When Stefan Sanderling spoke to Florida Orchestra musicians to begin his first rehearsal of the 2011-12 season with them, the music director didn't know quite what to say. For one thing, Sanderling had gone through a hard summer, spending seven weeks with his father, the legendary German conductor Kurt Sanderling, leading up to his death in September in Berlin one day short of his 99th birthday.
The rehearsal, for performances of Mahler's Seventh Symphony in late October, was also the first time Sanderling had been with the musicians since the orchestra announced in May that its music director would not be renewing his contract, which runs through the 2013-14 season.
"It was difficult to stand in front of the orchestra after this summer," Sanderling said in an interview during a lunch break between rehearsals later that week at Mahaffey Theater. "What was I going to say? I told them that this is my home here. You guys are my home. In good times, bad times, sad times, happy times, in victory, in defeat. This is my home. It definitely is my home for the next three years."
In the symphony orchestra business, change comes slowly. In other fields, a three-year transition of leadership would seem absurd, but it's not uncommon for music directors and orchestras. Because it can take several years to line up guest conductors to appear with the orchestra as candidates for music director, Sanderling's contract stipulated that he announce his intentions three years before the agreement expired. The orchestra has set up a search committee, which will include board members and musicians.
Sanderling, 47, has been music director since the 2003-04 season. In his first public remarks since the announcement of his departure, he was not specific but made it plain that he and the board and management do not have the same vision for the orchestra.
"Look, you start out in love with an organization, and after eight years you find out that the direction the board and the management want to go and the direction the music director wants to go are not leading in the same direction," he said. "We don't have the same answers for the problems. And we don't agree on the problems. Then it is natural that somebody has to change. And if neither side can change, then it is clear that somebody has to leave, and in that case, it is me."
During Sanderling's tenure, even before the economy plunged into recession, the orchestra struggled with financial problems, which led to the board and management repeatedly cutting musicians' pay, as well as reducing the number of full-time players. All this did not sit well with the music director.
"I am running out of reasons to explain to the musicians about why we are where we are," he said. "I cannot stand in front of the orchestra every year and say now is the moment where it goes forward, or now we become this orchestra that we promised each other we would become, America's next great orchestra. I still believe it's possible, but I don't see it happening anymore."
Sanderling is unfailingly honest about what he believes, but he has a rather awkward line to walk over the next three years, because it can also be argued that the orchestra is in better shape than it has ever been. Without the cutbacks, it would probably be out of business. At least now the organization has a realistic sense of itself on which to build upon. Initiatives such as its partnership with the Tampa Bay Lightning and the multiyear cultural exchange with Cuba (Sanderling's idea) have given the orchestra a higher profile. A new policy of reduced ticket prices has generated robust attendance.
In some ways, perhaps the conflict was inevitable. Sanderling predates the arrival of Michael Pastreich, a forceful chief executive, who has needed to make many changes — and raise a great deal of money — to set the organization on a sustainable course. Both are sons of prominent figures in the orchestra world. Pastreich's father, Peter, is former CEO of the St. Louis Symphony and San Francisco Symphony. The music director declined to discuss his relationship with Pastreich and the board except to say, "It's very civil."
The German music director did say he was unhappy that the orchestra performed Carmina Burana, the popular "profane cantata" by German composer Carl Orff that opened the season to big crowds under a guest conductor, Markus Huber, also German. Because the work was something of an anthem for Hitler and the Nazis, Sanderling, who is Jewish, refuses to conduct it. "Everyone loves it, I know, and I have to swallow things," he said.
What does he plan for the next three seasons? "When you're an outgoing music director, you have a little bit of the luxury to conduct music without constantly looking at the box office," Sanderling said. "For my last years here, I want to choose music that is meaningful beyond any doubt."
Though programming for Sanderling's final two seasons won't be announced for some time, he mentioned a few possibilities. "One is the Dvorak Sixth symphony," he said. "With that, in these 11 years, we will have played the important Dvorak symphonies, Five, Six, Seven, Eight and Nine. Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde still needs to be done." He'd like to perform the Second Symphony of Karl Amadeus Hartmann, a German composer, "forgotten today, but very important."
Sanderling already plans to end his final concert program with the Brahms Third Symphony, a fitting bookend to his time here. His guest conducting of the Brahms Fourth Symphony won him the job.
During his time in Florida, Sanderling has also been principal conductor of the Toledo Symphony Orchestra, and he is pleased with how things are going there. In May, he and the Ohio orchestra performed Andre Previn's setting of Tom Stoppard's play about a Soviet dissident, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, at Carnegie Hall to great notices. "Toledo seems to be tremendously successful at the moment," he said.
Though it interrupted a sabbatical he and his wife, Isabelle, had planned in Switzerland, Sanderling is grateful for the time he was able to spend with his father in Berlin. "His alertness was very good until about a day and a half before he died, at home," he said. "Every day a little bit less. He did not struggle, but he certainly was sad. My father was an atheist, and for him, there was no doubt that this was the end."
Since the death, Sanderling has experienced an emotional wrench when conducting works closely associated with his father, such as the Shostakovich Symphony No. 15, which he performed recently with the Hyogo Orchestra in Osaka, Japan. Another such work is the Prokofiev Sixth Symphony, which he conducts next weekend with the Florida Orchestra.
"Of all the Prokofiev symphonies, the sixth was the only one my father conducted," Sanderling said. "He was there when it was premiered in 1947." The elder Sanderling was then co-conductor of the Leningrad Symphony, which premiered the work under Yevgeny Mravinsky.
"My father and I talked a little about Prokofiev Six before he died," he said. "It's the only piece by Prokofiev which I really find important enough to play."
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.