he was scheduled to perform, Mozart's Concerto No. 12 in A Major. Or, if not that exact concerto, another by Mozart or perhaps an early Beethoven bagatelle to serve as a counterweight to the second—heavier—portion of the program, Mahler's Fifth.
But eventually a different solution emerged. "We thought, 'If we're replacing someone who is older, we might be better off getting an up- and-coming player, preferably a pianist because pianists are very popular with our audiences,'" Mr. Fogg recalled. The list of possibilities included 29-year-old Orion Weiss, who'd recently worked with Mr. Graf and had had a fellowship at Tanglewood.
So there Mr. Weiss was, playing Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25 in C on July 29, a performance the Berkshire Review website characterized as "alert and full of felicitous details."
On Broadway when the star can't go on, management simply taps the eager understudy. When classical musicians and singers bow out, an occupational hazard what with all that international travel and all those international viruses, there's generally no backup waiting in the wings. Thus, in September there was much hand-wringing—and much baton passing—when a back injury sidelined Metropolitan Opera maestro James Levine for the season. The Met's principal guest conductor, Fabio Luisi, stepped in—dropping out of engagements in Rome, Genoa, Vienna and San Francisco—necessitating considerable scrambling to find substitutes.
The best that management can hope for in such instances is fair warning. "We may get an email saying, 'Just a heads up. So-and-so singer isn't feeling well, isn't canceling yet but fyi . . . ,'" said Chad Smith, vice president of artistic planning for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. "That's an indication that you need to get your ducks in a row."
Often, however, artists will hold off, hoping for a swift return to good health. "They want to perform," Mr. Fogg said, "so they wait as long as they can and then realize they won't be well enough."
That's when the all-points bulletin goes out to artists' management companies and to orchestra administrators. "Since the Internet, it's become easier. You can quickly gather information about the whereabouts of a potential replacement," said Mr. Fogg, who, rather like a handicapper at the track, makes it a point to stay abreast of new and midcareer talent—and their fortes. "You know who's had great success recently and who, maybe, isn't performing as well as they did 10 years ago," he added.
All things being equal, orchestras and impresarios want both to get a marquee name and to keep the scheduled program intact. If the priority is retaining the program, "an orchestra might prefer a younger, less celebrated performer who can play that piece rather than to have a well-known artist come in and play whatever he has at his fingertips," said James Egelhofer, an artist manager at the agency IMG Artists.
It's particularly challenging at a place, like the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where there is considerable contemporary programming. "Finding people who can step in and do those pieces is difficult," Mr. Smith said.
Of course, the issue isn't simply how well the replacement plays his instrument—it's how well he plays with others. "There are a lot of sensitive artistic concerns when you're trying to match a soloist with a conductor," Mr. Egelhofer said.
For orchestras and impresarios, a cancellation can be as much opportunity as nightmare. Early this year, the Boston Symphony had to find a conductor to take on two programs that an ailing Sir Colin Davis had been slated to lead. The conductor for the second week was Stéphane Denève, a young French conductor who couldn't do the Sibelius repertoire that had been planned. "But the opportunity to work with him," Mr. Fogg said, "outweighed our desire to keep the program in place."
Similarly, when, a few seasons ago, conductor Yuri Temirkanov had to pull out of a number of concerts with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Spaniard Pablo Heras-Casado was invited to step in. "You look to see who's creating some sort of buzz, and Pablo was someone I'd been hearing very good things about," Mr. Smith said. "We were lucky to get him for his American debut."
For the replacement artist, it could be the start of something big. There's a lure and legend surrounding cancellations. Consider the 25-year-old Leonard Bernstein stepping in to conduct the New York Philharmonic, in 1943, when Bruno Walter was laid low by the flu. Or the 17-year-old Lang Lang replacing an ailing André Watts for a 1999 performance of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Chicago Symphony at the Ravinia Festival. Or the young Michael Tilson Thomas stepping in midconcert, in 1969, to finish the job for the indisposed conductor William Steinberg at the BSO and, years later, the untried Esa-Pekka Salonen stepping in for Mr. Thomas with the London Philharmonia Orchestra.
Yoheved ("Veda") Kaplinsky, head of the piano department at the Juilliard School, said that students are "incessantly made aware" of the career benefits of being a replacement artist. "Even if you get management today, you're low man," she said. "Your best chances are that someone will cancel and the talent agency will throw something your way. A manager called one of my former students and asked her, on eight days' notice, to replace Leon [Fleisher] at Ravinia. I'm sure she was not the first person called, but she was the first one available with good credentials."
To improve their odds, "I tell my students very often that they should have in their repertoire some of the less well-known concerti," Ms. Kaplinsky continued. "Everyone can play Rachmaninoff's Second and Tchaikovsky's First. But few can play the Corigliano."
And where does the audience figure in all this, the people who, having paid for Peter Serkin, want Mr. Serkin? "There are always going to be people who are buying a ticket to see X artist and will be upset," said Mr. Smith of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. "But they understand that this is a dynamic process. People get sick. It's about having the trust of our patrons so they know that a person we're putting in as a replacement will intrigue them and engage them and maybe make them hear the music differently."
If the audience has paid for an artist "of great, great distinction that they rarely get to hear, there can be a sense of great disappointment," agreed the BSO's Mr. Fogg. "But if the replacement is a young artist, listeners may feel, 'This is someone's big break, the night people will be talking about in 40 years—and I'm here witnessing it!'"
Ms. Kaufman writes about culture and the arts for the Journal.
Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Leon Fleisher, BSO, Boston Symphony, BSO, Mozart, Chad Smith, Anthony Fogg, Tanglewood, Piano Concerto No. 25, Michael Tilson Thomas, Fogg, principal guest conductor, replacement, replacement, James Egelhofer, London Philharmonia Orchestra.Yoheved, Orion Weiss