Conductor Search: What A Treat, Opportunity

EDITORIAL

Conductor Search:

What A Treat, Opportunity

Now, THAT’S marketing – in the nicest possible light.

On learning its venerable founding conductor, Chuck Schneider, was retiring after 46 years, The Catskill Symphony Orchestra Governing Board could have simply advertised for a new one, sorted the resumes, interviewed top prospects and made a decision.

Instead of handling matters in-house, the search committee threw open the decision-making to the public; not exclusively, of course, but it encouraged attendees at three concerts this fall – and the musicians, too – to fill out questionnaires assessing each candidates’ strengths.

And what a lesson for veteran concertgoers and newcomers alike, to see three conductors from different parts of the globe – Silas Huff, who rose through conducting the 44th U.S. Army Band, Carolyn Watson from Australia (now in Kansas), and Maciej Zoltowski from Poland – perform widely varying programs in markedly different styles.

“The biggest surprise is: we got 73 applicants – nationally and internationally,” said Laurie Zimniewicz, search committee chair. “We were like, wow.”

So, as you can imagine, all three have terrific credentials. Google them.


The conductors designed their own programs and invited in soloists, and each evening was at times gripping, even for the not-so-aficionados/experts among we audience members.

Huff began with Strauss, which swept audience members onto their feet, and ended with Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite,” another crowd pleaser. He was the most engaging in his remarks from the podium.
Watson was precise, intense, all energy.

Her selections were the most edgy, beginning with Higdon’s percussion-heavy “Fanfare Ritmico.” But if you were surprised at the outset, you were captured by the end.

Zoltowski was Tchaikovsky heavy – two of the three pieces. But what Tchaikovsky! The audience was rapt as pianist Alex McDonald, brought in from Texas, accompanied the CSO on Piano Concerto #1 – an emotional highpoint of the season, for sure.

To see three different conductors at their trade – one each in September, October and November – was a
rare opportunity around here, and mind-expanding.

It was satisfying to learn how the community responded: Attendance grew over the three concerts; subscriptions grew. Doing well by doing good. Nice.

The Search Committee won’t make the final decision, but will present an assessment Dec.10 to the CSO Governing Board, including graphs depicting how the audience and the CSO musicians rated the three.

The plan is to give the most weight to the musicians’ inputs. “Without a happy orchestra, we won’t have an orchestra,” she said, and she has a point.

Still, there’s more to that.

Will a conductor’s taste in music help fill the house? Will he or she be able to reach out to all constituencies – the musicians, yes, but also audiences, the board and, if the institution is to grow and prosper, the community?

Will the conductor be able to think like an executive, to strategize, to identify opportunities and chart the future? And, in doing so, to productively collaborate with CSO President Diane Williams, the Governing Board and Executive Director Thomas Wolfe.

In short, the Governing Board may be guided by others’ perspectives, but in the end, it must make its own decision.

In part, that decision will be with an eye to the future: How to attract a younger audience. As a side benefit, conductor candidates have provided a rich list of ideas on how to do this, Zimniewicz said.

The Catskill Symphony Orchestra, based in Oneonta, was founded in 1973. That’s almost half a century ago. It can be taken for granted. But it shouldn’t be.

At a time when major cities are losing their orchestras, ours continues to thrive. If you haven’t partaken, this is a good time to put a toe in the water.

The conductor should be chosen around the first of the year and will direct the CSO’s annual Cabaret Concert at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 14, in SUNY Oneonta’s Dewar Arena. You’ll be glad you did.


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