By Brian Wise | From the September-October 2023 issue of Strings Magazine
As the orchestra world continues a sometimes halting rebound from the pandemic, an ensemble’s search for the right music director is taking on added scrutiny. With many podiums to be filled—including those in Chicago, Cincinnati, Seattle, and Nashville—job descriptions are shifting.
Some orchestras are putting an added focus on civic engagement, donor relations, and public brand building. Recent postings for chief conductors at the Dayton Philharmonic in Ohio and the Eugene Symphony in Oregon, to name two, featured lengthy lists of outreach responsibilities. This kind of rethinking is becoming more and more common as organizations consider the needs of their communities and audiences within the context of a changed musical landscape. What it means to be the right music director for a particular ensemble has evolved along with it.
Though musical technique and chemistry are still baseline requirements, “the world that orchestras are operating in these days is so much more complex than it was even two decades ago,” says Simon Woods, CEO of the League of American Orchestras, a trade organization. “Music directors will need to be full strategic leaders, thinking about the role of the orchestra in the community, about how to broaden audiences, about race equity, and about some of the other big issues that we are facing in society.”
And drop-in nomads need not apply. “The kind of jet-set conductor who comes into a city for eight weeks a year,” says Woods, “is increasingly problematic for organizations that are grappling with their sense of identity in their civic environments.”
When the New York Philharmonic decided to forgo a traditional music director search and doggedly pursue Gustavo Dudamel, it was in large part because of his 15-year record of galvanizing the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s presence in Southern California. At a February press conference announcing Dudamel’s appointment, New York Phil board co-chair Peter W. May singled out the 42-year-old Venezuelan conductor’s potential to “attract younger, more diverse audiences and patrons” and create programs “that appeal to all kinds of music lovers.”
It remains to be seen how many weeks Dudamel will devote to New York in 2026–27—his first season—but his title of music and artistic director signals an expanded role. New York Philharmonic officials have watched as Dudamel took part in collaborations with pop musicians (Billie Eilish, Moby), architects (Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid), and Hollywood heavyweights (performing the soundtrack to Steven Spielberg’s version of West Side Story) in Los Angeles, perhaps hoping he might pursue such popular projects in more eastern climes. And it’s clear that Dudamel’s approach has yielded renown beyond the concert hall: in 2019, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
They also saw the growth of Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA), which is modeled on El Sistema and supplies musical training and instruments to some 1,700 young people from low-income neighborhoods (the New York Phil does not have its own youth orchestra that serves these communities). Donors have responded to the ambitious maestro’s success: since the start of Dudamel’s tenure, annual contributions to the L.A. Phil have doubled to $66 million.
‘Did We Even Want a Music Director?’
Beyond New York and L.A., orchestras have pursued conductors who not only can stimulate different segments of their communities but act as coworkers in the process. The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra (ASO) in June ended a four-year search by hiring Geoffrey Robson, who came to the orchestra in 2008 as an associate conductor and a member of its violin section. ASO CEO Christina Littlejohn says the orchestra started its search by asking, “Do we even want a music director? If so, do we want someone who is only here for six weeks out of the year to conduct our symphonic classics concerts?”
A more collaborative model emerged, Littlejohn says. “We were not looking for someone to say, ‘This is my vision.’ Then we all follow whatever this person who came in for six weeks a year told us to do. Really, we were looking for someone who understood that this organization functions best as a team and wants to program in a way that makes sense for Arkansas.”
The pandemic’s upheaval convinced the search committee that it needed a steady, local leader. Robson, who lives in Little Rock, assumes the role as the ASO plans a new 18,500-square-foot education and office facility (groundbreaking is expected later this year). “The orchestra knows me very well, and it has put a huge amount of trust in me going into the next five years,” Robson says. “The fact that I’ve been here means I have a very top-to-bottom understanding of all the different ways in which this orchestra functions musically and also within the community.”
Music directors increasingly take on work that was once delegated to associates. They might conduct film scores to a click track, script education events, or speak with local politicians, explains Matthew Oberstein, an artist manager and senior vice president at Opus 3 Artists. “It’s their ability to connect with the greater community, on a human level, on a fundraising level, on an audience-building level,” he says. Oberstein cites his client Teddy Abrams, who, upon becoming music director of the Louisville Orchestra in 2014, began turning up around town.
