Musicians Balk at Choice Of Baltimore Conductor

Yuri Temirkanov, who will step down as BSO music director after next season, conducts the orchestra in February at the Music Center at Strathmore.
Yuri Temirkanov, who will step down as BSO music director after next season, conducts the orchestra in February at the Music Center at Strathmore. (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 18, 2005

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is on the verge of naming the first woman in history to run a major orchestra, but a group of its musicians objected yesterday, saying the search process was not yet complete.

After the orchestra's seven-month search, Marin Alsop, music director of the Bournemouth Symphony in England and perhaps the best-known female conductor in the world, is poised to become the BSO's 12th music director, replacing Yuri Temirkanov, who has announced that he will step down at the end of the 2005-2006 season.

But in an all-but-unprecedented move, the seven members of the orchestra who served on the 21-member search committee have unanimously asked the BSO's board to continue the search.

The board is due to meet tomorrow morning. It had been expected to certify Alsop's appointment -- orchestra search committee recommendations are usually followed -- but opposition among the musicians to naming Alsop at this time is unusually strong.

"The musicians of the Baltimore Symphony are asking Philip English, chairman of the Board of Directors, to postpone any vote on the appointment of a new Music Director," the orchestra's Players Committee, an elected group in charge of contractual matters and negotiations between musicians and management, said in a statement released yesterday. "The musicians ask that any decision be delayed until Thanksgiving of this year, which will allow opportunities for the orchestra to work with and consider several additional conductors who are scheduled to appear this fall."

The statement did not mention Alsop by name, nor did it raise specific concerns about her readiness to take on such a job. Attempts to contact Alsop last night at her home in New York and on her cell phone were not successful.

"The Artistic Advisory Committee, seven musicians who represent the whole orchestra, has carefully surveyed the entire active membership," the statement continued. "Approximately ninety percent of the orchestra musicians believe that ending the search process now, before we are sure the best candidate has been found, would be a disservice to the patrons of the BSO and all music lovers in Maryland.

"The Artistic Advisory Committee was promised an opportunity to speak with the Board of Directors before a decision regarding the appointment of a new Music Director is made. Given recent disclosures to the press it is clear that contract negotiations are underway with a candidate. This reinforces our view that a decision has been made without the full participation and agreement of the BSO musicians. If the Board of Directors makes a decision opposed by the vast majority of the orchestra, all confidence in the current leadership of the orchestra would be lost."

English, reached last night at his home in Baltimore, refused to comment. "The musicians are going to make a presentation along with the search committee, and then we'll make a decision," he said.

The seven musicians on the search committee are among the most distinguished in the orchestra. They are Robert Barney, principal bass; Ilya Finkelshteyn, principal cello; Katherine Needleman, principal oboe; trombonist John Vance; bass trombonist Randall Campora; violinist Craig Richmond; and violist Peter Minkler. They were elected by the rest of the orchestra in the knowledge that they would be choosing a music director. The search committee also included seven board members, six administrative staff members and one outside consultant. Members of the search committee are bound by signed confidentiality agreements.

The committee's most recent meeting took place Wednesday in Baltimore. "There was no vote," according to Barney, who attended and who helped draft the statement released yesterday. "We were supposed to reach a consensus, but it quickly became apparent that it was the musicians on one side and everybody else on the other."

He declined to comment on any other aspects of the meeting or the search process, but said that when the group broke up, it was clear that a decision had been made to go with Alsop.

Word of the pending appointment was leaked to the media Thursday night. BSO President James Glicker said Friday that the leak was "premature" and that an agreement had not been fully hashed out, but acknowledged that Alsop would likely be the new music director. Barney said that a letter requesting a delay in the appointment had been delivered to the executive committee more than a week ago, well before Alsop's name surfaced.

Alsop, 48, has led the Colorado Symphony, the Eugene (Ore.) Symphony and the Long Island Philharmonic, and made guest appearances with most of the major American orchestras. She has made many recordings, mostly for the Naxos label. She is best known for her interpretations of American music, although she has moved increasingly into the standard repertory.

The Baltimore Symphony was founded in 1916, originally as a branch of the municipal government (it was privatized in 1942). Today, the BSO has almost 100 full-time musicians, an annual budget of approximately $30 million and an endowment of almost $75 million. Moreover -- especially in the last eight years, under Temirkanov -- it has come to be known as one of the leading ensembles in the country, capable of performances that combine prismatic sonic color with unusually tender interpretive sensitivity.

Yet it also has an accumulated deficit of approximately $10 million and attendance at many of its concerts is sparse, especially at its home base in downtown Baltimore's Meyerhoff Hall. The orchestra now plays once a week during the concert season at the newly opened Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, where sales are brisk.

It is unclear whether the board will heed the musicians. Traditionally, orchestral managements go their own way; in one famous case, Lorin Maazel was made music director of the Cleveland Orchestra in the early 1970s with only 2 percent of the orchestra naming him as first choice to replace George Szell.

Jane Marvine, who plays English horn in the orchestra and serves as the chairman of the Players Committee, stressed that the musicians were well aware of what she called the "tremendous challenges" facing the orchestra. "We want to work hand in hand with the board and with the community to meet those difficulties," she said. "But we want our views taken into account, especially when it comes to so crucial a decision as the choice of a new music director."

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