Ridgefield Symphony sharing conductor search with public
Published 1:16 pm, Tuesday, November 7, 2017
Think of it as a high-brow version of “American Idol” or “The Voice.”
For the past year, the Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra has been looking for a new music director, but in a very public way by having the four finalists each oversee a concert in front of an audience.
Two of the candidates conducted last season, one led the orchestra last month and another, Eric Mahl, will be the final auditioner on Dec. 3. The RSO will announce the name of the next music director in January. (The ensemble’s previous conductor, Gerald Steichen, resigned last year to lead the Macon Symphony in Georgia.)
“Everyone is getting to have their say,” RSO executive director Laurie Kenagy says of the feedback after each concert. “We’ve sent out surveys to all of our patrons after each concert. One also goes to our musicians and the board fills one out, too. It has been very exciting because the feedback has been tremendous.”
Connecticut is in a time of transition in local classical musical organizations, with the orchestras in Stamford and New Haven also presenting public auditions for new leaders. The process is one part of a broader attempt by orchestras to generate more excitement, to create new, younger audiences and to make concerts into experiences you won’t be able to have at home listening to recordings or watching YouTube clips.
These days, conductors have to be more than musical leaders of an orchestra; they must also communicate with the audience and potential new subscribers.
“Musicianship and skill has to be a given,” Kenagy explains of the talent hunt. “But other things have to come across too. Can you stand and talk about music in an entertaining and sincere manner? Can you run master classes for kids?”
Norwalk Symphony Orchestra music director Jonathan Yates, who is in his sixth season of leading the organization, says since the decline of music education in elementary and high schools, conductors are compelled to communicate with the audience at every concert.
“What people are really hungry for now is to be engaged and informed,” Yates says. “People tend to come into a concert hall with less (musical) exposure than they did 30 or 40 years ago. You can either be depressed by that fact or treat it as an opportunity.
“Fortunately, I love to babble about music,” he adds, laughing.
Kenagy says longtime New York Philharmonic leader Leonard Bernstein was way ahead of his time 50 years ago when he presented special young people’s concerts and talked about each piece being played. At that time in the early 1960s, great orchestras around the country were led by somewhat forbidding men like Eugene Ormandy, of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Georg Solti in Chicago, who focused almost all of their energy on the music.
“(Bernstein) was one of the first who could communicate with the musicians and the audience,” Kenagy says. “We find in all of our surveys that audiences want the conductor to speak to them. To connect with them beyond the conducting. This is even more important with younger audiences because they want to have an experience — they want to feel connected when they go to a concert.”
Yates says his three-word mantra before each performance is “Engage, engage, engage.”
“The answers are many and sometimes challenging,” the conductor says of trying to build audiences for classical music in the 21st century. He has no time for nostalgic snobs who sneer at such recent crowd-pleasing special events as the New York Philharmonic playing the “West Side Story” score live while the 1961 film was projected behind the ensemble. “It is incumbent on every music director to come up with their own ideas on how to make a concert an experience.”
In the Ormandy and Solti eras, conductors tended to stay in one job for decades, shaping orchestras to their own particular musical tastes, with the result being a distinctive sound and repertoire for each ensemble. Now music directors can travel the globe with ease and move from one job to another after much shorter stints.
Kenagy says it would be tough for any one conductor to influence the RSO the way the Bernsteins and Ormandys shaped their orchestras. “For one thing we only have four or five concerts a year.”
But the leadership of the RSO is expecting their new music director “to help the orchestra go to the next level. (Changes in) rehearsal style and programming (will have a major impact).”
After each of the candidates’ appearances, the musicians have been asked a key question: Do you think he or she is the right fit?
“The orchestra-conductor relationship is interesting,” Kenagy says. “But it comes down to two things with the musicians: raising the overall level (of the RSO) and to be treated respectfully.”
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