MD Hide and Seek Part 1

Ten days ago Edo de Waart was named the next Music Director of the Milwaukee Symphony. The appointment attracted quite a bit of press, and seemed to take a lot of people by surprise (in a positive way). I was on the search committee (the first I’d participated in from start to finish), and since the announcement coincided with the start of non divisi, the whole MD search idea seemed like a good topic for discussion. Even though I can’t get into certain details of our specific search for obvious reasons, I think a general overview might be worthwhile.

Some people seemed surprised that our search didn’t take longer; the committee had only been together for about a year, which is pretty short in terms of an MD search. To be honest, it was probably a faster process than any of us expected, for reasons that will become apparent. But after it was all over, it got me thinking about when a search really starts in the first place- when it “officially” begins, or some other time?

In our case, I think we were a little late. Over the years we hadn’t really established a lot of close relationships with conductors other than our current MD (Andreas Delfs), and there were really only a few that the orchestra seemed to enjoy working with (with musical results to match). Even among those there were no clear standouts for the MD position when all the duties required were factored in, so we were sort of starting from scratch. Now I’ve come to believe that the best time to start a search is the day after your new MD is named. That is, even if it isn’t “official”, the institution needs to begin developing relations with as many potential successors as possible, even if the opening might be seven or eight years away. Especially focusing on those conductors that “click” with the orchestra (and hopefully the audience as well). Starting with a list of potential successors who have already seen the group and know the community puts the orchestra in a much better position once the search formally begins.

There are several important ingredients to any MD search, but two key factors became apparent immediately with the MSO: that we’d need to define what we were looking for with as much detail as possible (this is more difficult than it sounds), and that the timing might have to be somewhat flexible. The committee formed in December 2006 when Mr. Delfs announced he was leaving at the end of the 08-09 season, which wasn’t very far away if you consider most decent conductors are booked a couple of seasons out. So by “flexible”, that meant there was also the possibility that we might end up with some sort of interim position if we didn’t find an ideal candidate for Music Director to begin in 09-10.

That was our specific situation, and as things developed I began to realize how unique each search has to be. That is, in reality every orchestra faces different needs and desires with regard to finding a new MD, because each orchestra is distinct with regard to its artistic and financial situation, it’s place in the community, and various other factors. That’s something many musicians don’t always pay attention to, since we’re usually just focused on getting the “best” person artistically. Obviously a first-rate musician is needed, preferably one with a special rapport with the orchestra. But these days there are lots of other things required of an MD for an American orchestra. Donor relations, understanding the community (and maybe living there), working closely with the current ED and staff, understanding the CBA (and working within it), a definite time commitment……the list is pretty long. The running joke was that it would help if our new MD could walk across Lake Michigan as well.

Regarding timing, consider that both the Chicago Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra are currently looking for a Music Director. Last year it was obvious that both Mr. Barenboim and Mr. Eschenbach were leaving pretty soon, and no decision seemed imminent. So to buy a little time, both groups announced appointments with no specific MD title, but still with clear leadership duties (Bernard Haitink and Charles Dutoit, respectively). This is a concept that was ideal for both institutions-each had established long relationships with these esteemed conductors, and neither the CSO or Philly needs to be in any hurry. They’re artistically and financially stable, with solid levels of community and audience support. It’s no problem if they want to “coast” for awhile.

But that’s not necessarily the case with a smaller orchestra at a different point in its history and development. An “Artistic Advisor” position or something similar can have a certain novelty and appeal. But an “interim” situation can also be very risky, with no clear artistic or marketing plan beyond a season or two. That sometimes results in a general feeling of stagnation until the “real” person arrives, with musicians, staff, and audiences reacting in unpredictable ways. Subscribers may lose interest, donors wonder where things are heading, musicians speculate about the motivation for artistic decisions and how to handle auditions (we do that anyway), the marketing people scramble to “sell” a transitional situation, and so on.

I feel very fortunate to have been on this search committee, which was pretty seasoned overall (made up of five musicians and seven Board members/MSO staff), and based on my previous committee experience I’d say that from the start it was an unusually collegial and cooperative group. Also, we were quite aware of the pros and cons regarding an interim position. At the same time, none of us wanted to name a Music Director until we felt we had the right person- we knew it would probably be the most important institutional decision for the next 10 years or so (for better or worse). Early on there seemed to be a consensus that we shouldn’t limit our options, including extending the search if we needed to, or (conversely) accelerating the process if we felt that was necessary. In hindsight, that turned out to be a wise approach.

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6 thoughts on “MD Hide and Seek Part 1”

  1. This was a wonderful move, to have you write a column.
    You have great insight and the ability to see things through several different “windows”.

    William Wolfram

  2. Your point to begin thinking of successors once a music director is already on board, is quite interesting. I wouldn’t be surprised if many orchestras have ideas on the back burner well in advance. Having been in Milwaukee when Maestro de Waart was announced as the new music director, there was a wonderful respect and admiration amongst those who were present as he accepted the appointment. It must be a wonderful feeling to have the news of a new music director, with hope and expectation for the future. Andreas Delfs certainly maintained a fine orchestra. Btw, your cd with William Wolfram is spectacular! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Thanks to you both for your kind words. It is obvious that you are pianists with uncommon levels of taste and refinement, and I am privileged to have been clicked upon, so to speak.


  4. Hopefully it will be a fruitful working relationship with Edo de Waart. Having known/seen his performances of Mahler in the Netherlands, I can surely say that you made an excellent choice! Cherish this quality, for he’s definitively one of the finest conductors around.

    Michael S.
    currently from Slovakia

  5. Hi Frank!
    (Remember me from Fort Worth?)
    We are finally wrapping up a 2+ year Music Director Search(aka The Baton Death March) here in Idaho. Our previous MD was here for 19 years, so no one here had any experience at this. The LOAA, formerly ASOL, has a marvelous seminar on music director searches, which proved invaluable to us. Since we are a small orchestra with only 7 subscription weeks per season, and we were determined to give every finalist a week with the orchestra, the process has taken a long time. It was time well spent, because chemistry is such an important part of the equation. We will announce our new MD in April!

    Tony Boatman
    Executive Director
    Boise Philharmonic

  6. Hi Tony,
    Nice to hear from you again after all these years. Thanks for the comment, and I’m glad the LOAA seminar helped. A previous MD for that length of time certainly presents a set of specific issues, so congratulations on overcoming them. Looking forward to hearing the results of the search.


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