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American Idyll

June 1, 2009

Music Director searches conducted in open view aren't new. But orchestras are increasingly using them to connect with their communities, some taking their cues from reality TV.

Joana Carneiro didn’t appear even remotely frazzled as she strode across the U.C. Berkeley campus on a rainy mid-December morning in search of a cup of coffee. The 32-year-old Portuguese conductor should have been exhausted. It had, after all, been a grueling week. As the last of six guest conductors summoned to the Bay Area by the Berkeley Symphony with the aim of finding a successor to the internationally renowned Kent Nagano—whose departure from the position of music director following three decades of service the orchestra had announced in January 2007—Carneiro was kept busy from the moment she deplaned. Over the course of seven days, the conductor led five rehearsals and two performances, gave one pre-concert talk, attended several receptions and countless breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, underwent a formal interview, and appeared on a local radio show.

Yet far from yearning for a few hours of well-earned sleep on the flight back to her home in Lisbon, Carneiro seemed to take a week’s worth of heavy scrutiny at the hands of the Berkeley community in stride. Dressed in black slacks and a sweater with her straight, shoulder-length dark hair clipped neatly back from her face, the conductor looked as relaxed and alert over coffee on the final morning of her Bay Area sojourn as she did while conducting a program of Beethoven, Adams, and Lindberg for an audience of 2,000 the night before. “I’m not worried about being evaluated. Every time a conductor gets up on the podium it’s an evaluation; there are reviews in the media and audience feedback forms. This process is no different,” says Carneiro, who served as assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 2006 to 2008 through the League of American Orchestras’ American Conducting Fellows program. “There were many interviews, meetings, lunches, and dinners, but they all felt like a conversation,” she says.

That a music director search process might be viewed as a “conversation” between many different stakeholders is a concept that orchestras have taken a long time to embrace. The active inclusion of instrumentalists in scouting out new music director talent is now common practice among many orchestras, both in this country and abroad. But despite the much-publicized efforts of institutions such as the Berlin Philharmonic to involve their musicians in music director appointments in recent years, the world’s bigger orchestras continue to observe relatively closeted hiring traditions.

The situation at hundreds of smaller U.S. institutions couldn’t be more different. Instead of leaving the business of engaging an orchestra’s central figure to a mysterious group of internal custodians, orchestras in such diverse parts of the country as Eugene, Oregon; Fairfax, Virginia; and Augusta, Georgia are increasingly looking for ways to make the hiring process as transparent and inclusive as possible. More than that: Some organizations are even going as far as to view the conductor search as show biz.

Buzz and Buy-In

Fueled by the confluence of Web 2.0 and the popularity of reality TV, a number of U.S. orchestras are emphasizing the competitive nature of the search process in an attempt to heighten audience buy-in and create media buzz. Developed in collaboration with an advertising agency, the Reno Philharmonic’s recently completed search featured an American Idol-inspired “Last Conductor Standing” strategy that gave concertgoers a vote on which of the five shortlisted guest conductors should win the music director job. By following a link to the Reno News & Review website, ticketholders could watch video footage of each finalist in action, and—above a slogan that reads, “Who will prevail? Your vote counts!”—click on another link to cast a ballot. “We wanted to make as much of the search process as we could by playing up the competitive aspect and tying it in with popular culture,” says Reno Philharmonic Executive Director Tim Young. “The engagement is terrific. People are really excited about what’s going on.”

In addition to using audience surveys, orchestras such as the Fairfax Symphony   Orchestra (which conducted a music director search during the 2008-09 season) generate interest by reaching out to constituents through YouTube videos depicting guest-conductor performances posted on the orchestras’ websites. Other orchestras are putting a competitive spin on the music director search through bold communications campaigns with dramatic wording and images. The splashy homepage of the Augusta Symphony’s website features large pictures of outgoing Music Director Donald Portnoy and the four conductor candidates accompanied by the teaser: “After Donald Portnoy’s Grand Finale, who will be maestro? Who’s your favorite? We want to know. Email Us.” The homepage of the Richmond Symphony website similarly hopes to turn heads with its attention-grabbing “Our New Musical Director Search Begins” headline. Meanwhile, the Saint Joseph Symphony in Missouri referred to its shortlisted conductors as “finalists” rather than the less competitive-sounding “candidates.”

