When a founding director leaves an organization after 24 years, there’s going to be some change.
For the Northwest Sinfonietta, it means a complete overhaul of structure, identity and goals, as music director Christophe Chagnard steps down this month after 24 years of building the chamber orchestra into one of the region’s best.
Chagnard’s legacy includes a $600,000 budget for the non-profit organization; a community enriched with collaborations and youth opportunities; many new compositions; and creation of Tacoma’s best-known cultural export to Seattle, Puyallup and beyond.
The Sinfonietta’s future is even more ambitious – a radical musician-driven leadership model, more secure finances and the goal to be one of America’s finest chamber orchestras.
“It’s sad, because I adore Christophe,” co-concertmaster Brittany Boulding said of the announcement in June that Chagnard had decided to leave the orchestra to pursue other career opportunities. “He’s an incredible musician and leader — he’s brought the Sinfonietta to where it is today, a very exciting place. … But I’m excited for the future. What we’re doing … is good for both the orchestra and the community. This is something different from what anyone else has here.”
Chagnard, 52, says that while he’s eager to do new things, he’ll miss the orchestra he helped create.
“It’s my baby,” he said. “The Northwest Sinfonietta has been at the center of my life for 24 years.”
The Sinfonietta’s future is as far from a 24-year, single-conductor stint as you can get: a model engaging three (initially) conductors as “artistic partners” to lead concerts and suggest programming, while committees of musicians, board members and staff members decide the overall artistic vision and manage personnel.
The model is possible only with a chamber-sized orchestra — about 40 musicians — and the Sinfonietta is one of a handful in the world, alongside big names such as the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, to attempt it.
Key to the concept are the three initial artistic partners:
• Eric Jacobsen, a cellist and conductor known for his adventurous chamber groups.
• David Lockington, a Brit who conducts symphonies and chamber orchestras around Europe and the United States.
• Joseph Swensen, a concert violinist who made his name as principal conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.
The benefits of the new model, board members and manager say, are simple: a more secure budget and higher-quality music.
“The (financial) driver,” said board President Bruce Mann, “is that we get people excited and say, ‘Wow, you’re taking a gamble, this is different – we’ll support it.’ ”
“We want to grow into one of the country’s preeminent chamber orchestras,” added Executive Director Neil Birnbaum.
But first there’s a music director to bid farewell.
Chagnard’s final concerts with the Sinfonietta will be Friday through Feb. 22 in Seattle, Tacoma and Puyallup.
When he conducts the all-Mozart program — echoing the orchestra’s first concert in 1991 — there will be a lot to remember and celebrate for the tall conductor with expressive gestures and a French accent.
“When we launched the Sinfonietta, many people told us Tacoma couldn’t support a professional chamber orchestra,” Chagnard said. “We’ve proved them wrong.
“It’s an amazing statement about this city. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s happened.…We created concerts as events, we attracted great soloists, we’ve had a regional role. We were Tacoma’s first musical export.”
The Sinfonietta began as an idea for a single concert, dreamed up by Tacoma harpsichordist and Pacific Lutheran University lecturer Kathryn Habedank.
She’d just finished an organ degree at the New England Conservatory, where she’d met Chagnard. He’d moved to Boston from his native Paris to do composition degrees at the Berklee College of Music and the NEC.
Chagnard, originally a jazz guitarist, also was conducting, and after Habedank played a concert with him in Vermont she invited him to Tacoma to lead a chamber orchestra concert.
“I thought it would be so much fun to bring him here,” Habedank said.
She rounded up a handful of musicians and in December 1991 they played a concert — all Mozart, to celebrate the composer’s bicentennial — at Annie Wright School. It was a big success.
“Everyone said the orchestra would be great and fit into the community between the Second City Chamber Series and the Tacoma Symphony,” Habedank said.
Emboldened, Habedank gathered a board, incorporated the group as a nonprofit and landed financial support from the Kelley Foundation and the Tacoma Arts Commission.
The group also found a name: the Northwest Sinfonietta, drawing from the Italian word for “little symphony.”
The Sinfonietta played a school and public concert in July 1992, with Bach, Vivaldi, Telemann and Handel on the program.
A review in The News Tribune noted that though Chagnard was “still honing the finer aspects of the conducting craft,” he drew spirit, spontaneity and resonance from the 21-piece orchestra.
