The Music Director Search: Residency and Balance of Skills

I've written about the subject of music director searches before, but I continue to encounter the same questions when I work with orchestras that are engaged in such searches. So perhaps there is some value in repeating points that were made in earlier blogs. The points covered here apply mainly to American orchestras--the community, education, and fund-raising work required of music directors in the U.S. differs significantly from Europe and other countries--and also for the most part to smaller and mid-sized orchestras. Those orchestras attempting to hire conductors with international careers have to operate in a different market, and while much of what I say here will be relevant, some things will not apply.
What I'd like to do is quote some questions I am asked most frequently, and suggest answers. But those who are directly involved with searches should remember that local issues and conditions may point to bending some of my responses to fit a local situation. There are no simple black-and-white rules here.

What is a reasonable amount of time to expect from a music director? Why can't he be a full-time resident of our community?  
In many ways, hiring a music director is going to be a trade-off between musical ability and talent on the one hand, and willingness to spend non-conducting weeks in your community on the other. There is no getting around this reality. It is important to remember that conductors need to conduct, and they cannot do it at home with a mirror or five friends. They can only do it standing in front of an orchestra. If your orchestra plays six concerts a year, to expect a conductor to be satisfied with that and spend the remaining 46 weeks going to meetings and functions is unrealistic. A conductor can only grow by conducting--it's like any other performance art: the more you do it, the better you get at it. If your orchestra insists on even twenty or thirty weeks of residency each season when you're only giving six or eight concerts, you will very seriously limit the talent pool available to you. You have every right to do it if you choose, but be aware of the consequence--talented conductors have every right to say "no thanks."  In my view, it is appropriate to ask for a commitment of one-third to 50 percent more weeks than you have concert weeks. So if your music director is expected to conduct, for example, eight programs a year, you might contract her for eleven to twelve weeks a year. Thus there are three or four non-conducting weeks.

How can our community feel the conductor is "theirs" with only eleven or twelve weeks of presence each year?
This is a case where quality of time is more important than quantity. It is up to the board and the executive director to ensure that the time spent in town is effective--including time for planning, programming, and administrative work (auditions, personnel issues, etc.) and some community, social, and education work. Determining the right balance is up to your board and executive director--and then they have to manage the music director so that this balance is actually achieved.

How do we balance musical and conducting ability with community engagement, education, and social/fund-raising skills?
The musical and conducting ability is basic--that is the foundation, and it's essential. But it is perfectly possible that the best conductor among of the candidates you see will not be the best choice for music director. Your best choice might be the second or even third best conductor--as long as the musicians of your orchestra (and on your search committee) believe that this person's conducting is at the level of technical skill and communicativeness that you need. I have seen many cases of orchestras hiring music directors solely on conducting ability--and dealing with a disaster two years down the road because the conductor treated musicians horribly, was rude to donors, refused to engage in any social functions, or programmed a ton of experimental and atonal music against the wishes of the audience and board, arguing that "artistic decisions are mine to make, and I won't have any interference in those." Or simply because the conductor could not in fact work collaboratively with the board and management and musicians. I have found that the musicians involved in the search--including a polling of the whole orchestra about various candidates--are a very effective guide on the musicianship issue.

How do you know how good a conductor will be at the off-podium parts of the job? They'll all say the right things in interviews.
One of the most important parts of music director searches--and the part most often botched, or at least not done as thoroughly as it should be--is research and reference  checking. There is an established track record of behavior for every conductor, unless you are hiring a kid just out of the conservatory (and you might do that if you find an extraordinarily talented one, but even in that case there will be people who know her personality). The musicians on your search committee must speak to musicians where the conductor has worked. The executive director or staff must speak to the managements with whom she has had exposure. And the board members must speak to board members who have experienced the candidate. You cannot do enough of this--and in fact must be careful to do a lot of checking, because one "enemy" with a grudge can easily give you a falsely negative impression. Every conductor will have alienated some musicians--just by trying to improve the orchestra, for example. So everyone doing the questioning must probe, and probe deeply.

There's more--and next week I'll continue this subject.
September 25, 2009 10:28 AM |



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This page contains a single entry by on the record published on September 25, 2009 10:28 AM.

"Historically Informed" Performance: Who Says, and Why Must It Be So? was the previous entry in this blog.

The Music Director Search: Integrity and Commitment is the next entry in this blog.

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