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!