One wouldn't think that being conductor of the Hopkin Symphony Orchestra -- a university/community orchestra on the Homewood campus of the Johns Hopkins University -- would be a big deal.
After all, the orchestra is made up of 70 amateurs, rehearses about once a week and gives four concerts a year. But last spring when the HSO advertised for a new music director, it received more than 90 responses from all over the United States, Canada, Europe, Israel and the People's Republic of China.
From those applicants, the orchestra's board asked for videotapes from 25 candidates and then selected five finalists and two alternates -- one of them is Eric Townell, the HSO's acting music director -- for interviews and auditions. The orchestra interviewed two of the candidates Saturday and listened to them as they spent 60 minutes in rehearsal with the orchestra. The final auditions and interviews of the other candidates are scheduled for tonight.
Along with the high number of applicants for the HSO job, what surprised most was the quality of the applicants. Karen Deal, 33, has already been a winner in several important conducting competitions, has won a prestigious conducting student fellowship at the Boston Symphony's Tanglewood Festival for this summer and is the music adviser and resident conductor of the Annapolis Symphony.
Robert Black, 40, is already in the midst of a modest international career. When he left Shriver Hall Saturday morning he hurried to the airport for a plane to Germany, where he had two weeks of orchestral dates followed by another two weeks in Finland. Black, who lives in New York, tried to explain what made the HSO job an attractive one.
"Every conductor needs an orchestra in order to develop a repertory -- and a position like this helps you to add to it," Black said. "You must also remember that I'm a New Yorker. While it's exciting to conduct there, there's so much going on that it becomes hard to feel that you're making a difference."
In their rehearsals, both conductors led some of the same pieces andthe differences in leadership and in interpretation were attended to carefully by the HSO board and in a questionnaire that was handed out to the players. It was Black, for example, that tried to point out niceties in 18th-century performing practice in a Mozart piano concerto; but it was Deal who worked at getting the cellos and basses to play in tune.
The board, however, listened just as carefully to the two candidates' responses and to their personal style in their interviews.
"We need someone who's sensitive to community needs and to dealing with the varying abilities found in a community orchestra," said Mary Ellen Porter, the chairman of the HSO's search committee. "Artistic ability is the No. 1 priority, but the ability to schmooze doesn't hurt."