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Who will be PSO's pick as Mariss Jansons' successor?

Sunday, May 04, 2003

By Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette Classical Music Critic

It's May, and here we are: One season is drawing to a close with just one more to go for Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra music director Mariss Jansons.

Ted Crow, Post-Gazette illustration

Related articles:

On the Arts: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra ought to take a risk on an American conductor

The candidates

As the search for his successor continues to unfold, the questions begin: Who are the likely candidates? What qualifications must they possess? When will the PSO reach a decision?

But one question reigns supreme:

What manner of maestro will replace Jansons at the podium?

This question is most important because, unlike the naming of a CEO to an established company, a music director defines the nature of an orchestra.

"The way it is different is that there are a lot of soft issues involved that aren't present when you are hiring the CEO of a corporation, and those soft issues are important," says PSO board chairman Richard Simmons.

It's expected that PSO leaders and the search committee will look for a top-notch musician, an axiom everyone echoes:

"The most important quality is that the person has to be an excellent conductor [who inspires] the musicians," says Thomas Todd, PSO board president.

"We need the best possible conductor," adds musicians' spokesman and cellist Hampton Mallory.

"Once you start regressing artistically, you can't go back," warns concertmaster Andres Cardenes.

But if hiring a top musician is a black-and-white decision, the "soft issues" beyond it are gray. First are traditional criteria involving setting policy for the orchestra in musical categories, from repertory to touring to hiring to style. The person must mesh with the tradition of the orchestra and put it on a course to, at a minimum, retain its worldwide significance or, better yet, elevate its stature.

A conductor with a weakness in just one of those areas might still be an attractive candidate. But the plot has thickened at the PSO with the addition of a qualification heretofore missing from its 100-plus-year tradition.

"We feel it is very important that this be a person who can and is interested in relating to the community and audience," Todd says. "The person must have enough presence in the community that they could be a spokesperson for the organization as well as the value of our product."

Welcome to the new world of the American music director.

Whereas maestros Andre Previn, Lorin Maazel and Jansons were picked because they could be marketed, the next music director will have to do the marketing.

At least, that's the case in mid-sized markets such as Pittsburgh. A large part of the perception of the orchestra and its marketing ability flow through the podium. Previously, the maestro's reputation leaked into marketing in an indirect way; now, he or she will be on the front lines of fund raising and ticket selling.

"The right music director can make a tremendous impact on the orchestra, the community and how it is perceived nationally and internationally," says Simmons. "Obviously, the guy, or woman, whoever the music director is, has got to be a consummate musician. That's where it starts. Then you go from there to other skills such as being involved with fund raising."

The exacting qualifications and high standards the PSO has set for its new music director show precisely why, despite the large pool of conductors in the world, only a few are qualified to run the show.

"In a perfect world, we would be able to get a music director who performed here 16 weeks a year, lived here, was a superb conductor, had great interpersonal skills with the orchestra, and [the musicians] truly loved him," Simmons says.

Still, others are wary of setting the nonmusical qualifications too high.

"The emphasis on having this person be the messiah is completely unreasonable," Cardenes says. "If you present people with that agenda, they are going to know they can't do it and won't want to be in the running."

Off the record, several managers and publicity representatives for some of the leading candidates also feel the PSO needs to get its financial situation reasonably under control before it tries to bring in a conductor, not the other way around.

In any case, it is likely the new director will play a larger role in promotion and fund raising.

"It is how you sell it, how you show it, how his persona comes across," says Cardenes. "If you can sell charlatans to the public who lip-sync and win Grammys, why can't you sell a top-of-the-line musician?"

This is a major reason the PSO is seriously considering American conductors -- simply because they understand our culture. This is in contrast to the traditional disadvantage Americans usually have with U.S. orchestras when the criterion is solely musicianship.

"The music director has to fit in our community," says Simmons. "Obviously, the ability to articulate the message is important. Does that mean we must hire an American or a Brit? No, it doesn't mean that. But in a perfect world, wouldn't it be nice if the guy was a great public speaker, could raise money, had great interpersonal skills?"

On the plus side, the reputation in some circles that American conductors aren't at the same level of skill as Europeans has been eroding. There are many American conductors of talent and prestige. Presumably, the search committee has one or more on its short list, a list insiders say is only preliminary and open to additions.

But some of the candidates might not have enough experience at the level and size of Pittsburgh, and some lack the connections or name value.

"We need a known quantity who can speak English and give us an international reputation, who would be accepted by the places we want to be invited," says Cardenes. "This is not on-the-job training."

The search committee has 15 members, with all four constituency groups of the PSO represented -- staff and board members, musicians and volunteers. "The search committee makes recommendations, and the executive committee and the board make the final decision," says Todd.

The PSO would like to name a new music director in the next six months or so, but can it find the right maestro?

"If there isn't a good chemistry between the musicians and the conductor, it won't be good," said Cardenes. "I think we should wait until we find the right person, no matter the circumstance. We shouldn't rush into it just to fill a void."

With the many hirings over the past few years, most of the top candidates are locked up in contracts. At present, only the Montreal Symphony Orchestra -- and, to some degree, the St. Louis Symphony -- are actively seeking a new music director.

"A hot head-to-head competition was the climate a few years ago among orchestras but not now," explains Jack McAuliffe, chief operating officer of the American Symphony Orchestra League. "There are still many talented candidates out there."

Todd says the PSO is committed to taking the time necessary to attract the right candidate and acknowledges the likelihood that "the symphony probably will have to go at least a year without a music director. Even if we find one in the next three months, due to scheduling he probably wouldn't be here in 2004-05."

But, Todd continues, "by the time Mariss leaves [at the conclusion of the 2003-04 season], I would certainly like to have someone announced."

At the very least, the orchestra wants a conductor on deck to show that, even in these trying economic times, it continues to attract top talent and is willing to pay for it, as it did with Jansons, whose annual salary is about $1 million.

It would be helpful if the PSO also had a new managing director in place to help in the decision-making process. Gideon Toeplitz steps down from that position at the end of this month.

"The new managing director will be the CEO, which means the music director will report to him," says Simmons. "If you are going to do a search, people have to understand what the job is." Not to mention who they'll be working for.

Ultimately, the search boils down to selecting the right person no matter how long it takes. As Todd says, the PSO is prepared to go without a music director for a year or more, as was the case when Maazel left after the 1995-96 season.

"There is a lot of thinking going on," say Cardenes. "We certainly don't have any candidate who is screaming out at us. We are trying to balance a lot of things."

Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750.

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