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FINDING NEW MUSIC DIRECTOR IS A COMPLICATED DANCE

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The mating dance between an orchestra and a prospective music director can be as circumspect as an old-fashioned courtship or as frank as a modern romance.

When the St. Louis Symphony began its quest for a successor to Leonard Slatkin two years ago, Bruce Coppock, its executive director, spent months sounding out artist managers to gauge the interest of particular maestros.When the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra sought a successor to Dennis Russell Davies around the same time, Joseph Horowitz, its executive director, wrote directly to three conductors, informing them of the opening and expressing tentative interest.

The 116-year-old St. Louis Symphony has an annual budget of $19.2 million, performs 52 weeks a year and tours nationally and abroad. The 42-year-old Brooklyn Philharmonic has a $2.2 million annual budget, gives five pairs of subscription concerts a year plus chamber and community performances, and has functioned since 1991 as the resident orchestra of the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Yet finances played second fiddle to other factors. The salary offered by St. Louis, while not competitive with the million-dollar contracts of the most prestigious orchestras, was less an obstacle to potential candidates than the orchestra's location in a midsize, Middle Western market.

The lower wages for the Brooklyn slot are appropriate for the shorter season. The main hurdle for conductors of this orchestra outside the Manhattan musical axis is the danger of being upstaged by the novel programming.

In these days of diminished grants and orchestral soul-searching, each institution has redefined itself in a way that ensures its future. And each chose its new music director from outside the star-studded international firmament.

Robert Spano, who makes his New York debut with the Brooklyn Philharmonic this week, will take the orchestra's helm next season.

Spano, 34, grew up in Elkhart, Ind., a center for the manufacture of wind instruments. He did not conduct professionally until he was 29, when he became assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony. A relative unknown despite impressive conducting stints with opera houses and major orchestras since then, he has a reputation among musicians as "a comer."

Hans Vonk, 53, who leads the St. Louis Symphony next month and becomes its music director next season, is a native of Amsterdam. The last two decades he has been a respected presence in Europe, where he is chief conductor of the Cologne Radio Symphony and principal guest conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic.

After conducting major orchestras in this country, in 1991 he was a contender for the music directorship of the Dallas Symphony. But at a time when juicy recording contracts loom large in a candidate's attractiveness, Vonk arrives in St. Louis empty-handed. Moreover, many critics and industry executives are unfamiliar with his work.

The orchestras Vonk and Spano inherit share similarities as well. Under the leadership of their predecessors, both gained a niche in the musical marketplace by championing innovative repertory: the St. Louis Symphony through its espousal of 20th-century American works; the Brooklyn Philharmonic through its focus on the experimental and unfamiliar. And each of those predecessors raised the artistic level of his institution.

Yet those changes exacted a price, exacerbated by the leaner financial climate of recent years. The St. Louis Symphony's $25 million endowment is smaller than that of orchestras with comparable budgets and its artistic gains led to $10 million in accumulated operating deficits during the 1980s. Meanwhile in Brooklyn ticket sales plummeted from $300,000 to $187,000 after Davies' programming shift away from the classics.

Davies announced his resignation in the spring of 1994. The central figures involved in finding his replacement were Harvey Lichtenstein, the president of BAM, and Horowitz, in consultation with two orchestra representatives and Robert Rosenberg, a real-estate manager and the chairman of the orchestra's board.

The slightly different agenda of each individual recast the ideal candidate in a new image. The musicians wanted someone well known who would attract larger audiences and a recording contract. The management feared a well-known conductor might be less focused on the Brooklyn job.

"It had to be someone for whom this position was absolutely crucial careerwise," Rosenberg explained. "They had to make a full commitment to the orchestra, and that included doing auditions, fund-raising and community concerts. We couldn't be an `also.' That was the problem, I felt, with Dennis."

Horowitz, the architect of the orchestra's thematic programming, wanted "a conductor with a demonstrated interest in American music whose repertoire was eclectic."

After ascertaining that two potential candidates were unavailable, he contacted three others. Spano, whom Horowitz had encountered at a musical competition, was one. Another was the Estonian maestro Neeme Jarvi, music director of the Detroit Symphony, who has made more than 200 recordings and who best fitted the musicians' profile. Management declined to identify the third conductor, another American.

Over the next few months, Spano won the confidence of board members and musicians alike. Everyone was pleased by his willingness to perform as pianist in chamber concerts, speak to audiences and make himself available for fund-raising activities.

Though the management was also excited by Jarvi's artistry and fresh programming ideas, both sides concluded that his affiliations in Detroit, Scotland and Sweden would keep him from giving Brooklyn his full attention.

In St. Louis the process of replacing Slatkin had a more institutional flavor. The conductor notified management in the spring of 1994 that he would resign later this year to become music director of the National Symphony.

The orchestra's musicians and management paved the way for a successful search by signing a five-year contract that ensured labor stability for its new director. Around the same time a 24-member committee was given the responsibility of making a recommendation to the board, headed by Michael Neidorff, an executive in managed health care. It consisted of four groups of six, representing administrative staff, the board of directors, orchestra musicians and community leaders.

"We began by spending half a day with each separate contingent, developing criteria for who the music director should be from their point of view," Coppock said. There was "absolute agreement," he added, that a Slatkin clone would be a mistake, exposing the new conductor to constant comparisons with his predecessor, whose regime generated 25 commissions, 30 additional premieres and four Grammy awards. But community representatives did want the new music director to follow in Slatkin's footsteps as an active liaison between the orchestra and the city's ethnic minorities.

Thirty-five names were put on a list by the end of the first session; by the second, the list had been narrowed to about 15. A handful of committee members, including musicians, went to different cities to hear candidates perform.

Finally, the leading candidates had to woo the orchestra in person. In October 1994, Vonk, who had impressed in two earlier guest-conducting stints, led a program of Schubert and Beethoven. Earlier a short list of candidates had been leaked to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Besides Vonk, it included the Germans Christof Perick and Marek Janowski and the Hungarian Ivan Fischer.

Musicians, audiences and critics responded to Vonk rhapsodically. "Every phrase was . . . balanced until it was just right," the Post-Dispatch said of the performance of Schubert's Ninth Symphony, calling it "a grand tapestry of sound." Scheduling conflicts had prevented other contenders from appearing with the orchestra by this time. Still, the players voted 97 to 2 after the concert in favor of Vonk.

Outside St. Louis, many critics viewed Vonk's appointment as a retrenchment from the orchestra's advocacy of American and contemporary music. To deflect such criticism, the American conductor Marin Alsop was subsequently appointed to the newly established and curiously titled post of Creative Conductor Chair.