Christopher Zimmerman Named Fairfax Symphony Orchestra's New Music Director

Christopher Zimmerman, the new music director, will split his time between FSO and the Hartt Symphony in Connecticut next season.
Christopher Zimmerman, the new music director, will split his time between FSO and the Hartt Symphony in Connecticut next season. (
By Mark J. Estren
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 22, 2009

At first there were 249 candidates. Then six finalists. Now one has been chosen.

Christopher Zimmerman, whose well-thought-out program of Haydn, Sylvie Bodorová and Shostakovich earned him a standing ovation at his Fairfax Symphony Orchestra audition concert earlier this month, was named the FSO's music director for the next three years by the orchestra's board of directors Wednesday night.

"There's so much potential here. There's a real opportunity to move it to another level," said Zimmerman, 51, from his home in Connecticut, where he will continue to live next season except for his commitment of 12 to 13 weeks to the FSO. Zimmerman's contract as music director of the Hartt Symphony at the University of Hartford has one more year to run. Then he plans to move to Fairfax with his wife, Stevie, and children, Kit, 15, and Maya, 13.

"We needed someone who understands us," said Elizabeth Murphy, the FSO's executive director. "This is a crowded market, a very highly educated market. Each of our finalists spent a week here, not only rehearsing and conducting the orchestra but also visiting Fairfax County public schools to understand our outreach program and meeting various government officials. Christopher did well with everybody."

Doing well all around will be a key to Zimmerman's success. The FSO has an annual budget of $1.2 million, but gets less than $300,000 from ticket sales. The rest comes from Fairfax County, the Virginia Commission for the Arts, the Arts Council of Fairfax County and from individuals, corporations and private foundations. Effective fundraising is a must, and Zimmerman knows it: "Everyone is fighting for the same dollar. We must be able to tap it better than we have so far. You've got to cultivate these things -- I hope to become a figure in the community."

Of course, effective musicmaking is also a must. Marian Egge, who headed the 11-member search committee, said the group wanted someone "who would make the Fairfax Symphony into a treasure that people would really want to go to -- the crown jewel of the community in terms of the arts." That, Egge added, meant having "the ability to produce concerts that are exciting and that the community wants to hear."

That is exactly Zimmerman's plan. "I try to give the audience coherence through a program, and help them with the hard bits," said Zimmerman, a native of London. "But in my first concert [on Sept. 12], maybe I will be a little indulgent of me. I just want to give them pieces I absolutely adore."

The audience got a limited sample of each finalist's musical tastes, with each leading one concert during the FSO's just-concluded season. This approach -- having candidates, in effect, audition for audiences -- is not unique: According to the League of American Orchestras, the Columbus, San Antonio, Charlotte, Bangor and Arkansas symphonies are handling current searches this way; San Antonio and Arkansas are asking for listeners' feedback. The FSO's audience seemed to find that appealing. "We got 350 to 400 comments on each person," said Murphy -- which means nearly half the concertgoers offered their views.

But this was no "American Idol" competition; audience reaction was not the deciding factor. The musicians' comments mattered far more. "We could have worked with any one of the candidates, but we were really looking for that little extra spark that makes you really want to do your best," said Tim Wade, principal second violin and a search committee member. "What we were looking for was something you can't really pin down physically -- it's kind of an emotional feeling that you can't quantify."

Wade thought they found that in Zimmerman. José "Pepe" Figueroa, president of the FSO board of directors, agreed: "To me, musical integrity and integrity as a person is the hardest part. We spent the week each candidate was here just trying to get into his or her soul. I think for the most part we were able to do that."

So does the FSO now have its soul mate? The orchestra's musicians and management certainly hope so. So does Zimmerman: "If I had felt the orchestra was okay but pretty rough around the edges, I would have been less enthusiastic. But they're very professional. I hope this isn't pie in the sky, but I think we might be ready to pounce."

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