Unsurprisingly, this interactive, high-stakes approach to communicating details about the conductor search to the general public has been garnering a great deal of media attention for orchestras. Media outlets seem to respond particularly strongly to the American Idol-like nature of some orchestras’ campaigns, even co-opting phrases from the hit reality-TV show in their copy. “It’s not quite San Antonio Symphony Idol,” wrote Deborah Martin in the San Antonio Express-News. “But patrons will have a chance to weigh in on next season’s guest conductors.” In the Charlotte Observer, reporter Steven Brown played up the competitive nature of the selection process by rechristening the local orchestra’s search for a new music director as “So You Think You Can Conduct?” and peppering his text with words like “contest,” “climax,” “vying,” and “tryout.”

Orchestra personnel are understandably excited about the level of media interest. “We’ve garnered three articles about each of the candidates—a preview feature, a concert review, and lastly a follow-up story that segues into what’s going to happen next,” says Jonathan Martin, president and executive director of the Charlotte Symphony in North Carolina, which currently is in the middle of a music director search. “The exciting thing is the amount of publicity we got and the interest all the buzz sparked in our community,” says Rhonda Hunsinger, executive director of the South Carolina Philharmonic, which conducted a music director search for two years, eventually deciding on Morihiko Nakahara in April 2008. “We talked to the local radio and TV stations and convinced them that this was the top arts story of the season, and they all embraced it,” Hunsinger continues. “We got live TV and Internet coverage, not to mention newspaper articles prior to each candidate’s visit. We had several reviews following every concert. Critics attended rehearsals and wrote feature stories. While the candidates were in town, we were careful to have them interact with the media. A few days after the last concert, we selected Morihiko Nakahara as our new music director and secretly brought him into town. We planned an event around the announcement and gave the state newspaper a front-page, above-the-fold exclusive.”

Even those orchestras less driven to create a publicity campaign around the search process are striving to use it as a way to reach out and interact with audiences. The La Crosse Symphony in Wisconsin—which began its music director search in the fall of 2007 and recently selected six finalists—keeps concertgoers informed about its music director search by publishing an online newsletter every six weeks. Orchestras also routinely use Web-based and paper audience surveys to get feedback about guest conductor appearances. The Charlotte Symphony reports unprecedented levels of audience engagement as a result of soliciting concertgoers’ opinions through surveys. “The amount of return has been extraordinary,” Martin says. “We get hundreds of responses on each of the guest conductor concert weekends.” According to Berkeley Symphony Executive Director James Kleinmann, around 10 to 15 percent of Berkeley Symphony audiences complete post-concert surveys online. But the range of responses testifies to the impassioned engagement of ticket-buyers in the selection process. “During the performance of each piece, with her face as well as with her body, the conductor expressed feeling for the music as well as appreciation for the musicians, and the musicians responded,” wrote a concertgoer in response to one of Berkeley Symphony’s guest conductors. Another audience member wrote: “If I were a member of the orchestra, I would have not noticed any indications of dynamics. The scores must have indicated fortissimo but the conductor’s gestures didn’t seem to. Range of conducting gestures seemed limited.”

Pros and Cons

“Before we launched our music director search, a lot of people in the area knew there was an orchestra here, but they didn’t really know,” says South Carolina’s Hunsinger. “We got the media involved early and as a result, community awareness has risen and people are asking a lot of questions.” Kleinmann believes that the Berkeley Symphony’s search has played a major role in uniting the many disparate parts of the orchestra’s constituency. “The most exciting thing that’s come out of the search has been the emergence of community and leadership,” Kleinmann says. “In what could have been a vacuum created by Kent Nagano’s departure, I am amazed at how everyone, from funders to board members to audiences, has come together to demonstrate how the orchestra impacts their lives. This transcends the business of choosing who the next music director will be.”

Many orchestras are also quick to point out the financial advantages that have emerged from taking a more open approach to the music director search. Some groups are reporting increased or steady ticket sales—no small feat during a recession. And the bump can last after the search is over: According to Hunsinger, the South Carolina Philharmonic has almost sold out every concert so far this season since hiring Nakahara. The Richmond Symphony reports box-office sales that are similar to last season. But the orchestra’s director of marketing and communications, Bob Halbruner, notes: “If there was no economic downturn, we would expect to see a spike in ticket sales.” The excitement generated by the newly visible music director search process has also helped some orchestras with their fund-raising activities. Borrowing an idea from the Eugene Symphony, the South Carolina Philharmonic raised $60,000 by inviting donors to a private party at $1,000 a ticket in honor of each of the orchestra’s guest conductor candidates. The donors received “insider” information on the search process, including an invitation to the press conference announcing the selection of the new music director.

