Search for Gerard Schwarz's successor at SSO is a broad-ranging and discreet one
The Seattle Symphony Orchestra is about halfway through the final two seasons of longtime music director Gerard Schwarz's tenure. SSO leadership is handling the regime change discreetly. But the music director's job is a broad-ranging one — as Schwarz is candid about.
Seattle Times arts writer
They're not looking for an exact replica of Gerard Schwarz — and they're not not looking for one.
The search committee charged with finding a new music director for the Seattle Symphony is trying to stay open to every possibility, as they scrutinize the busy roster of guest conductors in town this season and next.
So says committee chair Nancy B. Evans, the former first lady of Washington, whose history as a Seattle Symphony Board member goes all the way back to 1968.
The goal is to find a worthy successor to Schwarz, who, after 26 years as music director, will step down and become "conductor laureate" at the end of the 2010-2011 season.
While the committee is keeping its hiring options wide open, their selection process is a behind-closed-doors affair.
There is, to be sure, a "two-page criteria" members have written that they refer to as candidates are considered. But when I ask if I might have a look at it, the answer is a flat "No," followed by a stern laugh.
Well, then, what are some of the key points it outlines?
"The first obvious thing is the musicality," Evans says. "The musical ability of the person, the ability to conduct and the ability to understand music, to know music, know instruments. All those features of the orchestra. To select music, interesting programs, soloists — all of that. And repertoire. A broad repertoire ... because you have a varied audience with various tastes, and you need to appeal to as many as possible."
Good points — but not exactly a revelation.
And how is the search progressing?
Evans is equivocal: "Every time somebody comes to town and we hear them and watch them and observe them and meet with them, we're progressing."
What she and her fellow searchers are looking for is "a package deal": someone willing to get to know the community and be involved in education and marketing. "Fundraising, of course, is vital. And that's something we have to consider."
One surprise: Willingness to move to Seattle, while preferable, is not a prerequisite.
Not all the candidates under consideration have done guest-conducting gigs here. And not all of the 30-plus guest conductors on the Benaroya stage this season and next are candidates for the job, Evans explains.
"There are some that, just by the very nature of their business, are not. Some are more strictly baroque, and not a conductor in the broader sense. Some like the jobs that they have and have no intention of moving. And we know that."
Symphony principal bassoonist Seth Krimsky, also on the search committee, adds with a hint of cryptic mischief: "Everybody's a candidate — and nobody's a candidate." He adds more seriously that the reason for shrouding the selection process in such mystery is that "in places where it has not been, it's backfired on more than one occasion. We just want to do it right and not have any backfires."
After the search committee recommends its candidate — there's no set deadline for the process — the final decision on hiring is made by the symphony's executive committee and board. (The symphony invites patrons to chime in by sending comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
What the job entails
So what does a music director do, exactly?
The best person to ask, clearly, is Maestro Schwarz.
"Every orchestra, every city in the world, has a different need," Schwarz says. "The most important part is you get up and you conduct and make music. A conductor faces 90 incredibly talented, highly intelligent, experienced musicians. That person has to artistically lead them. That's the key. So that when the conductor goes and conducts a Brahms symphony that the orchestra has played — that many of the members have played probably 25, 30 times — you, as the artistic leader have to, in principle, bring something to it special in terms of polish and experience."
Hiring players and shaping the sound of the orchestra are two other key roles a music director plays. In the same way that a president's Supreme Court appointments set the tone for the court, a symphony music director's choice of players can, by increments, change the very timbre of the orchestra.
"The Seattle Symphony makes a beautiful, dark, rich sound," Schwarz says. "Someone may prefer a different kind of quality of sound. Now the search committee has to say, 'OK, do we want someone who fits that mold? Or is that not important to us?' "
The orchestra may be the foundation of symphony performances. But a steady stream of guest conductors and guest soloists colors each symphonic season. Here, too, the music director has a crucial role.
"A lot of things go into it," Schwarz says. "You want a broad spectrum. You want some young people, you want some older people. You want some more distinguished, you want some newcomers. You want to mix it up. Also, economics come into it. If you hired five great, distinguished conductors in one season, you would break the bank, because it's just too expensive."
Within these constraints, the goal is to bring to Seattle the finest performers and conductors possible. In the case of conductors, Schwarz says, he likes to have them perform the repertoire they're famous for. Last year Leonard Slatkin wanted to do Berlioz's "Symphony Fantastique" and Schwarz gave him the go-ahead.
"Now, you can't always do that," he adds, "because you have conflicts. You can't have Beethoven's Fifth being played three weeks in a row." (To keep track of how often certain pieces have been played, Schwarz keeps a chart of every season going back for 10 years.)
Personal connections, formed as far back as music school and expanded over the course of a career, can also play a role in who comes to town: "I mean, [former New York Philharmonic music director and London Philharmonic principal conductor] Kurt Masur came because he's a friend of mine. He normally wouldn't come to Seattle. He has no reason to come to Seattle. But he said he would, because he's a friend."
Friendships between the music director and symphony patrons play another kind of role: "You can call it fundraising, but it really isn't. I'm not a real fundraiser. I don't go out and ask people for money, generally. ... But most of our, if not all of our major donors, are personal friends of ours, of my wife and mine. There are some music directors who don't like to be involved socially with their audience and their sponsors. I don't understand that."
Another factor: Many music directors have commitments elsewhere, including directorships of other musical organizations. Schwarz, at one point, was heading the New York Chamber Symphony, the Mostly Mozart Festival (New York), the Waterloo Festival (New Jersey) and the Los Angeles Chamber Symphony.
"It was too much for me," he admits. He scaled back.
All in all, he concludes, what you want in a music director is someone highly intelligent, tremendously knowledgeable, deeply committed and "able to lead great artists and intelligent people. ... You need someone with a vivacious personality, clearly. It's part of who we are."
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra music director Robert Spano, after guest-conducting here earlier this month, cut to the essence of the maestro's role in a post-concert Q&A, when principal trumpet David Gordon asked Spano about his "ability to harness energy."
"I can take any edgy situation — and make it edgier," Spano quipped, before responding more seriously: "The best thing a conductor can do is channel what's going on in the orchestra and what's going on in the audience."
A musician's point of view
And how does a musician see these musical questions and this process of change? Does the steady stream of guest conductors drive orchestra members a little crazy? Or is it business as usual?
Actually, bassoonist Krimsky says, the number of guest conductors coming through town isn't any greater than before. And evaluation of guest conductors is nothing new either — although the forms the players fill out have more room for comment now.
Still, Krimsky says, everyone's looking at the figure on the podium more closely.
"One of the candidates brought up the term 'dating' a couple of times. And it's fairly apt because the conductors are on that side and we're on this side, and we're checking each other out across the table. You know: 'Do you want to have another date with this person? ... How's the chemistry?' ... So it boils down to something very simple for the orchestra."
Is the prospect of a change of regime unnerving, then, or exciting?
"Exciting," says Krimsky, who was hired by Schwarz in 1986. "You could be really missing that person when they go. But it's still exciting." He goes back to the relationship analogy: "You're getting an annulment," he jokes, "and a new partner. And you get to help pick the partner, and everything! So it's exciting for everybody. Hopefully we can make it exciting for Seattle."
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com
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