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A Look at the First Year of Pacific Symphony's Search for a New Leader

Several trends in the orchestral world raise the stakes as conductors vie for a coveted position.

Pacific Symphony's guest conductors during the 2023-24 season. They are likely contenders to replace Carl St.Clair. Top row from left: Christian Kluxen, Ludovic Morlot, Alexander Shelley and Matthew Halls. Bottom row, from left: Andrew Litton, Carlos Miguel Prieto, Shiyeon Sung and Tianyi Yu. Photos courtesy of Pacific Symphony/Doug Gifford
 

This season and next, fans of Pacific Symphony can watch a fascinating process that has only happened once before in the orchestra’s 45-year history: the search for a new conductor. Carl St.Clair, Pacific Symphony’s music director since 1990, will pass the baton to his successor, presumably after the 2024-25 season. This season, eight guest conductors led the orchestra – most of them auditioning for the job of music director. Next year we’ll see four more. 


Pacific Symphony’s transition comes at an interesting juncture for American orchestras. 


Many are searching for new music directors, or have recently appointed them. Gustavo Dudamel moves from Los Angeles to New York in 2025, and the search is on for a worthy successor. The Chicago Symphony just announced that Riccardo Muti, 82, will be succeeded by 28-year-old Klaus Mäkelä. The San Francisco Symphony will lose Esa-Pekka Salonen in 2025 after financial difficulties revealed conflicts between the Finnish maestro and the orchestra’s board. It’s been a golden period for top-shelf conductors seeking a new gig – and a more competitive time for orchestras looking to hire one.


Several issues have roiled the conducting world in the last few years, and undoubtedly they will play a part in Pacific Symphony’s search. Among them:


  • The dearth of women conductors. With the retirement of Marin Alsop from the Baltimore Symphony in 2021, only one of America’s top 25 orchestras is led by a woman: Nathalie Stutzmann at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, appointed in 2022. In Europe, conductors such as Odaline de la Martinez, Ariane Matiakh, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, Emmanuelle Haïm, Barbara Hannigan and Susanna Mälkki have established major careers. They have no equivalents in the U.S. The lineup of guest conductors this season and next at Pacific Symphony includes three women: Shiyeon Sung, Tianyi Lu and Valentina Peleggi.


  • The decline of American conductors at major orchestras. A March 6 New York Times article pointed out that in 2008, Americans led orchestras in Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis and Washington, D.C. “Today, the only one of those ensembles still led by an American is the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Four of the 25 largest ensembles in the United States have an American at the podium, and at the nation’s biggest, most prestigious orchestras, American music directors are entirely absent.” Pacific Symphony’s roster of guest conductors includes only one American so far, Andrew Litton. The U.K., France, Denmark, Mexico, South Korea and China are also represented in the 2023-24 lineup.


  • A lack of diversity generally at the podium. Besides a dearth of women, there has never been a Black music director among major American orchestras (the late James DePreist was a prominent guest conductor or associate conductor with major orchestras but never served as music director of a top-rated symphony). Just a handful of major conductors have been Latino or Asian. “It’s been a paternalistic industry to some degree for a long time,” Kim Noltemy, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s chief executive, said in a Classical Music Guide interview. “In the last 20 years it’s changed quite a bit, but there’s lag time for the top-level leadership, whether it’s management or conductors.”


  • New financial concerns. Post-pandemic ticket sales have bounced back healthily for many orchestras but subscriptions are declining, and many patrons are purchasing tickets at the last minute. All over the country, earned income has become less predictable. Donations are down, too. Institutional funding sources are rethinking their philosophies and generally giving less to large arts organizations, and the pool of potential corporate donors is shrinking. The next generation of private donors has a different attitude toward the arts, and social causes are attracting more interest. The money problem is compounded by inflation and rising labor costs. Increasingly, music directors are becoming involved in fundraising.


Mangan's Take So Far

Here are brief summaries of the reviews written so far by Culture OC’s classical music critic, Timothy Mangan, who will critique all of the guest conductors appearing with Pacific Symphony in 2023-24 and 2024-25. Click on each conductor's name to read the complete reviews of the performances.


Christian Kluxen and Ludovic Morlot. Photos courtesy of Pacific Symphony/Doug Gifford

 

Christian Kluxen: The Danish conductor of the Victoria Symphony in Canada showed himself ready in ways both big and small. The orchestra played with special gusto and clarity for him in Sibelius and Prokofiev (the intricate 5th Symphony). He opened with some rare Lili Boulanger, suggesting his musical curiosity. He’s a witty speaker as well.


Ludovic Morlot: The well-known and much admired French conductor would be quite a catch. His unusual program featured two new works by California composers, some seldom-encountered Rachmaninoff and an exceptionally bracing account of Debussy’s La Mer.


Alexander Shelley and Matthew Halls. Photos courtesy of Pacific Symphony/Doug Gifford

 

Alexander Shelley: The English conductor is a dapper presence on the platform and he found surprising elegance in the stodgy accompaniment to Chopin’s F-minor Concerto and put a spit polish on Dvorak’s “New World.” He gave us a fascinating avant-garde piece by Sophia Gubaidulina to begin.


Matthew Halls: The Oxford-educated British conductor brings an interesting background to the table, as a keyboardist with extensive experience in early music. Meanwhile, he hit Vaughan Williams’s dark, gritty and complex 6th Symphony (in a first performance by the orchestra) clean out of the park. He gave a good ride to Sibelius’ En Saga and some Tchaikovsky as well.


Andrew Litton and Carlos Miguel Prieto. Photos courtesy of Pacific Symphony/Doug Gifford

 

Andrew Litton: The only American to audition so far, Litton, 64, has vast experience under his belt and a clear command on the podium. His account of the Symphony No. 5 by Shostakovich (a composer he met!) was perfectly calibrated. He added some lovely music by the American Charles Tomlinson Griffes and even joined his soloist for a playful piano four hands encore. Beat that.


Carlos Miguel Prieto: The veteran Mexican conductor, 58, currently music director of the North Carolina Symphony, gave us a tautly focused, smartly inflected and very well played reading of Mahler’s sprawling 5th Symphony. An invigorating new piece by Gabriela Ortiz and some stylish Haydn revealed his range.


Shiyeon Sung and Tianyi Yu. Photos courtesy of Pacific Symphony/Doug Gifford

 

Shiyeon Sung: The Korean musician was the first woman conductor to try out and led with equal parts intelligence and authority. Her account of Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony was intensely felt, relentlessly so, and she exhibited a keen Mozartian ear and touch in the Piano Concerto No. 21. Her little chamber music opener by a fellow Korean showed her easy control of prickly modernistic complexities.


Tianyi Yu: The young, Chinese-born New Zealander, a recent Dudamel Fellow, is a remarkable, charismatic figure on the podium. Her interpretation of Sibelius’s 2nd Symphony bloomed tonally and unwound lyrically. In Beethoven, she proved exuberant, robust, confident. To open, music by an obscure Swedish woman composer of the 19th century suggested her interests in musical advocacy.

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