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For Florida Orchestra and guest conductors, a chemistry experiment

One more chance to see Sanderling

One of the Florida Orchestra's conductors this season is familiar: Stefan Sanderling. In July, the orchestra announced that Sanderling was giving up his post as music director two years sooner than planned. Instead of conducting 10 masterworks programs, as originally scheduled, Sanderling will be on the podium for just one, with Mahler's Das Lied von Erde (The Song of the Earth) and Haydn's Farewell Symphony, March 15-17.

"Mahler is something very special to Stefan, so I think it will be an exciting concert," principal French horn Robert Rearden says. "If he's only going to come once, that would be the program for him to do."

Sanderling remains as principal conductor of the Toledo Symphony. This past week, he was guest conductor with the Alabama Symphony in Birmingham in a program that included Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. Alabama is looking for a music director.

The Florida Orchestra is looking for a new music director, and a group of guest conductors this season makes up a list of possible successors to Stefan Sanderling, who announced a few months ago that he was giving up the position two years sooner than expected.

But don't call them "candidates," says president Michael Pastreich. "We're trying very hard not to have anyone presented as a candidate. This is a tremendously elaborate dance. When you're dealing with conductors at the level we're trying to attract, they're not going to put themselves in a situation where they don't get the job."

The season gets under way next weekend, with Stuart Malina on the podium for concerts in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater. Malina, the orchestra's coffee concert conductor and principal guest conductor, is probably not a contender for the music director job. The rest of the lineup features 11 guest conductors who will be in front of the orchestra for 12 programs (one conductor has two programs) in the masterworks series.

The orchestra has had a search committee in place since spring 2011, when Sanderling announced he would step down at the end of the 2013-14 season, but its activities accelerated when the music director decided to make an early exit. Though neither he nor orchestra management have given an exact reason beyond news release platitudes for the departure, Sanderling was at odds with Pastreich and the board.

Instead of the 10 programs Sanderling was scheduled to conduct, he now has just one in March. On short notice, the rest of the season was revised as the orchestra and consultant Gregg Gleasner, former director of artistic planning for the San Francisco Symphony, lined up guest conductors and tweaked the programming, which had already been announced in ticket brochures, to suit the changed circumstances.

"We didn't want our patrons to feel that we were changing everything," says Angela Cassette, artistic operations director. "But guest conductors want their own programs, too."

In the end, the changes were not too drastic. For example, Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 1 was dropped for the composer's Symphony No. 2 under guest conductor Marcelo Lehninger, and Richard Strauss' Alpine Symphony was supplanted by Stravinsky's Rite of Spring under Tito Muñoz.

Jane Peppard, chairwoman of the search committee, which includes five orchestra players, four board members and one person from the community, looks on the bright side of Sanderling leaving early. "I think the influence it has is that it has opened up an opportunity to see more people sooner," says Peppard, a former executive with the Tampa Bay Times.

This season's guest conductors are on the young side, and many have the sort of pedigree that leads to success in the field, including stints in prestigious training programs, such as the Aspen Music Festival, and staff conducting positions with major orchestras. The outlier in the group is Gerard Schwarz, conductor laureate of the Seattle Symphony, an eminent figure with more than 300 world premieres and a discography of nearly 350 recordings on his resume.

Cassette likens the search process to a courtship. "It might be a cheesy analogy, but it's kind of like we're having a whole bunch of first dates this year," she says. "We're trying to figure out exactly the kind of conductor we need, and these guest conductors are also trying to figure out where their careers are going to go in the next few years."

In its 44-year history, the orchestra has had just three music directors: Irwin Hoffman, Jahja Ling and Sanderling. What is it looking for in the next one?

Peppard identifies three broad critieria. "The first, of course, is artistic excellence. We want someone who will be inspiring to our musicians and our audiences. Then the ability to work with the community. Third, we need someone who is collaborative in the organization, someone who works well internally and externally with people."

And what does the orchestra have to offer a prospective music director?

"We're an organization whose finances are on a strong upswing," Pastreich says. "And we've got some momentum artistically, with our new Delius recording and the Cuba project. Our subscriber base is growing. Once we get all the pieces in place properly, I think we will be very attractive because a potential music director will know that he or she will succeed here."

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, the orchestra's $9 million budget had an operating surplus, the fourth year in the past five that it was in the black. Its recording on the Naxos label, with the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay and baritone soloist Leon Williams, of Appalachia and Sea Drift by Frederick Delius has posted strong sales since being released in September.

The orchestra's multiyear collaboration with musical institutions in Cuba continues this season, with the Cuban National Symphony playing in the Tampa Bay area in November. Florida concertmaster Jeffrey Multer is scheduled to perform in Havana in February, and the entire orchestra has plans to tour to the island nation in 2014.

Multer, a member of the search committee, has played with several of the guest conductors, including Schwarz and Andrew Grams. "I think it will be super interesting to have guests every week and to see who the orchestra has really good chemistry with," he says. "Every conductor will have a different viewpoint, and I think that could be a good thing."

The concertmaster, who will be the soloist in Sibelius' Violin Concerto with Lehninger on the podium, doesn't think it will be hard for audiences to know who clicks with the orchestra.

"You can't fake that magic," Multer says. "Classical music is, by its nature, very easy to tell if it's good or bad. You don't need a musicology degree from Juilliard to be able to tell whether or not Scheherazade is going well. You know how it's supposed to sound. You can't really fool an audience."

When conductors are being considered as possible music directors, the programming tends to run toward standard repertoire. "Let's say you're going to play Tchaik Four (Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony)," says Robert Rearden, the orchestra's principal French horn and a member of the committee. "Everybody has an idea how that goes. It's a standard warhorse piece. If somebody can come in with a convincing idea that is all their own, it can create something very special."

Music director searches are ongoing in the orchestra world. Right now, the highest profile search is by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, seeking to replace James Levine. Other orchestras with vacancies at the top include the Houston Symphony, the Alabama Symphony and the Colorado Symphony.

In Florida, the Naples Philharmonic, the Jacksonville Symphony and the Sarasota Orchestra are also in search of music directors. Some of the guest conductors with the Florida Orchestra will also be performing with those orchestras.

Members of the Florida Orchestra search committee traveled in September to hear two conductors, Michael Francis with the New World Symphony in Miami Beach and Cristian Macelaru with the Orchestre Métropolitain Montreal (Macelaru conducts here in January). In only a few months the orchestra needs to book its lineup of guest conductors for the 2013-14 season, and some from this season may return. Ideally, the orchestra hopes to name a new music director at the end of next season, but the search could go on into 2015.

"I expect we'll see somebody at least twice before a decision is made," said Cassette, continuing her dating analogy. "There is love at first sight. But you're going to be together for a long time, so it's probably best to see them one more time."

John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.


Stuart Malina conducts the Florida Orchestra's first masterworks program of the 2012-13 season: Beethoven's Coriolan Overture; Bernstein's Symphony No. 2, The Age of Anxiety, with piano soloist Sara Davis Buechner; and Schumann's Symphony No. 3, Rhenish. Performances are at 8 p.m. Friday at Morsani Hall of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, Tampa; 8 p.m. Saturday at Mahaffey Theater, St. Petersburg; and 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Ruth Eckerd Hall, Clearwater. $15, $30, $45. (727) 893-3337 or toll-free 1-800-662-7286;

For Florida Orchestra and guest conductors, a chemistry experiment 10/05/12 [Last modified: Friday, October 5, 2012 12:00pm]
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