EDITORIAL: Next ISO conductor should live here

August 24, 2009

The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra has been around a long time—since 1930—and for decades it’s had a solid reputation among American orchestras. So we’re not surprised that the line of candidates to replace Mario Venzago is a long one, as IBJ reported last week. We are surprised, however, that the orchestra’s management doesn’t expect the new music director to live here.

Venzago’s sudden departure was announced July 30, just two months before the start of the season. The conductor was, by most accounts, popular with the musicians, and there were no serious complaints about the symphony’s musical direction. But Venzago was essentially an absentee conductor. He didn’t live here and never seemed fully engaged with the city. The primary gripe from management was that he didn’t spend enough time courting potential donors, whose contributions are the symphony’s lifeblood.

Running a symphony is no easy task. The stock market plunge that knocked the value of the symphony’s endowment from $111 million at the end of last August to $82 million at the end of June is proof enough that it’s a hard job in a bad economy. But even in prosperous times, symphonies across the country struggle to stay relevant to younger audiences, whom they’ll one day rely on to fill their coffers and concert halls.

The job is made easier if the conductor—with whom the community most identifies—is both visible and accessible. That requires a commitment to the city. What better way to demonstrate one’s commitment than to live here? Musically speaking, it might be possible to serve the orchestra well from a home base in another city or on another continent, for that matter. But to give the organization the optimal exposure and to effectively raise the funds the ISO needs, a music director with a local address seems essential. That wouldn’t preclude the conductor from lining up guest appearances elsewhere or having a second home in another city.

Raymond Leppard, Venzago’s predecessor, didn’t immediately move here after taking the job in 1987, but he moved to Indianapolis within a few years, and he lives here in retirement. The ISO shouldn’t give up on finding a conductor who, like Leppard, is happy to make the city his or her home.

The symphony’s first priority should be hiring a conductor who will connect with the musicians and serve the organization well artistically. But as the guest conductors come and go for their auditions, it’s important to consider more than the music.

Musical excellence and an Indianapolis address shouldn’t be too much to ask.•


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