Dina Gilbert conducting the orchestra on Dec. 3, 2016. Photo by Amanda l. Smith

The Whole World is Watching – and Listening

Eugene Symphony’s search for its next music director plays to a national and international audience

Choosing a new Eugene Symphony music director is big news here, of course, but it’s also national news. That’s because our little symphony, in a middling-sized town far from cultural centers, has launched the careers of three important American conductors: Marin Alsop (the first woman to lead a major American orchestra, in Baltimore), Miguel Harth-Bedoya (who now leads the Fort Worth Symphony and his own Latin American classical music ensemble and guest conducts other major orchestras) and Giancarlo Guerrero (winning an international reputation for showcasing new music with his Nashville Symphony).

It’s too early to tell where Guerrero’s successor, Danail Rachev, whose seven-year term ends this spring, will go next.

The exhaustive process used to choose them all, largely created by Eugene lawyer and arts supporter Roger Saydack, has become a national model. “He literally wrote the book” on picking a music director, says Eugene Symphony executive director Scott Freck, noting that Saydack wrote the League of American Orchestras’ manual on orchestra conductor searches.

So who becomes the next artistic leader matters — not just here, but nationally.

“There’s no more exciting time in the life of an orchestra than when we go through this process,” Freck says. “Every time, we start from scratch. It’s a time of introspection and renewal.”

Every seven or so years, the search for its next director forces the orchestra to consider what kind of organization it wants to be, what music it wants to play and what role it wants to assume in its community. Here’s how Eugene Symphony makes the magic happen — and what to expect from the three finalists if one of them is chosen when the process concludes this spring.

Intensive Process

Some orchestras choose leaders in back rooms containing a few big donors and their boards. Freck, who took over in 2012, says he’s proud that Eugene’s is “an open process.” After some initial planning last March, he emailed 300 people — artist managers, other orchestras and music conservatories among them — to let them know that the Eugene job was opening.

Freck received 257 applications from 44 countries and 33 U.S. states.

A 12-member committee of board members, orchestra musicians and community members then began checking references and watching performance videos. They trimmed the list to 70, then to 30.

The top nine candidates visited Eugene last summer to talk to committee members, to put together a hypothetical first season and to share ideas about the concert experience. They also, for the first time, actually worked with the orchestra’s musicians by reading through movements of Igor Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale.

Even though it was an impromptu chamber music experience rather than a full orchestral rehearsal, the exercise still gave the musicians a sense of how each candidate works.

Inspiring the Community

What was the committee looking for?

“We had a pretty long list, some of it musical and technical, some relational, some organizational,” Freck says. “First you need a conductor who’s going to inspire the orchestra to play really well. If you don’t have a great core product, the rest doesn’t matter.”

But that’s only the starting point. Orchestras today can no longer take for granted that just playing the classics with style can — or even should — guarantee success. The symphony music director, in a town with few big arts institutions and deep-pocket donors, has to play a larger role in the larger community.

“Eugene is the kind of place that values commitment,” Saydack explains. “Being committed to this orchestra means being committed to our musicians. We can’t offer full-time employment to the musicians we have to work with, so it’s important they be treated with enormous respect and gratitude for doing the work they do, and to make an effort to engage with them to make music together.

“It’s not like ‘maestro comes to town and does things his or her way,’” Saydack continues. “It’s much more collaborative.”

The candidates also have to understand the orchestra’s audience, he says. “We’re a college town, so our tastes are somewhat venturesome but also at times surprisingly conservative. A music director has to understand that part of the responsibility is to generate support, which translates into ticket sales, contributions and support,” Saydack explains.

“The biggest communities in America have trouble carrying the cost of operas and orchestras,” he adds. “In Eugene, the base is small but significant, so this person has to relate to that small community. To do that, they have to spend enough time here to know the place and people.”

Final Audition

The committee settled on three finalists.

“All three are wonderful musicians and fulfill the first and most fundamental criterion,” Saydack says. “Once we’re satisfied a candidate has the technical skills, it becomes a question of who’s going to be the right fit, who has the best chemistry with this orchestra, this audience and this community.”

So each comes to town this season to lead a regular subscription concert and spend what Freck calls “a very taxing week, in a good way” — by meeting with the symphony’s board and volunteers, community members, potential artistic partners and local arts leaders, participating in outreach programs at schools and the University of Oregon and beyond, and rehearsing and leading the orchestra in a full concert.

Saydack says each brings substantial assets.

“Dina Gilbert [who led the orchestra’s December concert] comes from a great culture and tradition of music making in Montreal,” he notes. “She’s deeply committed to contemporary music and formed her own group to present it. If she came, we’d see a style of music making we haven’t in the past: exploration of classic repertoire we haven’t dug into deeply and exploration of the newest repertoire being written now.

“She has a wonderful ability to express herself: a persuasive and convincing advocate,” Saydack explains.

“Ryan McAdams [who leads the orchestra Jan 26] has received outstanding recognition for his great power as a conductor with the classics but also with contemporary music,” Saydack says. “He’s a highly proficient conductor who sees the concert venue as a way to explore the arts in general and is in great demand for innovative concert performances. If he came, we’d see that idea of the symphony concert expand in ways we haven’t seen in the past.”

Francesco Lecce-Chong [whose audition concert is March 16] has been assistant conductor at two larger orchestras, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh. “He brings incredible joy to his conducting — he looks like [former ESO music director] Miguel [Harth-Bedoya] when he conducts — very fluid,” Saydack says. “Of all the people I’ve seen come through these searches, he’s probably been the most passionate about outreach. If he comes, he’ll make concerts a joyous activity.”

What if none of these three makes the cut? The orchestra’s excellent track record means it can afford to be picky, knowing that some of the most promising emerging conductors will be interested in leading this relatively isolated orchestra far from major cultural centers.

“We’re talking about three exciting, wonderful options,” Saydack says. “These folks represent three paths to the future. Which do you go down? These three finalists all have that spark that could catch fire, that could inspire the musicians, the board, the volunteers, the audience. We’ll know it when we see it. If not, we’ll keep looking.”