Such highly publicized music director hiring practices are not without their drawbacks. Some organizations are concerned about the implications of placing too great an emphasis on audience participation during the selection period. “We haven’t resolved yet to what extent the audience will have input in the process,” says Jim Gallagher, chairman of the music director search committee at La Crosse Symphony. “We’re not going to have an audience ballot. Apart from the fact that giving concertgoers votes would be a logistical nightmare, we don’t want this to end up being a popularity contest with people voting for the wrong reasons.”

All the excitement about the winner doesn’t really change the fact that the candidates were originally selected to fill a job opening and that the non-winning candidates will still be looking for a job. Some of them may have to get out there and do it again and again. So sensitivity is key when it comes to figuring out just how far to take media and audience involvement. David Fisk, executive director of the Richmond Symphony, says: “We genuinely find it useful to get audience feedback about such things as a conductor’s chemistry with the players and audience. But this isn’t the same as giving concertgoers a vote; it’s giving them a voice in the process to help inform our decision.” When we spoke this winter, San Francisco Chronicle classical music critic Joshua Kosman shared similar reservations about seeking inspiration from reality TV in the appointment of new music directors. “The audience’s enthusiasm is nice, but audiences don’t always know what’s best,” he says.

Then there’s the problem of sustaining the level of engagement in the months and years following the media hoopla. The Reno Philharmonic is hoping to leverage information gathered about its audiences during the search process to find new ways to involve concertgoers in the future. “The energy and excitement of the search process is going to be hard to continue in exactly the same way,” says Young. “But it’s up to us to look for new ways to involve the community.”

Not all regional orchestras see the hiring of a new music director as a giant publicity opportunity. The Utah Symphony, for one, eschews the idea of a public search. According to a November article in the Deseret News, William H. Nelson, the chairman of Utah’s search committee, took exception to the way in which the orchestra handled its previous music director search, just over a decade ago. “We don’t want the guest conductors to appear as if they’re auditioning,” Nelson is quoted as saying of the latest conductor hiring process. “They are of the stature that they don’t want to be perceived as wanting a job.” The Berkeley Symphony, for all its interest in reaching out to audiences, is similarly keen to play down the competitive aspect of the search. Candidates like the New York-based conductor Paul Haas may have viewed the entire week in Berkeley—“every interaction, from meetings to rehearsals,” he says—as part of an audition process, but the selection committee shunned the term, instead choosing to frame the search as a concert season featuring six guest conductors, rather than a contest aimed at securing Nagano’s successor. 

Eyeballing the Guests

Even for orchestras intent on steering clear of the American Idol model, practical realities nevertheless encourage a highly transparent and inclusive approach. Unlike their more prominent counterparts, smaller orchestras don’t have the luxury of auditioning potential music directors on the quiet. The country’s largest-budget orchestras present upwards of 200 performances annually, many of them led by guest conductors, and it’s relatively easy for these institutions to assess visiting maestros without announcing that they might be on the lookout for someone to fill the top artistic position. Maintaining face is key. “If an orchestra lets it be known that it’s interested in conductor X but conductor X doesn’t show, it can’t look good for the orchestra,” says the San Francisco Chronicle’s Kosman. “Similarly, the top conductors can’t afford to be seen looking for a job in public.” But for smaller orchestras, the logistics of bringing in a slew of guest conductors makes the search process practically impossible to disguise.  “For an orchestra of our size it’s difficult to do a covert search,” says Richmond Symphony’s Fisk. “We have a limited 38-week season, and under normal circumstances our regular music director and assistant conductor dominate the schedule. Suddenly having a season full of nothing but guest conductors makes it pretty obvious that we’re looking for a successor.”

