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The MSO's Music Director Selection Process

First there were 159, then 75, then 30. Then eight and three. Now there are two. This countdown, underway for nearly a year and a half, is not an ultra-slow- motion football replay, but rather the careful stages of passing the baton to the next music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. MSO's general manager Sandra Madden explained the details of the complex and protracted selection task: "Our eight-member hiring committee developed a detailed set of fixed requirements and desirable attributes for evaluating the candidates in each phase of the process. We associated a numerical index with each of the qualities we were looking for and scored the applicants in a uniform way."

For the early stages, the committee relied mainly on the formal requirements of the job: was the person qualified for the portion of the duties connected with being an MATC staff member? Did they have a suitable educational background, including study with other conductors? What was their prior orchestra experience: how big was it, what sort of a community was it in, how professional was it? Were they really looking for a permanent berth here in Madison, or were their agents mainly seeking guest appearances for them? What had critics elsewhere said about their performances, what did their personal references say about them? The committee was also concerned about objectivity and fairness. "We had all photographs, pictures in reviews, tapes, and videos removed by an independent party," Madden told me, "so that we would not be influenced by factors other than those we were prepared to score under our system." The audio and video tapes would be used after the number of candidates was reduced from from 30 to 8. After the first cut, the committee probed each candidate's experience more deeply. "This job involves not just the orchestra and the MATC parts, but also the Symphony Chorus and the Madison Opera," Madden said, "and we also needed to assess how well the person might work out as the focal point of our growth plan for the MSO, including being a resident here, doing public speaking and other appearances, and so forth." The group was conscientious about promptly informing those not selected at each stage, releasing them to pursue other options.

To help bring the selection down to the semi-final group of eight, the committee sought tapes and videos from those who hadn't already submitted them, and began informal networking with other musicians. At the point when three of eight would be chosen for guest appearances during the 1993-94 season, phone interviews with each candidate were conducted. Videos of rehearsals and performances augmented the interviews. At this stage, the members of the committee began to advocate for or against particular candidates, and when there was consensus on the three finalists, the next task was to schedule them for guest appearances here.

The dates and soloists for the season had already been set. "We were just lucky," Madden told me, "for it turned out that with one minor adjustment, all three could fit with our dates." So it was that John DeMain, Joseph Giunta and George Hanson came to Madison for the better part of a hectic week, each to try in his turn to win over the committee with solid qualifications, woo the major patrons with sophistication and charm, wow the orchestra members with professional competence, and warm the audience with a challenging yet familiar program. Not long after Giunta's appearance in Madison, his agent wrote to ask that his client's name be withdrawn from consideration. Though the letter, which Madden read to me, betrays no hint of this, I'd heard a rumor to the effect that Giunta didn't feel a a strong rapport with the orchestra. So now there are just two, DeMain and Hanson.

A major element in this transition is the musicians of the orchestra themselves. As president of the hiring committee, oboeist Marc Fink could represent the orchestra players' interests generally. But to find out more, I spoke with concertmaster Tyrone Greive. I didn't yet know that Giunta was out of the picture. Of DeMain, Grieve said, "He is a very strong musical leader, with quite definite ideas, which he expressed authoritatively. His goal was to help the orchestra play toward its capacity." Reading between the lines, I took this to mean that DeMain was a tough and very demanding person. Having described Giunta (he was the second guest) as "more of an expediter, a person with his own ideas but willing to let the players realize them in their own fashion," Greive went on to say that Hanson was "a very meticulous worker, perhaps somewhat between the other two. He's a good craftsman, strong on ensemble, and able to put things together well."

Greive also gave me some insights into what the orchestra might think about the whole process of this dramatic change. "This has been a useful learning experience for us," he said, "because the orchestra has not had many guest conductors in the past. We've been in a certain pattern during Roland Johnson's long tenure, and there is a growing excitement for the change."

That idea led me to seek out Johnson himself and get his views of the matter, though he's not involved in the selection of his successor. There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that his leaving is going to be a gut-wrenching experience for all concerned. He doesn't say so in so many words, but I think it will be a major jolt for him as well. "All of the candidates are strong and assertive," he said. Ever full of enthusiasm and love of what he does, Johnson went on, "I didn't expect to be working this hard, but that's how it has turned out. I haven't had time to figure out what I'm going to do with myself, after." After still isn't easy to imagine.

A few more final weeks of deliberation, then either DeMain or Hanson will get the nod. While neither seems to me the ideal solution, either could certainly do the job well, if things went in the optimal direction. What I see as optimal would be for the new person, not just sometimes, but every time, to get our players so fired up, so keenly honed, so inspired as a group that they wind up playing better than they can play. Any musician will tell you this is possible; there's a little miracle that happens inside you somewhere, and all of a sudden wonderful things are coming out as though guided by a divine hand not quite your own. In the end, the quality of the music is the most decisive factor for the future.

Wonderful things for our orchestra, whoever ends up wielding the baton, would include a long period of secure and productive growth, building on the considerable accomplishments of the Johnson era, and moving toward such innovations as taking the orchestra to nearby communities and eventually enlarging the subscription series here in Madison to two performances of every program. Community support has to grow in proportion, of course. It could be about the best thing that ever happened here.

Isthmus, January, 1994
Copyright 1994 Jess Anderson

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