CSO looks forward to third season of guest conductors

Guest conductor Noam Zur, making his North American debut, leads the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra through its final performance Tuesday evening in the Amphitheater. In 2013, the CSO will play its third summer under the batons of guest conductors as a search begins for a permanent music director. Photo by Eric Shea.

Kelsey BurrittStaff Writer

This was the second season without the presence of a music director for the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, but based on the performances from the orchestra and the feedback from its audience, the absence is hardly noticeable.

While it is a challenge for the orchestra to perform under a new conductor almost every single concert — with the exception of a handful of conductors who joined the CSO for two performances — the orchestra has risen to the occasion.

“It keeps them on the edge of their seat, keeps things charged, keeps things interesting, and the majority of the orchestra likes that — they like that challenge,” said Marty Merkley, Institution vice president and director of programming.

“I like the challenge, but it is a challenge,” said Jason Weintraub, English horn player with the orchestra and the personnel and business manager. “From my perspective, it was a great season. Of course, we had a lot of different faces up there. I personally enjoy that very much.”

Merkley said despite the challenge, he believes this is the best summer consistently that the orchestra has played. Members of the orchestra, too, are looking back positively on what Weintraub called a great season.

The absence of a music director has not changed the quality of the playing. However, it has altered the process of choosing repertoire for the orchestra. A small contingency guides the orchestra’s artistic decisions, including Merkley and Weintraub, and — a new addition to the process this year — assistant personnel manager Marian Tanau.

Tanau was born and raised in Romania and received a graduate degree from Bowling Green State University. He has been a violinist in the CSO since 1993, and in the off-season performs with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Last October, Tanau was appointed as the executive director of the New Mexico Philharmonic.

“It’s nice, because I bring a musician’s perspective to the administration job, and the administration perspective to the musician’s job,” Tanau said. “It’s good to have both sides of the coin.”

Weintraub dug into Chautauqua’s archives from the past 30 years and researched what the orchestra performed and when. Merkley and Weintraub extrapolated that information to find what pieces had not been played very often. Merkley then took that music and presented the choices to the guest conductors to shape their programs.

When making repertoire selections, Weintraub said Chautauqua is kept in mind out of appreciation for the warmth and the connection the musicians feel with their audience.

Some of Weintraub’s personal highlights of the season were the first concert — featuring Peter Serkin playing Brahms’ Piano Concerto — and the last, when the CSO performed Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

The orchestra has still not yet begun an official search for a music director. Next year, representatives of a new Artistic Advisory Committee, with five or six elected members from the orchestra, will also participate in artistic decisions.

“We are still in the looking phase. We wanted to do a minimum of three years of guests,” Merkley said. “We’ve had about 15 guest conductors each year come through, and that will continue through 2013.”

The orchestra will review all of the guest conductors who have visited this season, and once the official search is conducted, some of the highest-rated conductors may be invited back to Chautauqua for longer stays.

Weintraub said he liked the flow of the season. Unsure if the orchestra could perform under guest conductors for 10 years or more, he is — at least for now — enjoying the ride.

As far as programming and scheduling guest conductors, nothing has yet been planned for next season. In the meantime, the orchestra has the off-season to reflect on a summer of 21 concerts and two operas.

“They set a high bar this summer for the quality of the playing, and I think they achieved that over and over again,” Merkley said. “I’m very proud of the work they have done.”