Music Director Residency: Quality Time Is What Counts

I have assisted many orchestras, mid-sized and small, in music director searches. Often a music director has been present for many years and there is little or no institutional memory about the previous search. Where possible, I always suggest that an orchestra send search committee members (including at least one musician) to the League of American Orchestras' Music Director Search Seminar, because it is an intensive two-day education on just about all aspects of a search. Sometimes, though, the timing of the search is such that they cannot attend it--or even if they do, they cannot send the entire search committee.
The question I am most frequently asked to deal with is music director residency: Just how important is it for our music director to live in our town, and to be here most of the year? Obviously there are differing views on this subject, but I am happy to share mine, which if nothing else might spark discussion if an orchestra you are involved with is going through a search.

I see two separate questions here: How many weeks of the year should the conductor be in town, and where is her mail delivered?  They are completely separate, and the latter is not important. Whether the conductor lives in a hotel or in a house or apartment is something of little or no relevance. Sometimes search committee members like to say "it is important for people to see our conductor at the supermarket."  Well...I've seen no evidence in music director successes or failures that the "supermarket factor" was a critical one. So they'll shop once a week and run into two or three people who might recognize them. That isn't where a conductor makes a community impact.

The real issue, it seems to me, is how much time does the conductor give to a community, and how is that time used. If an orchestra plays seven or eight or even ten concerts a year, the music director should conduct most of them (though I believe strongly that having one or two guest conductors is an essential element as well--but that's another blog). In addition, what I often suggest to communities, and to conductors, is that they give half-again, or nearly half-again, as many weeks as they are required to be on the podium. So if a conductor is required to be there for eight conducting weeks, another three or four weeks is a reasonable expectation (and they don't need to be consecutive seven-day weeks--let's call them 20 to 30 additional days). It is frankly unfair to expect a conductor to spend much more time than that in town and not conducting. Everyone must remember that conductors conduct. That's what they do--and unlike instrumentalists, who can take their instrument home and play alone, or get two friends together and make chamber music, conductors can only conduct standing on a podium in front of an orchestra. Doing that is what they need to do--not only for self-satisfaction, but to get better. No conductor ever became a better conductor by going to meetings.

But, and this is the important part, it is the quality of that time in the community, both during the conducting and non-conducting weeks, that can make the impact. It is up to the board leadership and management to determine the most effective use of the conductor's off-podium time (meeting donors or the Chamber of Commerce, speaking at the Rotary Club, visiting schools, involving herself in community programs, working with management and board leadership on institutional issues--the list is quite large). And it is up to the conductor to do that willingly, and with apparent enthusiasm. A conductor at a donor reception who looks as if she would rather be anywhere else on earth is hurting the orchestra. A conductor who has to be dragged kicking and screaming to speak at a forum made up of non-music lovers, but people who care about their community, is not doing the off-podium part of the job well.  

But if the orchestra leadership uses the conductor's time well, a conductor can make a remarkably strong impact in the community without being there 30 weeks a year. Orchestras that insist on an almost full-time presence will find themselves removing the best conductors from the available talent pool for their position.  

October 3, 2008 12:47 PM | | Comments (1)



I often feel that for larger orchestras, this is where the appropriate use of a music director/principal guest conductor model can really help.

A music director needs to be an amazing musician and a gifted conductor, but he also needs to be an artistic leader with a desire to promote a long-term artistic agenda and build (or maintain) a first-rate ensemble. And he has to be an inspiring presence off the podium who can contribute to the orchestra's community profile and serve as an effective representative of the orchestra in front of various constituencies. And like you say, he has to do it "willingly, and with apparent enthusiam."

But a principal guest conductor is a chance to develop a relationship with another truly exceptional artist who excites the orchestra with his unique interpretations. This conductor has no or little desire to serve a role off the box. He might even have no desire to be involved in auditions or the programming of a season outside of his own concerts. But he brings that special spark and is a exceptional maestro whose presence is such that he belongs in town on multiple occassions each season.

Having a person suited to each role, two musicians who complement each other with their strengths, can really create a strong artistic and community profile for the organization.


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