Monday, November 16, 2009

The next maestro

So, 14 months after the auditions began, we’ve heard from all nine of the conductors seeking to become the fifth music director of the Richmond Symphony. Announcement of the choice is expected by the end of the year.

Whom would I choose? I’m not saying.

This is the third time I’ve observed a music-director search by this orchestra. During those that led to the appointments of George Manahan in 1987 and Mark Russell Smith in 1999, I was a full-time journalist following the process closely. I spent a lot of time interviewing candidates face-to-face, sitting in on their rehearsals and sounding out musicians and orchestra insiders, here and elsewhere, on their work.

This time, as a semi-retired blogger, I’ve limited my exposure to these conductors almost entirely to their work in concert. Here’s what I had to say about each after attending a performance:










As it happens, most of the big pieces they led don’t especially move me. (I think I know a good performance of Russian romantic music from a bad one, but I have to really work at it.) Most candidates made their most positive impressions on me in music that only obliquely hints at what they would make of the core symphonic repertory. I’ve gotten a sense of how they assemble programs, but not of what more than a couple of them might do with a Brahms Fourth or Beethoven Seventh, let alone a Verdi Requiem or "La Mer."

To a listener anticipating a steady diet of such music – and I don’t see this orchestra straying too far from standard rep – all nine remain mystery men.

Fortunately, it seems the right sleuths are on the case.

* * *

Of the 10 members of the committee that conducted the music-director search, and has interviewed the finalists and monitored their work in rehearsals and concerts – and whose recommendation the symphony board probably will ratify – five are musicians in the orchestra. (A sixth, David Fisk, the symphony’s executive director, is an active pianist.)

In this search, unlike the last two, the orchestra’s musicians enjoy numerical parity with the board and community members on the panel. Good: The people who have performed under the direction of these conductors have the most reliable impressions of their musicality, personality and leadership skills. Several of the "civilians" have indicated that they will defer to the musicians in assessing the conductors artistically. I hope the players’ views on personality and leadership are given added weight, too.

The other key qualifications for this job are the social and media skills required for fund-raising and outreach. I haven’t had a long conversation with any of the nine – we’ve exchanged sometimes lengthy e-mails; and, aside from a few phrases in those e-mails, I haven’t heard how any candidate would pitch the symphony to its patrons and the public.

Other factors that should count in the choice: How well-connected are these conductors? Have they developed close working relationships with soloists and composers – especially the young up-and-comers who are the most likely to perform with and have their compositions played by an orchestra of this size? And how are these conductors rated on the grapevine of orchestral musicians? Would those who have played for them recommend them to colleagues who might audition to fill vacancies in this orchestra?

Manahan is the template on these scores. He came to Richmond with a lot of positive buzz, having networked extensively and constructively with composers and orchestra players; and the Richmond Symphony basked in his reflected glow, attracting more notice in the wider musical world than regional orchestras typically do. The Virginia Symphony has reaped similar rewards with JoAnn Falletta as its music director.

There’s a flip side to connectedness, though, which could be seen during Manahan’s later years in Richmond and can be seen in Falletta’s ongoing tenure in Hampton Roads: As conductors in growing demand, he wasn’t, and she isn’t, solely focused on their Virginia orchestras. But the age of the one-orchestra maestro died with George Szell and Eugene Ormandy, decades ago.

I wouldn’t give too much extra credit to a conductor who commits to move his principal residence and relocate his family to Richmond. I would, however, consider the difficulties he might have in traveling between Richmond and other cities in which he lives and works. Air connections are better than they used to be, but this is still not the easiest place to fly into.

* * *

That’s a very full plate of considerations to weigh in choosing a music director. The decision is being made at a time when orchestras and other fine-arts institutions are under unprecedented financial stress, and must convince a new generation of listeners in a more culturally diverse climate that a symphony orchestra is still central to a community’s musical scene. The temptation to choose a conductor who connects with the public and is persuasive with donors, regardless of how he interacts with musicians out of public view, can be hard to resist.

The music director is an orchestra’s primary public face, and having an attractive face with an engaging – ideally, charismatic – personality is important, maybe crucial, in this environment. Definitely crucial, though, is the music director’s determinative role in producing the product that the orchestra sells: the music. However photogenic or articulate conductors may be, their success, and their orchestras’, ultimately hinge on the quality of music-making.

That’s why the musicians’ opinions are the ones that should count most. It looks as if they will this time, so I see no good reason to kibbitz the selection.

* * *

POSTSCRIPT: "Egalitarian" is not a word commonly used to describe symphony orchestras, or classical music generally; but the public auditions that smaller U.S. orchestras conduct in choosing music directors are remarkably open, almost democratic. The nitty gritty occurs out of public view; but the interested public knows that auditions are under way (and can listen and watch more critically if it chooses to), has opportunities to meet the conductors, and is invited to comment on them. If that public gravitates toward one or two contenders, its opinion may not be decisive, but certainly will count.

Is there are more open executive-recruitment process than the hiring of a music director by a regional or smaller American orchestra? I can't think of any, other than the election of public officials.