In 1993, the Sinfonietta — now 34 musicians — launched its first full season, four concerts in the Rialto Theater in downtown Tacoma. The program included a world premiere and local soloists such as Habedank on harpsichord.
“I had to learn how to write grants, make a budget, find board members,” said Habedank, who was the managing director for the orchestra’s first 10 years. The budget was about $60,000.
Chagnard, meanwhile, was commuting from Boston, where he had a teaching job at Berklee. After a few years of this, he and Habedank realized the Sinfonietta was too much for one person to run — and Chagnard moved to the Northwest for good.
“It was the toughest, most decisive moment of my life,” he said. “From Paris to Boston to Tacoma felt really far. I gambled my life on the Northwest Sinfonietta.”
Living in a Parkland apartment and laboring out of a tiny office in Old Town, Chagnard set to work with a “rock-bottom” salary.
Putting in long days, he and Habedank gradually built up the organization: By 1997, the orchestra was playing five programs a year at the Rialto and at the newly built Lagerquist Hall at PLU.
They launched the Youth Concerto Competition and schools concerts that supported local youth for 15 years. They premiered a composition by Chagnard and attracted sponsors such as KeyBank, Russell Investments, Boeing and ArtsFund.
By the 1998-99 season, the orchestra was playing six programs a year and had branched out of Tacoma to the Kirkland Performance Center and Seattle’s Benaroya Hall.
“There was great excitement,” remembers Marcia Ott, a Puyallup violinist who played with the Sinfonietta for the first 17 years. “It was always challenging, because we only had four rehearsals per concert, but it grew. ... Cristophe was tireless. He’s a real doer. He had a vision, and he made it happen.”
And the orchestra always paid well, Ott said. One of Chagnard’s goals was to pay rates comparable to the Pacific Northwest Ballet orchestra to attract excellent musicians.
The Sinfonietta’s musical standard continued to rise: in 2000 it was named one of Seattle Post-Intelligencer reviewer R.M. Campbell’s top 10 classical music groups, and called a “Tacoma gem” by News Tribune reviewer Jen Graves.
By 2001, Habedank was ready to get back to playing and teaching after a decade of managing an orchestra without drawing a paycheck. She also felt the group needed a full-time, paid executive director.
Over the next few years, the Sinfonietta continued to grow under various executive directors, including Chagnard (as interim).
A partnership with the Tacoma Philharmonic brought in top-flight soloists such as cellist Lynn Harrell, violinist Lara St. John and pianist Awadagin Pratt. Other collaborations included the Tacoma Youth Symphony, Tacoma City Ballet and Tacoma Opera.
The orchestra played in Seattle’s Town Hall, in Olympia and Astoria. It made recordings and published a locally written children’s book and CD, “The Orchestra in the Living Room,” and performed it as a family concert.
Chagnard continued to champion new music, commissioning and premiering pieces regularly for local and national composers.
When Birnbaum arrived in 2007, the Sinfonietta had expanded to nine concerts, including smaller chamber music in the Tacoma Art Museum.
Then the recession hit. Subscriptions, donations and grants started to fall. The orchestra began to trim furiously, cutting one rehearsal per show, reducing concerts and halving personnel.
Yet it made it through and by 2011 was back to six concerts and a tour to Cuba — one of only three U.S. orchestras to do so since the island’s revolution, and the first to bring Cuban musicians here.
The Sinfonietta had become a resident orchestra in Seattle’s Benaroya Hall — a big achievement — and the Pioneer Pavilion in Puyallup. It’s Orchestra at Work programs serve students in Tacoma, Puyallup and Pierce College.
Its annual budget now hovers around $600,000, two-thirds that of the Tacoma Symphony.
Throughout his 24 years with the orchestra, Chagnard worked on all aspects of the group, from designing season brochures to speaking engagements.
He met his first partner, Anne Derieux, in 1995, had two children, separated and married his current wife, Jo Nardolillo in 2012, with their first child born last year.
He also developed a large following in Tacoma, Seattle and Puyallup, thanks to a talent for communication and a charismatic personality.
“Christophe has a fine ear and an ability to verbalize what he wants in music — not just with musicians, but with the audience, funders and board,” Habedank said.
“He has (charisma) in spades,” said Jana Wendstrom, a subscriber who also worked with Chagnard when the orchestra played at the Tacoma Art Museum. “He was a big part of the draw. It’s really sad (to see him go).”
