Dr. Peart is dean of the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond. Sue Robinson is director of the school's Community Programs Office, which partners with metro organizations, including the Richmond Symphony.
On Sept. 26, the Richmond Symphony christened the renovated Carpenter Theatre as its permanent home, with the opening night of its Masterworks season featuring guest conductor Alastair Willis of Seattle. Two more final candidates in the months-long audition for a new artistic leader for the region's symphony will take the stage in October and November. A new maestro will be named by 2010.
While patrons have had the pleasure of seeing each of the nine candidates in performance, the search committee has a harder task before them. As the figurehead for the orchestra, the conductor often has his or her back to the audience. But where the artistic direction of the symphony goes, so goes the audience and, in many regards, the arts organization's future.
Music directors play three overlapping roles: principal conductor and performing musician; artistic director, who has the artistic vision for the organization; and community arts leader, an advocate, ambassador and teacher working on behalf of the orchestra in its community. This definition is from the American Orchestra League. The complexity of the conductor's role is seen in the league's dauntingly long list of traits that include:
- Comprehensive knowledge of the history of music and its relationship to Western civilization
- An understanding of musician governance structure and collective bargaining
- Ability to work collaboratively with management, boards, volunteers and members of the orchestra
- Thorough grounding in professional ethics
- Language skills to coach singers in French, German, Italian, Latin, Russian and Spanish, and the ability to read source materials in original languages
- Knowledge of the visual arts, particularly of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, as well as a fundamental knowledge of works of literature and drama that have had a considerable impact on music.
According to the league, "the conductor's craft may be described as an art of persuasion by which musicians, audiences and communities come to share a deep connection with the orchestra and its repertoire. Passion, intellect, insight, musical talent and charisma all come into play. A conductor's authority flows from the respect he or she commands, the power of his or her musical vision and the skill and facility by which musical ideas are communicated through physical movement as well as verbal instructions." The mystique that surrounds the conductor's role can obscure one of the most complicated leadership roles around, particularly these days.
Beyond this mastery of the craft of music and conducting, the conductor needs a vision for the orchestra's engagement with its community and must lead his organization in programming, outreach and education that realizes that potential. The conductor must understand the orchestra's challenges and role in a changing society and serve as an influential community advocate for music and music education.
Two years ago, an august group of arts leaders and scholars gathered to discuss the future of the arts and Americans' shrinking leisure time. Convened by National Arts Strategies and the Getty Leadership Institute, participants considered that most Americans spend a whopping 0.17 hours per week in conventional arts participation such as theaters, concerts and museums. That amounts to about nine hours a year. Nine hours a year. TV viewing is increased. Up also are the hours we spend online, whether it be on broadband or mobile devices, living second lives via interactive gaming, or offering up status updates on Facebook.
Where does a regional orchestra fit into what that group described as a fractured leisure life? That's the one big question our new maestro conductor will be answering.
The Getty group did imagine this scenario for a regional orchestra. The report states: "They envisioned their organization as tightly connected to its community, serving as a ‘sound partner' to community life, and selecting their staff, board and musicians according to community fit rather than exclusively technical excellence."
In imagining different scenarios, the arts leaders also reported that: "In a world of less time and more money, the symphony would offer concierge service, a club environment, exceptional catering, and would work to remove barriers to participation while maintaining premium services in support of its bottom line. In a world with more time and more money, the symphony would also contract with cruise ships and other resort opportunities." The arts leaders also imagined a future with fewer resources: "If the future held less time and less money, the symphony would partner with iTunes, offer performances in Best Buy for do-it-yourself recording enthusiasts and make their recorded performances available to music mixers and mash-ups. And, in another scenario, the leaders imagined that the regional symphony "would foster community engagement at all levels, including audience input on the works to be performed, a mix of amateur and professional musicians, and studio recording capabilities for the ensemble and for others."
Quite likely, in one way or another, all those scenarios will likely ring true for Richmond. The strategic leadership decisions to be made are many. They include deciding how to focus outreach efforts that serve all area residents and how to set priorities that best put the organization on a path to a successful and stable and secure and creative future.
Such musing and imagining about the future of regional orchestras in the digital age, in a time of shrinking leisure time spent in pursuit of the traditional arts, will be very much the job of the new conductor.
The Richmond Symphony has a history of innovation and in choosing its artistic leaders well. Consider:
- The symphony's first conductor, Edgar Schenkman ( 1957-1971), bridged the educational and entertainment aspects of the organization in such a way that the orchestra quickly became one of the city's cultural anchors. He founded the youth orchestra in 1962. The youth program expanded, and alumni of this program now number in the thousands. Many youth orchestra alums went onto to study music at the college level, some to perform around the world and some to teach music in the region.
- Jacques Houtmann (1971-1986) brought the romantic spirit of his native France to life on stage in Richmond and is remembered for creating an era of great style in the concert hall. Houtmann was the voice of the organization during a pivotal time, the opening of the Carpenter Center in 1982. He was instrumental in the preparations of bringing a new hall to the community and forged partnerships with area universities including the University of Richmond and Randolph-Macon College.
- George Manahan (1986-1999) left a legacy of community building by bringing the classics to Richmonders in new and innovative ways, including programs in nontraditional venues like Tredegar Iron Works. He distinguished the orchestra through his programming choices and led the organization to win seven national ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) awards. Appointed music director for the New York City Opera, he has had a lauded career in opera and is well known for world premieres.
- Mark Russell Smith (1999-present) is leaving Richmond for a unique dual role as the artistic director of orchestral studies at the University of Minnesota and director of new music projects at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. His tenure in Richmond has been distinguished by his ability to build ensembles and artistic quality and his masterfully leadership of the orchestra through an unprecedented time of transition after the Carpenter Center closed. Also, Mark led the orchestra in its first performance at Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center, a national stage.
In terms of art and leadership, these are all big acts to follow. We'll await eagerly the announcement in early 2010 of our new maestro.