So what does a newly defined Northwest Sinfonietta mean for Tacoma?
For starters, if the model works, it will put Tacoma on the map for chamber orchestras alongside London, New York and St. Paul, Minnesota.
Orchestra Executive Director Neil Birnbaum and board President Bruce Mann also hope it will regenerate the orchestra’s finances, beginning with a just-launched $500,000 campaign to raise musician wages, add rehearsals and concerts, and get away from Band-Aid fundraising.
Although the new model doesn’t save much in director expenses, the board hopes it will spur new donor investment and interest Seattle audiences more — historically a challenge.
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The ultimate goal is to redefine the Sinfonietta as a true chamber orchestra and, by bringing in fresh conductors and the international soloists they’ll attract, turn the orchestra into one of the best in the country — if not the world.
“Over the years, we’ve turned into a small symphony,” Birnbaum said. “I’m hoping the artistic partners will teach us how to play as a chamber orchestra.”
Co-concertmaster Brittany Boulding, however, said chamber playing is “something we strive to do as musicians regardless of the group we’re in.”
Listening to each other, not just relying on a conductor, is the best way forward for the group, she said.
Eric Jacobsen, one of the Sinfonietta’s three new rotating conductors, agrees.
“That’s one of the most important things — finding the vitality in music, having a dialogue on stage with the musicians,” he said.
Having the rotating conductors will bring fresh musical ideas to the group and challenge them to play at a higher level.
“Change is good for any orchestra,” Boulding said. “We get set in our ways, just like any other job. Having change grows our minds, opens our ears, allows us to explore music as an ensemble.”
Then there’s repertoire.
While outgoing music director Christophe Chagnard lists the Sinfonietta’s repertoire as one of its best assets, there’s no doubt the next season will bring even more adventurous programming alongside chamber orchestra classics.
In May, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony will be paired with a world premiere by Taiwanese composer Gordon Chin. In November, Jacobsen will return with a combination of Schubert and modernist composer Morton Feldman.
David Lockington, another of the new conductors, will lead Aaron Kernis’ “Musica Celestis” along with Haydn’s “Mass in Time of War.”
The third of the rotating conductors, Joseph Swensen, will lead Brahms’ Violin Concerto as its soloist — a highly unusual and challenging experience.
In May 2016, Jacobsen will return with Richard Strauss.
Birnbaum is even thinking of changing the group’s name, from something hard to pronounce and understand to something that reflects the chamber orchestra identity.
As Mann says, it’s a gamble. Will it work? Ticket-buyers such as Jana Wendstrom are in wait-and-see mode. There’s always the possibility that, as with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, many musicians will leave.
But most musicians are enthusiastic, despite the challenges of working out how tricky decisions are made.
“I think it will be really successful,” said oboist Noelle Burns, who’s on the personnel committee and who has played in other musician-led groups. “I’m glad that the musicians have more of a say in what goes on. … This model will ask us to take ownership over the music making. The audience is going to pick up on the fact that (there will be) a more intimate sound, more range in dynamics or see us interact differently with the conductor.”
“Change is always hard — I’ll miss Christophe,” Boulding said. “It’s bittersweet. But (it’s) exciting and adventurous.”