As job searches go, this one’s unique.
What other leadership position would require the candidate to be fully immersed in the Tacoma community while mostly living somewhere else?
To be charismatic toward employees, employers and strangers alike? To be internationally recognized, yet willing to work at a symphony in a midsize city with a midsize budget? To be responsible for bringing a 400-year-old art form to 21st-century Tacomans with innovation and passion?
The Tacoma Symphony Orchestra is looking for just such a person – a new artistic director for the nonprofit organization, which is made up of 80 musicians, a chorus, three staff members, two conductors, a board and its committees, and numerous volunteers.
And after nearly two years of searching, the TSO has whittled the list to four finalists. The person who is given the job will take over in fall 2014 when longtime director Harvey Felder steps down to take an orchestral studies director position at the University of Connecticut.
The first finalist – Sarah Ioannides – will take the podium Tuesday for rehearsals and will lead the symphony’s concert Feb. 24.
Who becomes the conductor of the symphony is vital to the health of the 67-year-old orchestra and to Tacoma itself. That person could be the spiritual leader of the symphony for decades as the organization envisions ways to reach new generations in a changing musical landscape.
“What’s at stake is the future of the orchestra’s relationship to the community,” said Judith Kurnick of the League of American Orchestras. “It’s artistic, and also humanistic.
“Even if the chemistry is perfect between the conductor and musicians and they’re playing perfectly, it isn’t enough. There has to be a sense from the people outside that something special is happening for the community.
“The future of the orchestra rests on it.”
Such high stakes make the search long and difficult.
For the TSO, the process began in May 2011 with the formation of the search committee, a group of 13 that included orchestra musicians, staff members, board members, subscribers and an outside adviser. Because Felder has been in Tacoma for 20 years, only two on the committee had gone through a similar search. Many discussions were held about the orchestra’s vision for the future.
Instead of putting out a general call for applicants – which during the TSO’s last search in the early 1990s resulted in 750 applicants – the committee sent letters to conductors, musicians and the League of American Orchestras asking for recommendations.
Personal invitations were sent to 110 conductors; 60 responded with interest.
The list was culled to 25, and the committee spent hours reviewing performance DVDs and interviewing on the phone. Of these, 11 semifinalists were chosen for Skype interviews.
“The conversation got tougher,” said Greg Youtz. A local composer and Pacific Lutheran University faculty member, Youtz gives preconcert talks for TSO concerts but otherwise was an external adviser on the committee.
Questions were asked about how the candidates approached musical problems, ideas for out-of-the-box programming, funding issues, education and just how much they knew (and cared) about Tacoma.
They also talked about salary, and while the board doesn’t make this specific information public, the combined 2011 salaries of both Felder and Geoff Boers, TSO’s choral director, hit $144,748.
By last May the committee had announced the four finalists:
• Ioannides, a 41-year-old Brit, is musical director of the Spartanburg Philharmonic in North Carolina.
• New Yorker Paul Haas, 42, is director of the Symphony of Northwest Arkansas, as well as a composer and founding director of Sympho, a touring ensemble known for unconventional music, venues and production ideas. He will conduct May 4.
• Kevin Rhodes, 41, is a regular conductor in the opera houses of Paris, Milan and Vienna, plus musical director of the Springfield (Maine) Symphony Orchestra. He will conduct Oct. 26.
• Scott Speck, 51, is the musical director of the Joffrey Ballet and the West Michigan and Mobile (Ala.) symphony orchestras. He also is a co-author of “Classical Music for Dummies” and two other books in the series. He will conduct Nov. 17,
Each finalist will each spend a week in Tacoma rehearsing the orchestra and conducting a concert, meeting board members and donors and generally proving their worth.
The committee will hear from the board, staff members and musicians, plus take audience feedback after each candidate’s concert. (You will be able to vote on The News Tribune’s entertainment Facebook page.)
The process will culminate in a committee recommendation in December or January, in time to give the winning candidate time to take up the position by the start of the 2014-15 season.
In the meantime, the candidates will be making judgments of their own – finding out what the orchestra and city are really like.
“I was interviewing the organization as much as they were me,” Felder said of his own selection process. “I tried to get a sense of the community, how it valued the arts and the symphony, whether the school system supported the arts and of the general financial health, because I knew I’d be raising a lot of money from the community.”
One unusual aspect of the director’s position is that it’s high-level but not fulltime.
The TSO does four classical concerts a year plus a few pops shows, schools concerts and outside events such as the Puyallup Fair.
Felder estimates he spends 40 percent of his time in Tacoma (he has an apartment here), 40 percent at his other orchestra and academic jobs (which have included Milwaukee, Atlanta and St. Louis) and the rest guest-conducting elsewhere.
Chances are the new conductor will do the same, balancing several smaller orchestras and a touring career.
Just what an orchestra looks for in a music director can partly be seen from what Felder has brought to the TSO – and from what he hasn’t – in his long time here.
The list begins with high musical competence, experience and credentials – but doesn’t stop there. First, for Youtz, is a commitment to Tacoma itself.
“They have to find Tacoma an interesting project,” he said. “They need to build orchestra in the community, create a unique orchestra because it’s here, not just a little Seattle Symphony. Their job is to figure out how to do that.”
For Felder, it has meant transforming an amateur community orchestra that gave free concerts into a professional season-subscription ensemble. It’s a goal Felder arrived with and one he imposed on the symphony board, said John Guadnola, who was on Felder’s search committee as well as on the current one.
Felder also took Tacoma audiences to a new level, presenting a variety of repertoire and giving interesting and engaging explanations from the podium at a time when this was uncommon, Youtz said. He convinced the board to charge for concerts, and during his time, the budget went from under $300,000 to nearly $1 million.
