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October 29, 2005

Symphony Silicon Valley thrives without full-time conductor
But some say it deserves a grand figurehead on the podium

By Richard Scheinin, Mercury News, Front Page
Every symphony orchestra has its own conductor, a steady and charismatic presence on the podium. Think Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. The conductor-superstar brands the orchestra, defines its sound, gives it a face and sells it to the world.

Right? Not necessarily.

Symphony Silicon Valley, the South Bay's up-and-coming orchestra, has never had a full-time conductor and has no plans to hire one. Now in its fourth season, it hires a guest conductor for each of its programs -- an anomaly among symphony orchestras in this country. This weekend, for its two performances at the California Theatre, it will have not one but two alternating guest conductors, truly an oddity. Yet it seems to be doing just fine.

Indeed, a small, growing contingent of observers is wondering if Symphony Silicon Valley is defining a trend. ``San Jose may be onto something,'' said Henry Fogel, president of the American Symphony Orchestra League, which studies and advises more than 350 professional orchestras around the U.S.

The California is close to sold out for most SSV programs, and the orchestra is in the black. Performances may not match the San Francisco Symphony's but generally are at a high level. And according to a recent survey, most of the musicians are happy with the conducting situation.

There are those who nevertheless say the nation's 10th largest city deserves and needs its own grand figurehead on the podium -- that great music just doesn't happen without a sustained electric connection between an orchestra and its leader.

But at a time when superstar conducting talent is rare and expensive, and orchestras are seeking ways to freshen up and expand repertory, going the guest-conductor route has its benefits.

Having a full time conductor and all-around leader -- known as a music director at most orchestras -- can be beyond costly. Tilson Thomas reportedly earns about $1.5 million per season.

But many orchestras more comparable to SSV only spend between $80,000 and $100,000, according to Drew McManus, an orchestra industry expert whose ``Adaptistration'' blog (www.artsjournal.com/adaptistration) is popular among classical music watchers. SSV is spending slightly less than $80,000 for five guest conductors handling its seven subscription programs this season.

Still, most orchestras have to struggle to find a conductor who solidly connects with the musicians and the audience. And if one is ever found, there's often heartache ahead for an orchestra like SSV which gives fewer than 20 performances a season: ``You can't afford to keep them,'' Fogel said. ``You build your institution around them, and then they're gone,'' hired away by busier and more prominent orchestras.

``We try to keep the overhead down to a bare minimum and try to keep the attention on the musicians and the product,'' explained Andrew Bales, SSV's founder and president, who thinks the ``cult of personality'' surrounding many conductors is a musical distraction and an administrative hassle.

``Symphonies in America have a sense of grandeur which is out of scale,'' he contended, pointing to famous orchestras in Pittsburgh and Baltimore which struggle with ticket sales. ``What's good about that? We're interested in building a new model.''

In a sense, SSV is following on the heels of a handful of American orchestras which recently began tweaking the old model.

The Saint Paul (Minn.) Chamber Orchestra is into its second season with four (soon to be five) ``artistic partners,'' conductors who bring a range of repertory specialties. The Pittsburgh Symphony, which for decades boasted big names with the baton, is into its first full season with a triumvirate of permanent conductors.

In Europe, meanwhile, some of the greatest orchestras in the world, including the Vienna Philharmonic, run on a steady diet of guest conductors.

``Why are they the greatest orchestras?'' asks British conductor Patrick Flynn, one of SSV's guest maestros, who has also guest-conducted widely in Europe. ``Because they have to change every couple weeks. It is the model of the future -- musicians who are versatile and dealing with lots of situations.''

Though he is himself music director of the Riverside County Philharmonic in Southern California, Flynn said that an orchestra that sticks for too long with a lone director goes stale: ``That's death to the musicians.''

SSV's members were surveyed on the guest conducting question last winter and ``the overwhelming opinion was that the orchestra likes seeing new faces up there,'' said Bill Everett, its principal bassist. He and his colleagues are being ``fine-tuned,'' he said, by the guest-conductor system; it forces them to respond to varied approaches and perspectives. It makes them tackle a wide range of repertory, since each guest tends to bring along his or her own specialties.

But not everyone believes the old model is broken.

Jim Dooley, who holds SSV's principal trumpet chair, a position he also held with the old San Jose Symphony, suspects the orchestra is limiting itself artistically and longs for the ``unifying presence'' of a permanent conductor. ``We're constantly reacting'' to guests on the podium ``instead of really getting down to the business of making great music,'' he said. ``I think to myself, `We could be playing better.' ''

A permanent conductor provides ``stability and improves relations with the musicians,'' added former San Jose Mayor Janet Gray Hayes, an SSV subscriber who once was an Indiana state-champion cellist. ``It would be great to have a permanent director. But it has to be the right one.''

McManus agreed that ``hiring the wrong person would absolutely hobble'' SSV's ``growth at best, or sink it at worst.''

For decades, almost every American orchestra has had its own music director, the title given to a permanent conductor who leads the majority of concerts and has such additional duties as choosing guest conductors to spell him, exercising ultimate authority over programming and hiring and firing musicians. The music director handles myriad administrative chores and fundraising duties as well, courting donors and cementing an orchestra's relationship to the community.

In days gone by, San Jose had a music director: George Cleve led the old San Jose Symphony for 20 years and was widely respected by the musicians, though his mercurial temperament was at times an issue. (Cleve is returning as an SSV guest conductor three times this season). Leonid Grin, less widely admired by the players, led the orchestra for a decade, until it declared bankruptcy in 2001.

But now, SSV musicians are themselves running important aspects of the orchestra. This month in San Jose, musicians' committees hired a new principal French hornist, a new principal trombone player and four new violinists.

``It gives a sense of ownership to the musicians,'' Everett said. In this respect, SSV is following the lead of the musician-run Colorado Symphony -- and of many European orchestras, which have long turned over matters of ``artistic review,'' including hiring and firing, to the players.

SSV still has to show that without its own Tilson Thomas, the orchestra can create its own vision and attract new and younger listeners -- and not just keep on with a graying audience that makes few demands.

But Bales notes that instead of searching for an elusive star, SSV has a chance to build up its own musicians. ``They are the stars,'' he said.


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