Managing Well and Spotting Talent: Eugene Does It Right

I wonder if there's something in the water in Eugene, Oregon. For a relatively small community it seems to me to have a remarkably vital arts community. The Oregon Bach Festival, the Oregon Mozart Players, the Shedd Institute (which presents the Oregon Festival of American Music and many other events, and has an extensive music education program), the Eugene Symphony Orchestra, and a number of other organizations exist side by side and bring an enormous range and scope of activities to the city.  Having just spent two days there, most of it with the Eugene Symphony Orchestra, I came away as I have before, thinking that this is a very special place.

The Eugene Symphony Orchestra (ESO) is as close to being a model small-community orchestra as one can get. They have a high-functioning board of directors that understands the difference between governance and management, and leaves the management to a highly capable staff. The ESO has a very wide range of community partnerships and collaborations, and spent a lot of their time with me exploring how to further grow that area.  The orchestra plays on a very high level - the performance I heard on May 15 of Bruckner's Seventh Symphony was deeply satisfying, played with a sensitivity to phrasing and dynamics that would have done many larger communities' orchestras proud.

Then there is the way the ESO does music director searches. Their track record is nothing short of astonishing. . Rather than take the safe route - a route taken by many of America's smaller and mid-sized orchestras - by choosing an "experienced" music director, the Eugene Symphony has approached finding a new music director with the viewpoint that "we want to be the first stop on someone's rise to a major career." I don't know if they have ever articulated it publicly, but I know that they have thought "if the music director we hire is still here in ten years, we probably made a mistake."  And what have they done since they've adopted that approach? They have hit three home runs. Marin Alsop, Miguel Harth-Bedoya, and now Giancarlo Guerrero are all at various points on the stage of international careers - and all got their start in Eugene. It used to be conventional wisdom that you could not build a major conducting career in America unless you were lucky enough to start at a major, international-level orchestra, as Bernstein did in New York, Tilson Thomas in Boston, or Leonard Slatkin in Saint Louis. The Eugene Symphony Orchestra, single-handedly, has changed the landscape.  And hundreds of similar-sized orchestras across the country have changed the profile of what they're looking for, and of how to do a music director search, copying the Eugene Symphony Orchestra.

Of course this also means that they have set the bar for themselves very high. One appointment like that might be luck - but three? That means they know how to do it right, and that, in turn, leads to expectations that they'll do it again now that they are once more in a music director search. And you know what? I imagine they will!

May 30, 2008 12:42 PM | | Comments (2)



I think there is a bigger issue here and that is the question of hiring an up-and-coming young conductor or an older, experienced one. In the June 2 issue of Fortune, Jack Welch, former CEO of GE talks about age. He says "age is generally pretty useless if it's not accompanied by an open-mindedness and curiosity about contemporary times". He cites examples of leaders such as Rupert Murdoch of NewsCorp or Andrea Jung of Avon who are relevant despite their age. I think the current movement of assistant conductors of major orchestras as the next set of music directors is flawed by the assumption that the older and experienced guard are for some reason less qualified than their younger counterparts. Programming a season that is artistically successful, development rich, and highly marketable requires experience in the field and while I believe in a collaborative approach to this (involving the executive director, development, marketing,etc), I think it would be more successful with an experienced music director. It isn't up to the administration alone to make the non-musical side successful but the music director too. The door swings both ways. Administration is necessary for success in many artistic decisions but so is the music director in many administrative ones. Orchestras should look for the best conductor and not just the next star. If an orchestra can find a seasoned MD who will be a complete participant in all processes, they are better off than with a young "star" conductor who is never in town and has no experience in development, marketing, contracts, negotiations, and successful programming. As Welch closes in his article, "age isn't something to fear - Indeed, with the right attitude, it can be the best thing that ever happened to you".

Didn't they also have the very unusual situation of having the same person chair the music director search committee all three times?

Yes, the same person chaired the previous three searches, and is chairing the current one as well. (Why fool with success)?


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