Florida Orchestra and Tampa Bay Master Chorale scrap search for a joint conductor

The Florida Orchestra and the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay scrap their yearlong "unicorn" search for a joint conductor.
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TAMPA

After a yearlong effort, the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay and the Florida Orchestra have abandoned their search for a conductor capable of leading both groups.

Instead, the chorale recently named Doreen Rao visiting artistic director for 2017-2018. Rao lives in Chicago, and has long associations with the Chicago Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus and Buffalo Master Chorale.

The chorale intends to announce the next artistic director by the end of the year.

In March 2016, James Bass announced that he would be leaving the Master Chorale, where he had served as artistic director for six years.

The chorale and orchestra have had a long working relationship. So for a year, the orchestra and the chorale searched for someone who could both lead the singers and fill in occasionally for music director Michael Francis or handle the occasional outdoor concert.

"It was really an experiment to see what we could do because choral conducting and orchestral conducting are really two different disciplines," said orchestra general manager Edward Parsons. "And to find someone who was excellent at both we knew was going to be a stretch."

The joint position drew 80 applicants from all over the world. Five finalists came to the Tampa Bay area to audition. Hopes ran high as they led the chorale in the Brahms Requiem, then conducted the orchestra in Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 and Stravinsky's ballet The Firebird.

"There's a sort of intangible chemistry, the kind of magic that happens between singers and the conductor, and I think the orchestra was looking for the same thing," said Bob Hicks, 71, an 18-year chorale member and the chairman of its board.

Multiple finalists impressed one group or the other, but never both.

"The gentlest and fairest way to say it," Hicks said, "is that as the search went on, the organizations realized we were kind of looking for a unicorn."

They shelved the idea for good. In late May, the chorale named Rao visiting artistic director.

The chorale got through its 2016-17 season with a lineup of guest conductors. Of those, Francis was particularly impressed with the leadership of Rao, a well-known choral leader and teacher who prepared the chorale for Mahler's Symphony No. 2 in March.

Meanwhile, the search for a permanent artistic director continues. Since its founding in 1979 by University of South Florida music director Robert Summers, the USF music director has also led the chorale. Chorale board members anticipated that USF would want to renew that arrangement, but this time the school balked, Hicks said.

"We think there are advantages to doing things that way for both institutions," he said. "But if they don't make that hire or institute that search, we can't make them if they don't want to."

Karen Bryan, who directs the university's school of music, said it "would be premature to speculate on our future hiring plans." The school is pleased, Bryan said, with the work of Jason Dungee, who was hired in 2016 as a visiting instructor of choral studies.

The Master Chorale has hired Mary Elizabeth Gibbs, an associate professor at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, to assist Rao.

Neither the chorale nor the orchestra regrets their year of unicorn hunting.

"It was worth trying and we're glad that we tried," Parsons said. "But in the end, there's a reason why this position doesn't exist out there."

Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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