Northwest Sinfonietta co-founder to step down

Christophe Chagnard, who co-founded the Tacoma-based Northwest Sinfonietta chamber orchestra 23 years ago and has been its artistic director ever since, announced Thursday that he’ll step down from the position next February.

His final concert with the ensemble will be an all-Mozart program Feb. 20-22 — a musical echo of the first program he did with the orchestra in 1991.

After Chagnard leaves, the Sinfonietta will move to a different leadership model, where a team of conductors rotate through as artistic partners on a multiyear basis. It’s a similar model to that of the highly successful St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in Minnesota.

“I thought that the 25th anniversary would be a good time for me to move on,” said Chagnard of his departure. “It gave me a real sense of accomplishment — a quarter-century. But then we wondered, would it seem better for the anniversary to end an era or begin it? We discussed it a lot, then decided to make it a beginning.”

After its co-founding by Chagnard and keyboardist Kathryn Habedank, the Northwest Sinfonietta has grown from a string-based ensemble playing primarily classical-era music to a nationally renowned orchestra that regularly tackles repertoire from Brahms to Stravinsky to world premieres. It has commissioned a number of works, featured international and local soloists, and garnered accolades for its tight ensemble and dynamic interpretations.

Beginning with the anniversary season of 2015-16, the new artistic partnership model — a board-initiated idea — will allow a greater diversity of conducting styles and repertoire, and also provides an opportunity for the musicians themselves to be more equal musical partners in the group’s leadership, Chagnard said.

“It’s very attractive for musicians,” he said. “It’s exciting for them to work with different directors.”

The board has been working closely with St. Paul Chamber Orchestra Executive Director Bruce Coppock, who has been advising them and Sinfonietta Executive Director Neil Birnbaum on how to make the model work.

“We are excited for this time of ambition and experimentation at Northwest Sinfonietta,” said Birnbaum and board President David Wrench in a press release. “We believe it will allow us to stretch artistically and bring audiences brilliant performances led by distinguished and experienced artistic partners. (But) we will always be grateful for (Chagnard’s) vision and leadership and will proudly carry on his adventurous legacy.”

Meanwhile, Chagnard will see the orchestra through the 2014-15 season before embarking on new projects — including a privately commissioned symphony about climate change, and helping raise his third child, just born in March — and continuing old ones, such as his 10-year directorship of the Lake Union Civic Orchestra and playing guitar in his jazz band Touché.

But Chagnard will miss the orchestra he helped create.

“It’s my baby,” he said. “It’s like taking your child to college, that fateful day when you leave them there and drive away in tears. The Northwest Sinfonietta has been at the center of my life for 24 years. I’ve given everything to it.”