This week on the web

There is a lot of thoughtful commentary out there this week on conducting and conductorships, orchestra health and other related topics.

Ex- Chicago Symphony boss and industry guru, who always seems to have a sensible take on things, takes on the VERY thorny question of residency requirements for music directors in this blog post

 What is a reasonable amount of time to expect from a music director? Why can’t he be a full-time resident of our community?  

In many ways, hiring a music director is going to be a trade-off between musical ability and talent on the one hand, and willingness to spend non-conducting weeks in your community on the other. There is no getting around this reality. It is important to remember that conductors need to conduct, and they cannot do it at home with a mirror or five friends. They can only do it standing in front of an orchestra. If your orchestra plays six concerts a year, to expect a conductor to be satisfied with that and spend the remaining 46 weeks going to meetings and functions is unrealistic. A conductor can only grow by conducting–it’s like any other performance art: the more you do it, the better you get at it. If your orchestra insists on even twenty or thirty weeks of residency each season when you’re only giving six or eight concerts, you will very seriously limit the talent pool available to you. You have every right to do it if you choose, but be aware of the consequence–talented conductors have every right to say “no thanks.”  In my view, it is appropriate to ask for a commitment of one-third to 50 percent more weeks than you have concert weeks. So if your music director is expected to conduct, for example, eight programs a year, you might contract her for eleven to twelve weeks a year. Thus there are three or four non-conducting weeks.

Over at the Washington Post, Anne Midgette grapples with whether artistic depth or community skills are what really matter in a conductor? Can’t it be both? I’ve seen Ivan Fischer give conversational concerts in Budapest with lines around the block.

But these days it’s not clear that big names necessarily translate into big buzz, or big ticket sales.

Lorin Maazel at the New York Philharmonic hardly set the world on fire, though he delivered accurate, high-quality performances. Yuri Temirkanov, one of the greatest living conductors, had a fine artistic partnership with the Baltimore Symphony from 2000 to 2006; yet by 2007, when Marin Alsop took over, average attendance had dropped to below 60 percent of capacity.

But even the love of musicians isn’t always enough to create the excitement. Witness the case of Wolfgang Sawallisch, another eminent and venerable German who led the Philadelphia Orchestra for a decade. “Musicians adored Sawallisch,” said Joe Kluger, a consultant who was president of the Philadelphia Orchestra for 16 years. “But rarely did that come across to the audience, because of his interpretive style.”

The two biggest success stories in the orchestra world last year support the idea that a new wind can be powerfully refreshing. They involved two unknown Europeans taking over two American orchestras: Manfred Honeck (Austrian) and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; Jaap van Zweden (Dutch) and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Both cities seem to be caught up in honeymoon fever. Van Zweden “has transformed the orchestra in both sound and skill,” wrote the Dallas Morning News critic, Scott Cantrell, in July. Honeck “has wasted no time putting his stamp on the tone and timbre of the PSO,” wrote Andrew Druckenbrod, the critic of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, in June. The orchestra certainly sounded terrific when he brought it to Washington in May with a rip-roaring reading of the Beethoven Seventh…. But artistic energy and freshness alone may not increase ticket sales. Even a conductor as popular and as hyped as Gustavo Dudamel does not seem to have an immediate box office effect. In August, the Los Angeles Times reported that subscription sales for Dudamel’s inaugural season had fallen 7 percent from the preceding season under Esa-Pekka Salonen.

In a follow-up post today from her blog, she looks to take the conversation further-

So I’m throwing it open to the floor. What difference does a music director make to you? Do you think a music director really affects ticket sales? Do you make decisions about ticket buying based on an orchestra’s music director? Are you more likely to go hear Iván Fischer at the NSO than another conductor? How much do you think the average listener really notices?
(read more after the jump)

The conventional wisdom, of course, is that a music director comes and works with the orchestra for decades and develops a distinctive sound with them. But I think that model has changed since the days of Szell and Ormandy, partly because of the way that the jet age has transformed the nature of the job — though there are still long reigns like Michael Tilson Thomas’s in San Francisco or Esa-Pekka Salonen’s, just ended, in Los Angeles. I’m interested in hearing other peoples’ thoughts.

Finally, in the category of classiest act of the week, violinist James Ehnes has lent his voice to the debate over the future of the Sarasota Symphony in a balanced and well-reasoned piece. He’s strongly in support of the musician’s right to a living wage, while recognizing the dedication and generosity of the board. Soloists almost never speak out on behalf of the orchestras they work with- the risks are too obvious. Get on the wrong side of management and you lose a lucrative gig. James is one hell of a player, and now it turns out he’s got guts as well.

As a frequent soloist with the Sarasota Orchestra, I am extremely dismayed by the breakdown in contract negotiations between the management and musicians union.

I think it is important to point out that the Sarasota Orchestra is considered by many to now be the finest orchestra in Florida. The quality of the performances has improved dramatically over the last decade, thanks to many factors, including but not limited to the guidance of the board, the diligence of the staff and the wonderful artistic leadership of Maestro Leif Bjaland. But none of these contributions would have had nearly as much impact if not for the simple fact that the musicians are now finally earning a living wage.

The financial issue is more complex than simply compensation for the hours spent rehearsing and performing. Life for a Sarasota Orchestra musician involves so much time spent working away from “the job.” They must prepare hours of music every week, which requires diligent, daily individual practice and study. Some members of the public seem to have the idea that being a member of the orchestra is “part-time work.” This is absolutely not true in any way; to be a performing musician on the level of the musicians of the SO requires absolute, total commitment. If musicians are not paid enough to be able to concentrate fully on their musical activities, their playing will suffer and the orchestra will deteriorate.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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