Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Podium prospects

The Philadelphia Inquirer has an interesting article about the impending search for a music director to replace the venerable Christoph Eschenbach.  You might remember Eschenbach had differences of opinion with the orchestra.  The equally venerable Charles Dutoit will be filling in for four years while the search ensues. 

The predicament in Philadelphia has me wondering about the process that may or may not happen in Seattle.  The SSO's current music director, Gerard Schwarz, recently had his contract extended to 2011.  If the SSO board thinks the orchestra needs new leadership at the end of Schwarz's contract, it would seem that now is the time to start looking. 

As the article correctly points out, conducting a music director search takes time.   Potential guest conductors are booked years in advance.  Most conductors need to come back and work with the orchestra a second and perhaps even third time for a search committee to decide if the conductor is the right fit for the orchestra and the city. 

By the end of the current season, the orchestra leadership will only have roughly three years to begin, conduct and complete a search for a music director.  It is possible, of course, the orchestra could develop a temporary arrangement with Schwarz beyond his current contract, providing artistic stability.  Or, it is also possible the orchestra could start looking for a replacement at the conclusion of Schwarz's contract.  This later scenario would mirror what happened in Chicago with the end of the Barenboim era. 

Unfortunately, Seattle is not Chicago.  The candidates likely to be interested in a position with Seattle will probably not include the likes of: Simon Rattle, Michael Tilson Thomas, the Davis's, Ricardo Muti, Esa Pekka Salonen or Paavo Jarvi.  Chicago has been successful in the post-Barenboim years because of their coy, unabashed flirting with every superstar conductor that comes to the Windy City.  Deborah Card knows very well the CSO is one of the best orchestras in the world with one of the most coveted vacancies in music today.

I can understand why some people would like to see a new music director on the podium at Benaroya Hall.  There is something to be said for freshness.  However, these sentiments might in fact be hasty.  Schwarz has shown a demonstrated commitment to new ideas and inventive programming.  Collaborations with the Seattle International Film Festival, Dale Chihuly, and the Triple Door are good examples.   He has presided over a number of interesting spring festivals highlighting the music of America, Eastern Europe and Shostakovich. Under his tenure the orchestra has recorded extensively for Delos, Naxos, and Artek.  His recent Shostakovich work for Artek receiving generous praise.  He consistenly has the orchestra turning out above average performances especially with bread and butter pieces by Sibelius, Mahler and Bruckner.  Perhaps most importantly, Schwarz has graciously taken up the task of fundraising for the orchestra.  With increasingly tight budgets and the widening disdain for fundraising, this is a quality that shouldn't be overlooked.  Without Schwarz there would be no Benaroya Hall.

The orchestra is also adapting to the management of a new Executive Director.  This is Thomas Philion's first season as ED with the orchestra.  I have no doubt that he has the requisite skills to help lead the SSO.  Nonetheless, coming to a new city, starting a new job, and learning the lay of the land takes time.

Schwarz's numerous artistic and musical attributes would have to be weighed against the potential benefits of having someone new at the helm.  Conductors would have to be vetted with musicians, staff and donors.  Philadelphia offers a good example.  Before Eschenbach took over in Philidelphia he had been warmly received by the orchestra.  As soon as he arrived problems began.  Eschenbach's potential was never fully realized.   

 Regardless of the ultimate decision of the Seattle Symphony board, time may not be on the side of the orchestra.      

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