Search brings discord to BSO

Board may name director today over artists' protests

July 19, 2005|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The last time the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra sought a new music director, the process took about a year and ended with a choice - eminent Russian conductor Yuri Temirkanov - that had widespread approval from the musicians, the administration and the board of directors.

This morning, the BSO board meets to decide whether to appoint Marin Alsop as Temirkanov's successor, knowing that an overwhelming majority of the musicians - about 90 percent, according to a statement released by the players committee Sunday - want the search process to continue for a few more months.

There doesn't appear to be any prospect for pleasing all sides of the orchestra family.

If the board declines to appoint Alsop, it would be an unusual blow to management. The highly praised American conductor would become the first woman to hold the top artistic post of one of the 24 largest orchestras in this country. (The American Symphony Orchestra League defines "large" as having an annual operating budget of $14.75 million or more; with a $30 million budget, the BSO is roughly in the middle of that group.)

Alsop appears to have been the leading candidate of top staffers all along, viewed as a boon to the BSO's overall prospects for artistic and financial growth.

The players have repeatedly declined to comment on Alsop, focusing their displeasure on the process that resulted in her pending appointment after a seven-month search (two years seems to be more common in the industry). They have asked for more time to consider other candidates to succeed Temirkanov, who steps down from the post in June.

"If the Board of Directors makes a decision opposed by the vast majority of the orchestra," the musicians declared in Sunday's statement, "all confidence in the current leadership of the orchestra would be lost."

Although relations between any orchestra's players and management can become divisive over various issues, differences almost never explode in the open, as they have in Baltimore, except during particularly fractious negotiations over musicians' contracts.

"This isn't a usual situation at all," Laura Brownell, director of the symphonic services division at the American Federation of Musicians in New York, said yesterday. "It's a very unfortunate breakdown. The musicians know there are great costs of going public with this; they have obviously weighed those costs."

The players' frustration has focused on the relative speed of the search and the fact that the move toward appointing Alsop was well under way before the full board of directors had "a reasonable opportunity to investigate and consider the issues being raised by the musicians," according to a statement Friday from the players committee.

Over the weekend, BSO President James Glicker said that officers of the board had asked for a decision to be made by July. Asked to comment on that point, Jane Marvine, head of the players committee, declined.

Typically, an orchestra's search committee charged with finding a music director will include musicians, along with staffers and board members.

"The provisions and processes vary from orchestra to orchestra," Brownell said. "There is no standard model. In an ideal world, you would be looking for consensus. If a choice is imposed, it would make musicians' working lives very difficult."

In the BSO case, the search committee disbanded without consensus this month, but management proceeded with the choice of Alsop and began negotiating the contract that will be put to a vote today.

In the past few years, "inclusiveness" has been a much-heard word inside the BSO, which has re-evaluated virtually all of its operations in the wake of persistent deficits and challenges of building up an audience base in Baltimore.

Representation of musicians in various advisory committees has been increased, and that may have led to greater expectations among the players of having their advice taken.

"There is no place more important or appropriate for musicians to be involved in than a music director search," Brownell said. "And there is a perceived wisdom that the more involved workers are in decision-making, the healthier the organization will be."

"There is a difference between inclusiveness, which we've very much tried to do, and control," Karen Swanson, BSO vice president and general manager, said over the weekend.

The public stance of the players cannot help but raise the impression that they are not enthusiastic about working with Alsop as music director.

Her several guest-conducting appearances since making her BSO debut in 2002 have achieved mixed results, with strong showings in contemporary repertoire and interpretations of standard works that lacked the kind of expressive heat and interpretive freedom that have come to characterize the Temirkanov tenure.

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