“He’s succeeded in bringing a really strong team of players together from around the region,” Youtz said. “He’s also taught us that we don’t need Tokyo Competition silver medalist soloists all the time; that our own players are great soloists.”
During Felder’s tenure, the orchestra began playing regularly in the Rialto Theater, expanding its repertoire and enjoying the better acoustics.
It also has offered more pops and educational concerts and workshops for local school students; and extended classical music to the community in family concerts and programs at Joint Base Lewis-McChord and the Puyallup Fair.
A music director also must be a charismatic representative of the orchestra to potential donors – its most reliable economic base in this new economy – and someone who’ll work well with board and staff, said executive director Buelow.
In a way, however, the part-time nature of the orchestra lowers the stakes financially for the organization and its incoming director.
While times are tough for many big-city American orchestras – the Philadelphia Orchestra is the most recent of several to file for bankruptcy; those in Honolulu and Syracuse, N.Y., have shut down – paying 80 to 100 musicians for just a few concerts a year is easier than maintaining a year-round payroll.
Living in Tacoma is not a requirement, though Youtz believes it would help the director become part of the community, resulting in greater symphony involvement in local schools, youth orchestras and such.
Finally, the new director must gel with the musicians – a group of talented people who have other jobs and come together for just days at a time to perform under high expectations.
When Ioannides begins rehearsal this week, the orchestra’s musicians will be judging her on key points – arriving and finishing on time, knowing the music, conducting clearly – plus finer ones such as inspiring ideas, being able to solve problems quietly on the side and relating well to the musicians, as a group and one on one.
“It’s not like leading most nonprofits,” said concertmaster Svend Ronning, who’s on the search committee and who directs the nonprofit Second City Chamber Series. “This person has to be a charismatic leader of employees, employers and the public. That’s a kind of alchemy. That’s the real trick.”
And when the trick doesn’t go well, it can be disastrous.
When conductors and musicians argue – as they did in the Seattle Symphony’s nationally famous fracas five years ago between conductor Gerard Schwarz and some disgruntled players – it can tear the orchestra apart, reducing music-making to a fierce battle of wills and even resulting in resignations of key players.
“I’ve seen some really bad things,” Ronning said of orchestras he’s played in. “A conductor who’s very aggressive but doesn’t have clever ideas, someone who flips out at concerts, who isn’t prepared. Harvey is fabulous that way – he’s always rock solid at concerts.”
If a poor conductor is there to stay for a while, things can get even worse: Most contracts, like Felder’s, begin with three years, but can be renewed until, like Felder’s and Schwarz’s, they last for decades – an unusually long stretch these days.
“In a way it’s like a marriage,” said Elisa Barston, principal second violin of the Seattle Symphony and a participant in that orchestra’s recent search for new director Ludovic Morlot. “You have daily grind issues, it’s so close. It’s inevitable there will be some people who get frustrated.
“And the longer it lasts, the more that happens.”
Which is partly why TSO needs a new director: Everyone needs to get refreshed after such a long tenure.
“It’s probably time for a fresh change,” said Youtz.
Where the orchestra will go under a new conductor is the big question for the four finalists and others.
For Youtz, it could include more educational concerts and more newly composed music, such as his own percussion duo concerto, which Felder premiered in 2011 to great success.
He also points to programming that Morlot has brought to the Seattle Symphony in the past year: late-night informal lobby concerts of ultra-contemporary music, concerts collaborating with local rock bands, classical works enhanced with big-screen art and narration, and major works such as Messiaen’s “Turangalila” symphony.
Others, such as search committee chairman Clark D’Elia, are looking for more concerts outside the usual classical format. That would bring in new audiences in new ways, and be in line with the board’s new strategic plan to make the orchestra more a part of the community.
Felder – who is not involved in the search beyond discussing concert programs with the finalists – would like to see the orchestra begin to play better by playing together more often, depending on the budget. The four-concert season has not expanded during his tenure.
But it’s not really about what the music director wants to do, he added.
“The important question candidates have to ask is: What does the community want from their orchestra?” he said.
Ioannides echoes that: “You need to find the needs of the community, and create new sparks,” she said.
When the process is complete, Tacoma will find itself on the threshold of something new and potentially transforming.
“If Tacoma is going to be the city we want it to be, it needs a thriving orchestra,” Guadnola said. “I feel like it has become a better place (since Felder took over).
“I don’t know how you quantify it, but (people once) thought that if you wanted something quality, you had to go to Seattle. That has changed. That was the resurgence of the arts community here.”
Buelow said, “The orchestra’s future vitality is at stake. The music director is critical to the artistic identity and direction of a symphony orchestra. And the orchestra tends to be the hub of the arts community.
“This is something everyone has a stake in. Our strategic plan is to turn this into everybody’s orchestra, not just the one that plays classical music in the Pantages.
“That’s going to involve a strong leader.”
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568
NEW CONDUCTOR TIMELINE
May: Director Harvey Felder announces end of his tenure; search committee forms.
Summer-fall: Committee reviews 110 résumés.
Fall-winter: 25 candidates interviewed by phone; DVDs of performances viewed.
Spring: Short list of 10 candidates interviewed via Skype.
May: Four finalists announced.
Feb. 24: Finalist Sarah Ioannides’ audition concert.
May 4: Finalist Paul Haas’ audition concert.
Oct. 26: Finalist Kevin Rhodes’ audition concert.
Nov. 17: Finalist Scott Speck’s audition concert.
January: New music director announced.
September: Felder ends tenure, new music director begins.Source: Tacoma Symphony Orchestra