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Sanderling risks reputation by leaving Florida Orchestra so abruptly

It is such a loss. Stefan Sanderling's early exit as music director of the Florida Orchestra has to be regarded as a loss to the orchestra and the community, because he is a talented conductor and a delightful personality, but it also is a loss for the conductor himself. This is no way to end Sanderling's tenure with the orchestra, which began so hopefully in 2003, when Stravinsky's Firebird ballet score highlighted his opening program.

Sanderling's departure two years sooner than planned is a very unusual move.

"I can't really remember the last time a conductor of an orchestra of this level left his or her commitment early," said Bruce Ridge, chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians. "There are a lot of people scratching their heads at this."

Sanderling declines to discuss the specific reasons for leaving. "I don't want to comment on my exit," he said last week in an email to me. "I think that it is important not to create room for confusion, misinterpretation and speculation.

"Nobody in the entire Tampa Bay area wishes the musicians and staff of TFO more success than I do. This orchestra has been the centerpiece of my life for the last 10 years and I am proud of all the achievements and the artistic success of the last decade. I think that, together with David Rogers (the former artistic administrator), I have shown what the future of TFO could be and I hope that the organization is on an appropriate way to there."

Sanderling, 48, now has the title of conductor emeritus and artistic adviser and is to conduct one program in each of the next two seasons. His program in March pairs Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde with Haydn's Farewell Symphony.

The orchestra's management, for its part, clearly had some time to prepare for the big change. Along with the news of the music director stepping down, it announced a complete lineup of guest conductors for the 2012-13 season, a reworking of the schedule that was impressive for all the wheeling and dealing it must have required.

Except for Gerard Schwarz, conductor laureate of the Seattle Symphony, who was already on the schedule, the guest conductors tend to be younger and not well-known. Andrew Grams made a good impression several years ago when he was interim resident conductor with the orchestra. Joshua Weilerstein comes from an illustrious musical family — his parents, violinist Donald and pianist Vivian, teach at the New England Conservatory, and his sister, cellist Alisa, has a thriving international career — and he himself is an assistant conductor with the New York Philharmonic. At least several of the guest conductors are likely to be candidates to succeed Sanderling.

It is a good thing that the orchestra landed on its feet, and being able to accelerate the music director search with a wider number of guest conductors is a plus, but something important is missing in the process. Music director transitions can seem absurdly slow moving — in no other field I can think of do leadership changes take so long to implement — but Sanderling and the orchestra have a legacy that deserves to be celebrated. He cared deeply about the orchestra's artistic standards, and he brought a rare understanding of the Germanic repertoire and, especially, the Shostakovich symphonies, drawing on his relationship with the Soviet composer through his conductor father, the late, great Kurt Sanderling. Now all of that is cut short.

Sanderling apparently had philosophical differences with the orchestra's president, Michael Pastreich, who was named to the job about five years ago, halfway through the music director's tenure. Both men have been noncommittal in discussions with me about their relationship, but in an interview last year, Sanderling made it clear that unhappiness with the orchestra's board and management was the reason for his declining to renew his contract at the end of the 2013-14 season, a decision announced about a year ago. It's not unheard of for the music director and chief executive of an orchestra to be at odds.

"These things break down for any number of reasons," said Ridge, a bass player in the North Carolina Symphony who has played under Sanderling and knows the Florida Orchestra well as part of his role as a national advocate for musicians. "Sometimes a music director wants to do things artistically that management feels the organization can't afford, and therein lies a traditional struggle. It's true that management can sometimes think too much in terms of the bottom line, and it's also true that music directors at times can think too much of simply the artistic side and what they want to do."

When Pastreich arrived, the orchestra's balance sheet was in dire straits, and he has engineered a major turnaround, raising millions to pay off long-term debt and bringing a relentless focus to management. From an operational standpoint, this past season was one of the orchestra's most encouraging, with high-profile initiatives such as the cultural exchange with Cuba (Sanderling's idea) and a recording of Delius works (conducted by Sanderling) to be released on the Naxos label, 17 sold-out concerts and a balanced budget. With dramatically lowered ticket prices, attendance was up 15 percent from the previous season. When board and management reached agreement on a new three-year labor contract with musicians in May, it was the earliest that such negotiations were concluded by the orchestra.

"Some good things are happening there," Ridge said. "They have a dedicated group of musicians who are playing very well. They were able to resolve a contract negotiation and all the sides came together and were able to get an agreement that shows progress. They were able to achieve it without rancor. Those are all very positive things. While this (Sanderling's exit) is an interesting event, it doesn't have to mean anything negative for the orchestra at all. I think there are good prospects for the orchestra."

One of Sanderling's reasons for dissatisfaction with the board and management was the musicians' low rate of pay, and he had a valid point. He is also principal conductor of the Toledo Symphony Orchestra, where the musicians appear, on balance, to be slightly better paid. The 50 full-time players in Toledo had a base salary last season of about $31,000 (the contract also covers 19 players at a lesser rate), while the 66 full-time players in Florida will make about $29,000 in the first year of their new contract.

If the Florida Orchestra is unable to make a persuasive case that it is finally moving in the right direction to pay musicians an adequate wage, it will have trouble getting talented conductors to consider seriously the vacant music director post. Sanderling's premature exit may give a candidate pause.

An uncomfortable fact of orchestra life is the vast disparity in pay between conductors and players. Incidentally, Sanderling's annual compensation from the Florida Orchestra was more than I estimated in a news report on his departure. He was paid $256,486, according to the orchestra's 2010 tax return, the most recent available. In Toledo, he was paid $117,000, according to that orchestra's 2009 tax return, the most recent. He also does quite a lot of guest conducting with other orchestras.

At one point this past season, Sanderling reportedly told Florida Orchestra musicians that he was tired of fighting with management. As a kind of protest, he had stopped giving his popular preconcert talks. Personally, he was going through some changes, with the death of his father in September.

If Sanderling didn't want to be here (he owns a house in St. Petersburg), perhaps it is best that he moves on. But there is still a puzzling, Quixotic quality to his leaving early, which is not a positive career move. What other orchestra board will not think twice when considering him for a music directorship? He already had a rather short tenure as music director of the orchestra at the Chautauqua Institution, a summer festival in New York, holding the position for only three seasons, from 2008 through 2010.

Sanderling is high-minded and idealistic, and that is part of what makes him an attractive musician. He conducted some of my all-time favorite performances. But this unhappy development also makes him look like a prima donna.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716.

Sanderling risks reputation by leaving Florida Orchestra so abruptly 07/14/12 [Last modified: Saturday, July 14, 2012 4:30am]

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