CSO reviews 83rd season, searches for new music director in 84th


Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster Brian Reagin warms up just off the Amphitheater stage prior to the season’s last concert. Photo by Eve Edelheit.

Lauren Hutchison| Staff Writer

The Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra’s 83rd season is over, but the orchestra and the Chautauqua Institution already are planning next season.

This season was unlike most, in that the orchestra operated without a music director. Instead, 16 guest conductors led the ensemble through the season. Next season, the programming will be similar as the CSO continues its search for a new music director.

“There was so much energy this year from the orchestra, because every concert was different — you had to be on your toes,” said Jason Weintraub, personnel and business manager and English horn player for the CSO.

Planning for this season started with a letter to the orchestra members requesting suggestions for guest conductors. Because the musicians of the CSO work in different orchestras around the country during the rest of the year, many of this season’s guest conductors have working or personal relationships with members of the orchestra.

Marty Merkley, vice president and director of programming, determined which conductors were recommended the most and which conductors were available. He then created a balance of young and veteran conductors throughout the season.

This season was not an audition season for the guest conductors, but with the pending search for a music director, many looked at this season’s guest conductors with a critical eye.

“Anytime a conductor gets on a podium, he’s being auditioned, in one form or another,” Weintraub said.

Next season, the orchestra once again will provide guest conductor recommendations. Many guest conductors will be asked back to conduct more than one concert. The CSO’s 84th season won’t be an official audition season, either, though there will be some guest conductors who are candidates for the music director position.

“The majority of them will be specifically chosen to be here as potential candidates for the position,” Merkley said. “We’re going to invite people to see if we’re interested in inviting them to return as a finalist.”

Merkley said the audition process is a two-way street.

“You have to make sure that the conductor is comfortable with the orchestra, feels a good rapport with the musicians, likes the audiences, likes Chautauqua and is willing to invest a huge amount of time into this place,” he said.

Merkley said there are many more facets to the personality of the ideal music director. That person needs to lead, inspire and challenge in a positive manner. He or she needs to be able to instill a desire in audiences to come to the concerts and enjoy the music. He or she also needs to have a wonderful personal rapport with the musicians, which establishes trust and helps the orchestra work its busy schedule of one or two short rehearsals before each concert.

“The most important issue is the musical quality of the conductor, making sure that he or she is the right one for the orchestra to respond to and to partner with, in order to provide the best musical experience for the public at large and for the members of the orchestra,” Merkley said. “In this world, the optimum is to make everybody happy. That’s nearly impossible, but we’re going to try to do that the best we can.”

An as-yet-unformed committee, including five orchestra members and others from the Chautauqua community, will help select the CSO’s next music director from the candidates that audition through the next few seasons. Because the season is so short and many CSO concerts are ballets or operas, the search for a new music director likely will take more than one season.

“It’s not a two-year, three-year or particular-length search; it’s until we find somebody, until we find the right person,” Weintraub said. “It has to be somebody that really hits it off with the orchestra, which all guest conductors do the first time. As they come back for more visits, you start to see who they really are, and they start to see who you really are.”

Apart from guest conductors, this season’s CSO programming also differed from others because the concerts were planned with each week in mind, in addition to the seasonal arc of symphony programming.

“So many Chautauquans now are week-long Chautauquans, so we really went out of our way to talk in terms of weeks,” Weintraub said.

The week-long programming included several lighter, no-intermission concerts Tuesday nights, symphonic masterworks Thursday nights and a collaboration with other Chautauqua performing arts groups most Saturday nights. Weintraub said the no-intermission concerts were new to the CSO, and most Chautauquans seemed to like them. Merkley said the format of next season’s programming will be similar.

Merkley and the CSO also worked to program a good variety of pieces, making sure there were no weeks with multiple Beethoven symphonies and that most works hadn’t been played for a few years. They also ensured a balance of different soloists, all while working to a fixed schedule of collaborative performances with other Chautauqua performing arts groups.

This season also marked the end of auditions for a principal double bassist. Between 2010 and 2011, six double bassists auditioned for the position, performing for roughly two weeks each with the orchestra. They were selected from 124 candidates who applied, 20 of whom came to Chautauqua at their own expense to audition further. An official selection committee will meet within the next few days to determine the CSO’s next principal double bassist.

“The only problem is how they’re going to select one, because they were all terrific,” Weintraub said. “They were all wonderful players, and they’ve all turned out to be very nice people.”

Weintraub said the CSO’s 83rd season was wonderful, and the audience response has been terrific.

“I think we’ve had good crowds, we haven’t had any nights that were really sparsely attended — they’ve all been good or very good, so I’m very pleased with the way this season has progressed,” he said.

Merkley said he was happy with the quality of the guest conductors and the interesting repertoire this season.

“I was pleased that it came together as well as it did,” he said. “I think the response from the musicians has been very positive, and I think the response from the public at large has been very positive. I’m pleased that we’ve gotten through an incredibly busy season, and people seem to have really enjoyed the symphony.”