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By Laurence Vittes | From the November-December 2022 issue of Strings magazine

There is a wave of new conductorships washing over classical music’s shores. In the U.S., there’s Rafael Payare in San Diego, Nathalie Stutzmann in Atlanta, Jonathon Heyward in Baltimore, Thomas Søndergård in Minnesota, Jader Bignamini in Detroit, and Eun Sun Kim at the San Francisco Opera. Meanwhile, at press time, the open New York Philharmonic, Chicago, Cincinnati, and Seattle jobs wait just beyond the rush as they find their own new musical currents to follow.

Conductor Jonathon Heyward leads the Seattle Symphony in “Mars” from Holst’s The Planets at Benaroya Hall in 2019.

Profound generational shifts are also occurring in Europe. In the Netherlands alone, the celebrated Klaus Mäkelä has gone to the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam (beginning in 2027–28), the similarly in-demand Lahav Shani is at the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, Lorenzo Viotti is in Amsterdam at the Netherlands Philharmonic, and Duncan Ward is in Eindhoven at the Philharmonie Zuidnederland. The young American Ryan Bancroft is set for the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra beginning in 2023–24, and Santtu-Matias Rouvali is already at the Philharmonia in London.

Women are also increasingly appearing on the podium, including Karina Canellakis at the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, Elim Chan at the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra, Anja Bihlmaier at the Residentie Orkest in the Hague, Xian Zhang at the New Jersey Symphony, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla at the City of Birmingham Symphony, and Gemma New at the New Zealand Symphony in Wellington.

Rob Hilberink, CEO of the Rotterdam International Conducting Competition, is thrilled that the new music directors are becoming younger and more diverse. “Orchestras have become less rigid and are more daring to embrace young talents. A few years ago,” he says, “it would have been unthinkable that 20- and 30-somethings would get high-level positions. In the Netherlands alone we are blessed with four great new directors.”

The Cincinnati Symphony’s Jonathan Martin quoted his outgoing music director Louis Langrée: “‘As with all things in life, an orchestra needs fresh air to live.’ I agree,” Martin says. “There is a time and place for change in order to continue growing. His planning for change has allowed the CSO to thoughtfully approach the search for our next music director.”

The excitement of finding a new music director is visceral. It touches so many of an orchestra’s nerves, from artistic excellence to fundraising. Their importance to the organization is in every way like the quarterback of a football team.


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“Every time he stands on the podium, or off the podium, we know that we made a great choice as music director,” San Diego Symphony CEO Martha Gilmer tells me about Rafael Payare. “We had an extensive search between 2015 and 2018, 21 conductors; many are now conducting their own orchestras.”

Gilmer stresses Payare’s extra bit of chemistry. “He was here through the whole pandemic, developing their common musical language and cementing a shared understanding that came immediately back when they began playing again in full. He works on passages and celebrates response. He allows players to do their personal best.” There is a lot at stake. The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park opened last year, and San Diego’s renovated Copley Hall will open in late 2023 with a new stage and choral terrace, with the proscenium opened up so the sound can better reach the audience.

Baltimore Symphony CEO Mark Hanson is thrilled to have found Jonathon Heyward. “Once chemistry is discovered, things can happen very quickly. Jonathon made his BSO debut in March substituting in a program of Hannah Kendall’s The Spark Catchers, Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto with Benjamin Grosvenor, and Shostakovich’s 15th Symphony. Based on feedback, we quickly identified another concert in April to bring him back, a benefit concert for Ukraine, as an additional test for the initial chemistry.

“What we love about Jonathon is his deep musicianship, ability to inspire the orchestra and also the audience through how he leads, what he asks for from music colleagues, and how he communicates onstage and off with audience members young and old. And on top of the music, he brings a unique, inspiring personal story that we believe will be very powerful as we seek to draw in new audiences. 

“We have a year-round OrchKids music program during and after school designed to create social change and nurture promising futures for youth in Baltimore City. There will be more than 2,000 Baltimore students who Jonathon will be able to tell about how a similar public school program in Charleston, South Carolina, changed his life, introducing him to the cello and allowing him an opportunity at 14 to conduct for the first time.”


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Hanson adds that the BSO’s “place in the communities requires next-generation leadership that is representative of our country and our community, and we have found it in Jonathon as a 30-year-old rising conducting superstar who has a lived experience that can inspire.”

Dominik Winterling​, managing director of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, underlines the importance of the investment. “We are delighted that Klaus Mäkelä has signed a contract with the orchestra for ten years, allowing for the development of a long-term collaboration. He is appointed artistic partner of our orchestra with effect from the 2022–23 season, leading to his tenure as the Concertgebouw Orchestra’s eighth chief conductor in 2027. This agreement demonstrates the deep commitment and trust between our musicians and Klaus, and will ensure the continuation of the high quality our audiences all over the world expect from our orchestra. This season, Mäkelä will already work with our orchestra on five different programs, both in Amsterdam and abroad, and in future seasons this number will increase. We look forward to the collaboration with Klaus in the coming years, which will reinforce our position as one of the leading symphony orchestras in the world.”

Although some orchestras have rethought their artistic leadership configurations or are in the process of reconsidering the position of music director, not all adhere to the music-director model. 

Managing director and president Jon Limbacher of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra says, “The SPCO is thriving because of our unique musician-led artistic model. Our musicians, led by our artistic director Kyu-Young Kim, who is a member of the ensemble, develop the artistic vision, decide on the repertoire, select artistic partners, and determine the membership of the orchestra. Everything that happens onstage is determined and owned by the musicians.

“For the audience, this translates into thrilling and dynamic performances that reflect the musical interests and passions of the members. Instead of one dominant artistic voice, it is a collaborative effort involving a broad cross section of the orchestra. It works because Kyu is both a brilliant programmer and a brilliant collaborator. This model is producing incredibly interesting and diverse programs that are deeply resonating with our community.”