Steve Creswell, a violist with the Sinfonietta since 2000, is a member of the newly formed personnel committee. He also points out a broader moral side to Chagnard.
“Christophe Chagnard assumes an extra mantle of responsibility whenever he is on the podium, and this is unusual,” Creswell said. “He treats musicians on the stage as human beings, not employees. …We need to keep Christophe’s humanist perspective in view, even as we move forward.”
“What Christophe brought to Tacoma was not only exemplary,” Habedank said. “It was remarkable.”
FROM CONDUCTOR TO COLLABORATION
For Chagnard, leaving the Sinfonietta was not a surprise. On a year-to-year contract since the beginning, he’d been thinking about leaving for a while.
Most orchestral directors stay about seven to 10 years, though there are big exceptions such as the Tacoma Symphony’s former director, Harvey Felder; and Gerard Schwarz at the Seattle Symphony.
To Chagnard, the Sinfonietta’s 25th anniversary seemed an appropriate occasion, so he decided to time his departure to allow the anniversary season (2015-16) to be one of growth.
Board members had been talking about change since May 2013, when they made a choice to re-invent the orchestra to revive finances.
“It gets tiring to work out where the next dollar is coming from,” said board President Mann.
While the last five years have seen budgets in the black (apart from last year, because of a failed fundraising experiment), there always seemed to be about $40,000 that needed chasing, Birnbaum said.
Subscriptions had plateaued, and the Seattle audience was proving elusive.
In January 2014, the idea came up for a radically different model, one rare among professional orchestras: the artistic partner model.
Rotating conductors would lead concerts and suggest programming, with most artistic and personnel decisions done collaboratively by board, staff members, musicians and some community members.
Chagnard agreed to step down and the board agreed on the model. In June, they took the idea to a meeting of orchestra musicians, who voted yes.
For some musicians, though, it was a surprise.
“I wasn’t expecting (Chagnard’s leaving) in the near future,” said Boulding, who acknowledged that “when a conductor has been with an orchestra for so many years, he’s going to want to do something else.”
“Our goodbye is too abrupt,” Creswell said, enigmatically.
Audience members are sad as well.
“I will very much miss his precision with music, flair with the baton and French accent,” Marlene Warfield said via Facebook.
“It is sad,” said Salvatore Lucente, on the same thread. “He is a good man and good father, talented and passionate about his art. Without him the organization he founded will be damaged.”
The Sinfonietta’s board and management aren’t worried.
“In general, people are scared of change,” Birnbaum said. “We know this is an experiment. But we think it’s worthwhile.”
The new collaborative model has already begun, with two committees taking over the majority of decision making.
The artistic vision committee — comprised of three musicians, three board members, the executive director, a community member and an academic — decide on programming (based on conductor partner suggestions), artistic partners and soloists, recordings, tours and so on.
The personnel committee — three musicians, one board member and one staff member — manage auditions, tenures, absences and other personnel matters.
Artistic partners will suggest programs and soloists and conduct concerts but won’t make other big decisions.
The public face of this new model will begin in May, when artistic partner Eric Jacobsen arrives to conduct the last program of the season. The other partners will begin their rotations next season.
Birnbaum sees the partner selection — a two-year contract for each — as a fluid process, with room for orchestra and partners to stay together or separate, depending on the musical chemistry.
“That’s the beauty of this model,” he said.
While Birnbaum and Mann acknowledge that when a figurehead leaves, there’s always an identity crisis, they hope supporters will be curious enough about the new musical possibilities that they’ll keep coming back.
“It’s a gamble we hope is going to work,” Mann said.
A LEGACY, A FUTURE
For Chagnard — who intends to pursue compositional opportunities, play more guitar and look for a nonmusical job that “invests in something global” such as the Gates Foundation — leaving the Sinfonietta is like leaving a child.
But he’s glad he had the chance to raise that child.
“Most important for me as I leave is to be profoundly grateful for defying the odds and making something incredible that has been so important to me in every way,” he said. “It’s the American Dream.”
For the Northwest Sinfonietta, Chagnard’s departure is just the beginning.
“We hope to move our identity away from one personality, to bring in more eyes and ideas about who we are and to change, fundamentally, the sense of what can be done,” Mann said.
“Ultimately, we hope to be recognized as one of the world’s great chamber orchestras. We think we can do this — we have the musicians and the leadership.”