Let the Hunger Games begin.
A few years from now, one conductor will be left standing on the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall stage amid the broken hopes of a dozen baton-wielding competitors.
The selection of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s 13th music director to succeed the outgoing Marin Alsop will take place before live audiences as a succession of candidates audition for the job by conducting the orchestra through a series of concerts. It’s the classical music world’s equivalent of the public death matches recounted in novelist Suzanne Collins’ blockbuster “Hunger Games” trilogy.
This is the first time in 16 years that Maryland’s largest symphony has conducted a music director search. The stakes to succeed Maestra Marin Alsop couldn’t be higher — for Baltimore audiences as well as for the candidates. The coming season’s list of guest conductors raises the intriguing possibility that the BSO’s next music director could be a woman or a conductor of color.
Of the 13 guest conductors next season whom BSO leaders identify as likely candidates for the music director post, two are female and five are racially diverse.
“It is necessary but not sufficient for these conductors to be brilliant musicians,” Peter Kjome the BSO’s president and CEO, said at a news conference Tuesday announcing the orchestra’s 2021-2022 season. “They will have to think broadly about their role. They will have to be great communicators and they will have to be passionate about their involvement in the community.”
The BSO is located in Baltimore, a city where the population is nearly 63% Black, according to 2019 demographic data.
The multiyear, international search has been going on since early 2020, when Alsop announced that she wasn’t returning and symphony leaders began meeting with the Pittsburgh-based consultant Robert Moir. They drew up a list of more than 20 music director candidates and began booking them into guest conducting slots.
The hunt isn’t going to be over anytime soon; in addition to the 13 guest conductors who will perform in Baltimore next season, other candidates have already been scheduled to lead the orchestra the following year. And prospects who do well during the first round of concerts may be booked for return engagements before a final decision is made.
“The concerts with the guest conductors are essentially live job interviews,” said Tonya Robles, the BSO’s vice president and chief operating officer.
“The process of selecting a new music director is incredibly complex and very exciting. It’s really a two-way audition. The orchestra is auditioning for the guest conductors as much as they’re auditioning for the orchestra.”
Concertgoers tempted to start keeping scorecards should bear in mind that not everyone who pops up on the podium will be a candidate. For instance, the renowned violinist and conductor Itzhak Perlman, who will open the season Sept. 11, is not in the running. Neither is the BSO’s interim music director, James Conlon, nor the British conductor Sir Andrew Davis.
But they are the exceptions, and symphony leaders hope the onstage drama will lure back music lovers who haven’t stepped inside a concert hall in the 18 months since the pandemic shuttered venues statewide.
Reopening plans are still being developed. But they include additional entrances and exits, so 2,400 audience members won’t have to cram through a single door. Restrooms have been reconfigured to operate touch-free. Foods and beverages may be distributed prepackaged.
Other decisions, such as masking requirements or requiring patrons to provide proof of vaccination, have yet to be made.
“We will work with city and state officials to ensure that we’re in compliance with their rules,” Robles said. “But we’re anticipating there will be a huge increase in vaccinations by September so we won’t have to limit the size of our audiences.”
The different candidates include New Zealand native Gemma New, who has Baltimore ties; she graduated from the Johns Hopkins University’s Peabody Institute in 2011 with a master’s degree in conducting. Jonathon Heyward is African American and a rising star who snagged his first conducting appointment seven years ago in London when he was just 21.
Three of next year’s guest conductors have illustrious pedigrees: Ken-David Masur, who is of German and Japanese ancestry, is the son of renowned conductor Kurt Masur. Michael Stern, music director of the Kansas City Symphony, is the son of the great Russian Empire-born violinist Isaac Stern. And the Toronto-born Peter Oundjian’s cousin is the British funnyman Eric Idle, a founding member of the Monty Python comedy troupe.
Henry Fogel, former president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, compared a symphony’s music director search to courtship and marriage.
“Chemistry is very, very difficult to predict,” he said.
“I’ve seen great orchestras react totally differently to the same conductor. It has to do with the conductor’s personality, musicianship and style of rehearsing.”
The candidates will be evaluated by a BSO search committee that will include several musicians, as is typical at other orchestras.
Historically, artists on search committees haven’t always seen eye to eye with business leaders, occasionally resulting in ugly public spats.
In 2005, BSO musicians made an unprecedented public statement opposing Alsop’s appointment as music director. They said feedback from the performers on the search committee had been ignored and that up to 90% of the ensemble wanted the hunt for a new chief conductor to continue.
Since Alsop was the first woman chosen to helm a major American orchestra, the ruckus made headlines nationwide. She declined to sign the contract until she could meet privately with the performers. Both sides concluded that they could make the relationship work.
Similar tensions seem unlikely to surface during this search, though as recently as two years ago relations between management and players sank to an all-time low. In the summer of 2019, the BSO ran out of money, stopped paying its performers, and locked them out of Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
But after working together on a turnaround plan for the orchestra and agreeing to a multiyear contract in the middle of the pandemic, both sides have hailed what they describe as a “miraculous” new atmosphere of collaboration.
Brian Prechtl, chairman of the Baltimore Symphony Musicians’ Players Committee, is confident that the opinions of all parties will be taken seriously in the current search.
“The relationship between the orchestra and music director is an intimate one,” Prechtl wrote in a text message.
“We will be looking for just the right chemistry on the stage and in the community with all prospective music director candidates. We will take great pains to solicit feedback on every guest conductor, and this data will be integral to the process of a cross-stakeholder search committee.”
As Kjome and Prechtl indicated, the role of American conductors has evolved. Now, off-the-podium activities are as important as performances.
About 20 years ago, cultivating donors became a job requirement for music directors. More recently, the Black Lives Matter movement and the nationwide protests following the death of George Floyd have added new urgency to community outreach efforts.
Some experts think it will be difficult to engage a wider audience if leaders of American symphonies remain overwhelmingly male and white.
In the 16 years since Alsop broke through the glass ceiling, “she is still the only woman to lead a major American orchestra,” Kjome said.
While conductors of color pilot a few American orchestras, most are Hispanic. The best known is Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel of the Los Angeles Philharmonic; the character of Rodrigo De Souza in the hit Amazon TV series “Mozart in the Jungle” is based on him.
Other prominent Hispanic conductors include the Nashville Symphony’s music director, Giancarlo Guerrero, who was born in Nicaragua, and Colombia native Andrés Orozco-Estrada, who heads the Houston Symphony.
A few small classical orchestras in the U.S. are lead by Black men. Michael Morgan is music director of the Oakland Symphony and the Sacramento Philharmonic & Opera, while Thomas Wilkins is in his final season overseeing the Omaha Symphony Orchestra. But these ensembles are a fraction of the size of the BSO.
Regardless of who ends up as the BSO’s next music director, Moir thinks classical orchestras are on the verge of a long-overdue transformation.
“One of the major sea changes taking place in this industry is that there are now a significant number of young women who are conducting at a really high level,” Moir said, citing Alsop’s advocacy for female conductors. “There is also an exciting group of emerging Black conductors.
“Trends in the orchestra world develop slowly. But the field is starting to change. You just weren’t seeing these kinds of candidates 30 years ago.”