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The Great Conductor Search
By Mary Stucky
August 13, 1999
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An unprecedented number of the top American orchestras are searching for new conductors, including both major orchestras in the Twin Cities - the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestra. While this may just be coincidence, so many vacancies at once creates intense competition between orchestras. And as Minnesota Public Radio's Mary Stucky reports, the result may be that some orchestras pick unconventional new leaders.

A CONDUCTOR WITH BATON AND TAILS seems almost anachronistic here in the late 1990s, but according to the Minnesota Orchestra's concertmaster Jorja Fleezanis, the conductor's role has never been more important.

Fleezanis: The orchestra depends on this person completely. A conductor's success with an orchestra can start pretty much even before they've lifted their hands. This person has to emanate a very powerful strong sense of presence and that can be done bodily, by a sense of the way they look at the orchestra.

And now there is a national conductor shortage, which explains the genteel feeding frenzy across the American orchestra world. Orchestras looking for new conductors include this country's best: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Indianapolis, and Cleveland until recently. Never before have both the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and Minnesota Orchestra been looking at same time, according to David Hyslop, president of the Minnesota Orchestral Association, who says competition for conductors is fierce.

Hyslop: There aren't as many great conductors as there are orchestras.

Stucky: So what's the strategy?

Hyslop: We're not talking. That's the strategy.

Hugh Wolff
Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra conductor Hugh Wolff.

A strategy which makes the whole process of hiring a conductor mysterious, even to the conductors themselves. The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra's Hugh Wolff, himself about to take off for pastures new, tells of how he was hired as principal conductor for the Frankfurt Orchestra in Germany. He was initially invited as a guest conductor.

Wolff: I knew nothing about them, I went, I did one program, we played it twice, it was a lovely experience. Virtually a year later I got a call from my manager in Europe saying the orchestra has just voted to ask you to be their next chief conductor, would you accept, and I thought this was a joke. It's all kind of a bit mysterious and my own experience has been don't think about this, don't apply for the job, things happen.

When he leaves the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra next year, Hugh Wolff will have been principal conductor for 12 years. During that time he performed most of the chamber music repertoire and wants to move on, to concentrate on conducting the Frankfurt Radio Symphony and guest conducting. The Minnesota Orchestra's Hyslop says it's unlikely they'll consider Hugh Wolff for their open job because of his focus on chamber music as opposed to symphonic work.

When he leaves, Eiji Oue will have been at the Minnesota Orchestra for seven years - he's said to be pursuing a career in Europe. Like Wolff, Oue has also been conducting an orchestra in Germany, something jet-age travel makes possible. In some ways the life of a late-20th-century conductor bears little relation to maestros of the past. Typically, a modern music director personally conducts only about half a season's concerts.

Hyslop: The days of Eugene Ormandy, who was with the Philadelphia Orchestra for 44 years, are long gone.

The Minnesota Orchestral Association's David Hyslop says in those days the season was much shorter, guest conductors fewer, and the principal conductor came to stay. Nowadays, orchestras want a lot from one person. They often look for a conductor who's simply different from the last one, but who's also going to satisfy the core audience, while providing the common touch that brings in listeners who might be intimidated by classical music. A big plus - a conductor with a recording contract. But to ask the conductor to do everything - that's a fatal mistake, according to Michael Steinberg, a music writer and program annotator for the New York Philharmonic.

Steinberg has been involved in several conductor searches for major orchestras; he points to the Minnesota Orchestra's maestro as a case in point.

Steinberg: When Eiji Oue was brought in he was going to save us all, and I think that's the reason he was pushed into this crazy hyperactivity. He was overwhelmed by the job, and it was partly him, but partly his employers who were very intoxicated by having this very exciting personality and 'Let's give him everything to do'. And he was learning too much too fast without really internalizing things, and inevitably this began to show up in some of the performances.

Eiji Oue
Minnesota Orchestra conductor Eiji Oue.

During Oue's tenure ticket sales declined, although some say that is common in the fifth year of any conductor's tenure. Steinberg says the Minnesota Orchestra took a chance on Oue, and in some ways it paid off - especially with a successful European tour, and another in Japan. In fact, Oue wasn't the first surprising choice for the Minnesota Orchestra. In 1932 the then-Minneapolis Symphony plucked an unknown Eugene Ormandy from the music pit of a movie theater. Similar risks may be an option for some orchestras today, especially those below the top tier, providing a break for younger musicians, which in the still somewhat-gender-tied world of conducting is increasingly including women, according to Eric Friesen, a former classical music host at Minnesota Public Radio, now with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto. Considering the competition for conductors, Friesen predicts some orchestras will look for candidates with unconventional styles, such as the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra's Bobby McFerrin.

Friesen: Here you have someone who comes out of the pop and jazz world, a very gifted musician who can actually become a conductor not in the time-honored way of grinding his way through lowly regional orchestras and all the way to the top, and there aren't many Bobby McFerrins around but there are a few like him who are willing to do things differently and I think we're going to see more of them.

Friesen says there may also be more opportunity for American-born conductors - counteracting past biases toward Europeans. Regardless of origin, conductors at the very top pull in base salaries of a million dollars a year, plus concert fees of perhaps $30,000 a week, according to Steinberg, who speculates on what the Minnesota Orchestra might pay.

Steinberg: They could easily come up with $6- or $700,000, something like that. The Chamber probably less.

Steinberg says hiring is mostly in the hands of orchestra management. And players. Nearly everyone agrees that to meet the demand for conductors, America needs to produce more musicians with better credentials. Jesse Rosen runs a professional development program for conductors through the American Symphony Orchestra League. Rosen says the surplus of talented young instrumentalists should be encouraged into conducting and given the training they really need.

Rosen: You know when you train to be a conductor no one quite talks to you in how to terminate a musician or how to deal with a musician that is not playing at the level they used to play at. Conductors go into this never-never land of fending for themselves and trying to scrape together conducting experiences.

While neither the Minnesota Orchestra nor the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra are giving themselves a hard deadline for choosing conductors, the Minnesota Orchestra obviously wants to go into its 100th anniversary season in the fall of 2002 under the baton of a new leader.