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Laurie Niles

Picking a conductor, without picking a fight

May 2, 2007 at 5:17 AM

Did anyone notice what the Los Angeles Philharmonic just did?

They went and hired a new conductor.

On April 7, Esa-Pekka Salonen told his orchestra of 15 years that he would step down as Music Director in 2009, and directly following his announcement, that night, was the news of his successor, Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel , who already had been hired.

No public fuss. No newspaper stories about orchestra infighting over various conductor candidates. No big battles between board, administration and orchestra members. No critics telling us the merits of this conductor over that one. No publicly-apparent bad feelings about the outgoing conductor, or the incoming conductor, or even about the change itself.

How is this possible?

As a member of various orchestras, I've lived through a number of conductor searches, some lasting as long as three years. At best, the long search suspends the organization in a state of artistic stagnancy. At worst, it pits board and administration against musicians, shines a public light on grievances both public and private, and drags a string of promising young conductors through a great deal of public scrutiny and criticism, all on the basis of their one or two audition concerts.

Though the news from the LA Phil came as a surprise, the organization's change of guard came as the result of long planning by LA Philharmonic President Deborah Borda.

Borda told the LA Times that, because of Salonen's candid desire to compose more, she had been planning for his possible departure ever since she started with the organization in 2000.

Instead of having a public search, with the musicians, board members and newspaper critics evalutating a slate of "conducting candidates" over several years, the LA Phil did things differently. They chose a small Artistic Liaison Committee, composed of Borda, Salonen and select members of both orchestra and board. That committee then began quietly reviewing all the guest conductors that passed through, with a mind toward Salonen's replacement.

This is not to say there wasn't an extensive stealth campaign to supplement the activities of this committee. Salonen, who is 48, had identified the 26-year-old Dudamel as a "real conducting animal" while serving on the jury of a conducting competion in Bamberg, Germany, according to the April 30, 2007 New Yorker. (I'd highly recommend this excellent profile of Salonen, "The Anti-Maestro", by Alex Ross.)

According to the New Yorker article, Borda has spent the last few years traveling the globe to hear Dudamel conduct, getting to know his family and ultimately snatching him from about a half-dozen other orchestras who were courting him, including the Chicago Symphony.

Ross describes Dudamel's signing of the 5-year contract with LA Phil CEO Borda in March, during a tour in Lucerne: "'We did it about two in the morning someplace,' Borda told me, relishing the cloak-and-dagger aspect of the operation, 'I don't think anybody knew, even with the crème de la crème of the European managers dancing attendance.'"

Indeed, the LA Philharmonic pulled off something remarkable, something that goes counter to the way other orchestras have been approaching the selection of a new music director.

What do I see in this whole turn of events? Leadership. This organization found a new way to do it, and they weren't afraid to act on their innovation. If it takes a leader to find one, the LA Phil will be in good hands.

From Samuel Thompson
Posted on May 2, 2007 at 1:04 PM
Incredibly well-written, thank you so much for sharing the details as well as the background information. It's a happy day in Los Angeles and yes, a great day for orchestras all across the world.

Maybe more business - period - should take the lead of the Los Angeles Phil in their searches.

From Jodi Bernard
Posted on May 2, 2007 at 1:05 PM
I hope this situation works out for the orchestra. Two years is a long wait for a new director, but I would think that they would program concerts with the new director over those two years.

Our orchestra here just hired a new director after the previous director passed. There wasn't any fuss or anything bad press about any of the four canidates. I think it depends on the orchestra and the situation of why the director is leaving.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on May 3, 2007 at 3:32 AM
I read the Ross article in my snail-mail New Yorker, and I just was stunned that a national magazine would run a 12 page article (with cartoons) about Classical Music. It is a very good article. I enjoyed the quote:

"He [Salonen] likes to cite an adage of his homeland: a Finnish introvert looks at his own shoes, while a Finnish extrovert looks at other people's shoes."

I like to read Ross' blog therestisnoise.com. It has a lot of good information about contemporary music, and superb links.

From Sheila Ganapathy
Posted on May 3, 2007 at 4:52 PM
If he can conduct as good as he looks....hahah

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