“When he first got to Louisville, Teddy took his keyboard and went all across the city and played on street corners, in schools, and anywhere you can imagine,” Oberstein says. “Very quickly, he was able to get buy-in from orchestra donors, the mayor of Louisville, and members of the Metro Council to come along with the big ideas he had.”
More recently, Abrams helped secure $4.3 million in state funding for a two-year statewide tour that included an April performance in Mammoth Cave National Park, featuring Yo-Yo Ma as soloist. Abrams has joined the board of the nonprofit Friends of Mammoth Cave, further cementing the orchestra’s civic ties.
Developing Wider Skill Sets
For decades, music directors enjoyed a power and prestige far beyond that of rank-and-file players. In 1945, Life magazine described conducting as “the world’s most dictatorial profession.” Podium tyrants ruled, including Arturo Toscanini, who displayed a whiplash temperament, browbeating musicians, breaking batons, and once snapping a violinist’s bow, narrowly missing the player’s eye.
More than a half century after unionized orchestra musicians fought for better pay and working conditions, the autocratic maestro has given way to leadership models like the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s “war room,” in which former music director Robert Spano teamed up with various staff members to make programming decisions. Similarly, Esa-Pekka Salonen, music director of the San Francisco Symphony, has introduced a collective of Collaborative Partners, each of whom brings a different perspective and experience to the table.
Woods, of the League of American Orchestras, endorses these models but questions whether today’s apprentice system encourages young conductors to cultivate distinctive ideas and sell them to donors. “One doesn’t necessarily need the music director to be the frontline asker, and most music directors are not comfortable in that place,” he says. “But you need the music director to build and sustain great relationships with the people in the community who can support their vision.”
Even before developing a creative vision, young conductors must develop more “nuts-and-bolts” skills, says Nicholas Martin, secretary of the Solti Foundation US, which grants awards to promising talent. “The US has not been as historically good about creating a process for someone to become a conductor with the skills they need,” he says. “We tend to look at people with a very wide creativity, but they may not know how to coach a singer.”
Lina González-Granados, the Colombian-born resident conductor of the L.A. Opera, has advanced through several major apprenticeships. They include a recent three-year term as the Solti Conducting Apprentice at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where she assisted then–music director Riccardo Muti. “If you are trained as an assistant conductor, you have this privilege of doing a lot of public speaking, outreach, and knowing your community,” she says. “When you have a subscription week, you might do a concert talk and have a dinner, but at the end, you are super focused on getting things ready.”
González-Granados recommends that hungry young conductors examine an orchestra’s goals and figure out whether its priorities are more administrative or musical. “Sometimes it’s beautiful to say, ‘Oh yes, I want to be a music director; this is the next step for me in my career.’ So, you start applying for jobs nonstop. Then you see the number of responsibilities that might not align with your lifestyle. You don’t want to be applying for a job that you cannot own, because it’s going to be a detriment to them and to you.”
Strides Toward Inclusion
The conducting field has grown more diverse in recent years, with people of color now making up 32 percent of all positions, up from 16 percent in the 2013–14 season, according to a 2023 League of American Orchestras study. Women have also made strides, accounting for 24 percent of conductors, nearly double the share of 2013–14. Still, among the 25 largest US orchestras, there is only one female conductor—Nathalie Stutzmann, who leads the Atlanta Symphony.
González-Granados is encouraged by the report’s findings but adds a note of caution. “Diversity and its advancement are never measured by intersecting those groups,” she says. “You talk about Latinos advancing, but you don’t see the same with Latinas. Or you don’t see the same with Black female conductors. When we look at the intersectionality of these groups, then the experience gap gets bigger.”
For all the growing diversity on podiums, the pandemic has also prompted some conductors to reconsider their career priorities. Podium turnover will remain a regular feature of orchestral life, say industry watchers. Oberstein, of Opus 3, notes how some orchestra-conductor relationships can last decades, be it the 29-year tenure of Seiji Ozawa at the Boston Symphony or the now 24-year term of JoAnn Falletta at the Buffalo Philharmonic. “But often, after eight to 15 years, a music directorship has run its course, and it’s time for someone to produce new ideas, new energy, and new thoughts about how to connect with the community. And that’s healthy.”