By Andrea Johnson
In the face of changing tastes and declining ticket sales, professional orchestras have had to adapt or fold. Chicago’s Ars Viva Symphony Orchestra announced just this week that the 2014-15 season would be their last. Closer to home, the Green Bay Symphony Orchestra will also close after this season, more than a century after they put on their first concert.
Meanwhile, smaller ensembles focused on baroque or contemporary music are gaining in popularity. This is something the Lawrence Baroque Ensemble and Decoda know well.
As symphony orchestra jobs stagnate, competition for the few that open up every year grows fierce. An article published by Boston Magazine in 2012 described the life of percussionist Mike Tetreault as he prepared for a Boston Symphony Orchestra audition. This included 20-hour works days, apparently endless practice and the end of his social life.
Dean of the Conservatory Brian Pertl emphasizes that while there is interest in symphonic music and valuable skills for students to learn by playing the repertoire, there are now “many other musical opportunities out there in addition to the orchestral musician route.”
In fact, a quick, informal survey of students hanging out in the Conservatory before a recent Lawrence Symphony Orchestra (LSO) rehearsal reflected this. Several students expressed interest in a career with a professional orchestra, while others said they see themselves in a chamber ensemble, working in arts administration, teaching and many other careers.
So, it is an interesting time to be a member of the LSO. And not least because they are nearing the end of a search for a new conductor—someone who, once hired, will be in a position to shape the orchestral education of Conservatory students preparing for careers in a quickly changing classical music world.
The search for a conductor began last spring, when Octavio Más-Arocas announced that after two years at Lawrence, he would be taking a job at Baldwin-Wallace College as their director of Orchestral Studies and Symphony Orchestra.
The search began with a job description that called for someone who could both bring students to “the highest levels of artistic and musical mastery in a nurturing environment” and “work with students to tackle the question of redefining a 21st century symphony orchestra.”
Students indeed wish to see someone on the podium who can marry these skills.
“The conductor needs to expose us to the standards of the repertoire,” super senior Schuyler Thornton, who is pursuing double degrees in flute performance and government, and hopes to pursue an orchestral career, said. “But it’s also important we learn how to collaborate and play new music because we’re going to be competing with people from other schools.”
Finding a conductor who is up to the task is no small order for the eight-person hiring committee in charge, and the search has gone on longer than had been anticipated. Though three finalists were brought in for a rigorous two days of interviews, coachings and rehearsals, no one has yet been hired.
Senior Ian Stone, who is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in music and government, does not mind the delay.
“I think it’s good they’re taking their time, because the conductor will have a large effect on the culture here at Lawrence,” Stone said.
In fact, this is something at the forefront of Pertl’s mind whenever he hires a new professor.
“When we hire someone, I am always hoping that we are hiring the next 25-year professor. In part, that is really what distinguishes a school like Lawrence. When you have professors who have been here over 20 years, some over 30, they define a culture,” Pertl said.
Super senior Sarah Wagner, who is pursuing double degrees in music performance and education, said she’d like to see someone hired who will encourage a culture of “professional standards, because there are a lot of great musicians here who would benefit from the structure.”
She believes the two years of Más-Arocas’ tenure did not prepare her as well as could be hoped for a career playing in pit orchestras, which she hopes to pursue. “I think the dynamic within the orchestra hasn’t been great, and expectations were not clear on either side,” Wagner said.
Whoever the new conductor is, students are eager to meet them, and with them, meet the future of classical music.