Philharmonic search: What have we learned?

Here’s our slide show of the candidates in the Lexington Philharmonic’s music director search. Mouse over the bottom to get controls. Click on the little comment cloud to the left to activate captions. If you click on a photo, it will take you to a larger version of it at Picasa, and you can click the link at the bottom left for a larger version of the whole show.

When we started the Lexington Philharmonic‘s search for a new conductor, Barack Obama was still best known as a Senator from Illinois, AIG was pretty much known only to financial folk and golf fans, and CentrePointe sounded like a term out of Rand McNally.

OK, the length of the search for the Phil’s new music director has not been as dramatic as those comparisons that tell you the last time something happened dinosaurs were roaming the Earth. But, it has been a long journey for the orchestra, its search committee and the Philharmonic’s audience.

Now, with Mei-Ann Chen’s concert complete, all of the candidates have crossed the Singletary Center for the Arts concert hall stage, and it is up to the committee to choose from the nine hopefuls — 10 came to town, but February candidate Alastair Wills took his name out of the running after his appearance.

It’s been a dramatic couple of years for an orchestra that had the same person, George Zack, on the podium for well over three decades.

In the last two seasons, I know I have learned things about conducting and so has the audience.

Conducting is an entrepreneurial pursuit: Starting with Kayoko Dan, back in October 2007, I began hearing story after story about how aspiring conductors had to pull together pick-up orchestras to help them sharpen their skills. Alexander Platt, Mr. November 2007, organized performances of Benjamin Britten operas at Cambridge. Chen made friends with composition students at the New England Conservatory and organized performances of their works. If you play an instrument, you usually have that instrument to practice with. If you play large groups of people, that’s another thing altogether.

Mentors mean a lot: Scott Terrell, who we saw last October, went on about how influential David Zinman has been in his career. Chen did not have enough words for Robert Spano of the Atlanta Symphony, where she is assistant conductor. Almost every candidate we talked to had some sort of mentor who helped him or her develop and helped them get their feet in the first few doors.

There are lots of ideas of how to program an orchestra: Darryl One, Mr. January 2008, liked the idea of concerts and seasons built around themes. Jeffrey Pollock, last November’s candidate, was a proponent of multimedia to attract new audiences. Daniel Meyer, who auditioned last February, and Morihiko Nakahara, this year’s January man, talked about commissioning new works and other collaborations with living composers.

Most candidates did acknowledge there is a core repertoire of classics the audience expects and the orchestra should play. And most seemed well aware that the Lexington Singers and Philharmonic have a good thing going and that should be preserved.

Sadly, for pre-show chat moderator and Philharmonic bassist Joe Tackett, it does not appear there will be an uptick in the number of bass concertos on the Philharmonic’s schedule. We emphasize, this is sad for Joe.

There is no one way to become a conductor: Many, such as Alfred Savia, the candidate from last March, came up through Youth Orchestra ranks. Some got degrees in conducting, others simply went to work.

Residency can be overrated: Having had a music director who’s lived in and been an intergal part of the community for 37 years, many Philharmonic fans were surprised to learn our next music director might be more transient, counting Lexington as one of several homes or maybe even just flying in for the concerts. We asked every candidate whether Lexington would be their primary residence, and got varying responses.

Some, such as One, are clearly looking for a home base in the area. Others, such as Nakahara, have other major gigs.

But several of the candidates inclined to more transitory relationships with the community, pointed out that being a well-traveled conductor can have advantages for the communities they serve, as networking could bring higher caliber soloists and works to the town, and get the orchestra’s name out into the musical community.

“It’s not so much how much time you spend in a town, but how you and the orchestra use that time that you are there,” Chen says.

(Blog-only point) Patience is a virtue: Shortly after the audition concerts began in October 2007, seach committee chair John Carpenter started hearing from people who liked some of the early candidates and said, let’s just pick this person and call it a search. But the second round of five certainly proved there was a lot to be said for letting the search play out with several outstanding candidates through Friday night.

Conducting does matter: It is easier for casual observers to look at the person on the podium waving his or her arms while the musicians actually have to carve out the notes and conclude the job doesn’t mean much. But maybe the biggest thing the Philharmonic audience has learned the last year is that the conductor does have a big impact on the sound of the orchestra, drawing out textures and performances that can add whole new dimensions to time honored works and present us with exciting new pieces.

The committee has a tough, important decision to make.

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