The average music director search panel might consist of a mixture of orchestral musicians, staff, board members, and even one or two major donors and external stakeholders, allowing smaller groups to maintain a high level of interaction with their close-knit communities. “Management is interested in what we have to say,” says Berkeley Symphony viola player Darcy Rindt. “There’s a strong sense of everyone being in this process together.” The Charlotte Symphony’s Martin believes that reaching out to the orchestra’s many different constituencies will lead the search committee to make a better-informed decision. “We’re not running a popularity contest,” he says. “Weighing lots of criteria based on feedback from donors, audience members, musicians, and others can only help us get the right result.”

This desire on the part of orchestras to engage with the outside world speaks to a heightened awareness of the evolving role and responsibilities of a music director working in the U.S. today. These days, waving a baton is considered to be only part of the job; being an arts advocate in the community is also extremely important. The Berkeley Symphony, for instance, currently works with the city’s eleven public elementary schools. The orchestra required all guest conductor finalists to write essays outlining their approach to civic engagement as part of the application process. Meanwhile, in La Crosse, Wisconsin (population 50,000), the orchestra’s music director is regarded as a prominent local figure.  “In a city this small, the orchestra’s music director is the artistic leader of the community,” says Gallagher. “The search for a new leader is a big event, and we want to involve the various stakeholders in the process as much as we possibly can.”

The effort to be as inclusive as possible, coupled with the logistical challenges of parachuting in a cavalcade of guest conductors during the average orchestra’s limited season, has turned the music director search at many institutions into a highly formal, complex, and costly business. Orchestras typically spend two to three years, and tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, diligently transitioning between maestros. The process involves such tasks as assembling a cross-functional search committee; drawing up a detailed job description and procedural guidelines; reaching out to suitable candidates; vetting anywhere between 100 and 300 applications; following up on references; digesting applicant essays, videos, and audio recordings; creating a shortlist; flying finalists in to spend a week or two with the orchestra; nailing down concert repertoire; organizing and publicizing meetings, events, and performances during each conductor’s stay; providing feedback systems for all stakeholders; soliciting media coverage; and announcing the final decision. The selection panels of some orchestras, such as the South Carolina Philharmonic and Reno Philharmonic, even traveled around the country visiting shortlisted candidates before inviting them back to home base. Others, such as the La Crosse Symphony, hired a consultant to help guide the orchestra through the process.

The open approach to procuring the right music director may be time-consuming, resource-heavy, and fraught with challenges—from complex scheduling logistics to losing worthy candidates to other jobs during the typically long vetting period. Yet the difficult process seems to make sense for many orchestras. “The appointment of a music director is such an important decision,” says Kosman. “It has a huge bearing on what your orchestra is going to become in years to come. The decision-makers must have the information they need to make the right choice.”

Sometimes, however, even the best intentions and most diligently run searches can go awry, as the story of one orchestra interviewed for this article shows. The orchestra in question approached the appointment of a new music director with dedication and rigor. But the selection panel, ignoring negative feedback from its core constituents, began negotiations with one finalist on the basis of his reputation. “The conductor had the right profile but the players didn’t like him,” a search committee member confides. “When the panel traveled to meet him for primary negotiations, he didn’t seem at all excited about the job.” Fortunately, the committee eventually came to its senses and hired a different conductor, one who clicked perfectly with the orchestra and helped re-energize ticket sales and fund raising.

“I don’t know if there’s a right way or wrong way to conduct a music director search,” says the Charlotte Symphony’s Martin, who, as a former general manager of The Cleveland Orchestra, has glimpsed the pros and cons of both “open” and “closed” methodologies and describes himself as a “convert” to the open way because of the opportunities it provides to build community and generate buzz. “You need a process that works for your orchestra and your city.” Ultimately, though, the success of any music director search seems to hinge on one crucial factor: the personal connection between a candidate and an orchestra. That ephemeral feeling of “rightness” cannot be quantified or ascertained from a resumé, but orchestras and audiences know it straight away when they see it. As Carneiro put it over coffee that December morning: “If it’s a good fit, it’s fantastic.”

As it happens, the fit between the Berkeley Symphony and Carneiro appears to be just right. On January 15, just four weeks after the Portuguese conductor’s appearance on the podium at U.C. Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, the Berkeley Symphony board announced Carneiro’s appointment as Nagano’s successor. “Her interaction with the musicians, and the level to which she brought them in four rehearsals, was remarkable,” says Berkeley Symphony board President Kathleen G. Henschel. “She made just the right match with all the constituents.”



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