Plethora of candidates likely for symphony post

August 17, 2009

Local classical music fans may see a long parade of would-be maestros take the podium at Hilbert Circle Theatre over the next two years.

The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra will embark on a conductorsearch after CEO SimonCrookall booted MusicDirector Mario Venzago. The July 30 ouster came a scant two months before the start of the season in which Venzago was to lead 10 performances.

Such an abrupt dismissal is rare in the dignified world of classical music. But it doesn’t appear to have taken the shine off the ISO, or its now-vacant conductor’s podium.

“There are a lot of conductors who would covet a position like the Indianapolis Symphony,” said William Capone, managing director of Arts Management Group in New York, Venzago’s U.S. representative. “It’s a buyer’s market.”

Musicians say privately that Venzago and Crookall clashed. The two had agreed that the Swiss conductor’s tenure would come to an end after the 2010-2011 season, but failed to come to agreement on the final contract.

Capone said the ISO’s tight budget drove Crookall to make a low offer. Crookall maintains that the orchestra’s financial situation wasn’t a factor—his offer simply reflected Venzago’s diminishing role.

The ISO’s 87 musicians and their audience now must endure an interim period that Crookall expects to last at least two seasons.

Retired conductor laureate Raymond Leppard, who lives in Indianapolis, has agreed to lead the Sept. 25 classical series opener.

The remaining nine dates originally scheduled for Venzago will become auditions.

Conductors and talent agents around the world know about the opening, and not only because of Venzago’s contentious departure. Indianapolis is one of the 27 largest U.S. orchestras, in terms of budget size. It’s also one of only 17 professional orchestras that boast a 52-week schedule.

“There are hundreds of conductors who will apply for any opening,” said Alfred Savia, music director of the Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra and regular ISO guest conductor. “A job like Indianapolis is a real plum.”

Crookall said he hopes to schedule repeat performances with the top contenders. The initial lineup will be announced soon.

“We’ve been overwhelmed by offers,” Crookall said.

Maintaining excitement

Even if artists are leaping at the chance to try out, the interim period poses a marketing challenge. Crookall thinks the guest appearances will generate some excitement, but he acknowledged that audiences might lose interest in the parade of candidates after the first year.

“The following season, we’ll be trying to find something we can hook the public’s interest on,” Crookall said.

North Carolina musician Bruce Ridge, chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, agreed that an open search can be a good marketing tool.

“You’re looking for the real face of the organization,” he said. “Audiences can really be swept up with the notion of, ‘Who is that going to be?’”

Ridge’s home ensemble, the Raleigh-based North Carolina Symphony, solicited audience feedback while searching for its current music director.

“After every concert, we would get hundreds of e-mails,” he said. “Many were very insightful.”

Phasing out a music director allows for a more measured search, but one that can also take years. Venzago, for example, was named music director in 2002, four years after Leppard announced his impending departure in 1998.

Filling the schedule

Guest conductors tend to keep busy, making it difficult to line them up for a limited number of slots. With a wide-open calendar, the ISO might have better luck scheduling the artists it wants, said Nicholas Mathias, vice president of the London office of IMG Artists.

“Things could move quite quickly,” Mathias said. “That might in the end be a beneficial thing.”

The search committee will convene after the season starts in September. The members aren’t final.

Michael Borschel, a clarinetist who serves as chairman of a committee that’s negotiating a new musicians’ contract, said Leppard will be a steadying influence at the start of the season.

“The effect of being conductor-less in an unanticipated manner [versus a planned-for regime change] can be somewhat upsetting, but not necessarily so,” Borschel said via e-mail while traveling.

Musicians talk about the importance of chemistry between orchestra and conductor. This time, the ISO is intent on finding a music director who is eager to work off the podium, too.

Crookall said he does not expect the next music director to live here.

More than ever, the ISO needs a captivating personality who’s willing to spend time with potential donors. Its endowment has shrunk from $111 million on Aug. 31, 2008, the end of the last fiscal year, to $82 million as of June 30.

What’s more, the orchestra is covering its operating expenses by drawing from the endowment at an unsustainable rate—8.9 percent in 2008.

The 2008 budget ended in a $293,000 deficit on $26.8 million in revenue.

The ISO’s leadership griped about Venzago’s lack of local involvement, Capone said, but he noted that Venzago, who is Swiss, had previously worked in Europe, where orchestras are government-supported.

But Mathias said many European conductors understand that U.S. orchestras require more than artistic leadership.

“You’ve got to want to be there, in whatever city it is, and you’ve got to want to invest several years in building something,” he said.

Despite its financial problems, the ISO won’t have to settle for a lesser music director, Crookall said. “We’re not at the breaking point, so it’s not going to limit our choice.”

Venzago was paid $388,695, plus benefits in the 2008 fiscal year, but music director salaries are sometimes much higher.

The Seattle Symphony Orchestra, which has a similar-size budget, paid Gerard Schwarz $664,000 in 2007. Schwarz has led the Seattle ensemble since 1985; the Seattle Times credits him with growing the subscriber base to 35,000 and spearheading construction of a new hall.

It’s not clear to what extent the ISO’s tight budget drove the failed negotiations with Venzago. Capone, who did not get involved until May, said that in December Crookall offered Venzago a contract similar to the one for the 2008-2009 season, but later said he couldn’t go forward with it because of budget cuts.

Capone said the last offer was a 50-percent cut in the music director’s salary for 2009-2010, and no salary in the second and final year. Instead, Venzago would have earned fees for performances.

Crookall doesn’t dispute the details Capone disclosed, but he said there’s more to the story. He said the ISO’s offer was justified because Venzago’s role as music director would be “severely diminished” as he withdrew from planning future seasons.

He also would have performed just four to six dates in 2010-2011.

“Would you pay for services you’re not getting?” he asked.•


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