When James Freeman founded a new music group in 1988, the name he chose might have suggested a specific date of expiry: Orchestra 2001.

Today, with that once-futuristic-sounding year far in the rearview mirror, Orchestra 2001 is still here, and is still presenting 20th - and now 21st century - art music. But by the end of the season, Orchestra 2001 promises to be something quite different. Freeman has retired, and what once looked like a sole proprietorship with a limited run has emerged as a self-perpetuating, board-run organization.

A search committee considered 70 potential Freeman successors and winnowed the list to four finalists, each of whom takes a program this season.

The first arrives this weekend: Jayce Ogren, 36, a Brooklyn conductor with a background varied enough to have led both West Side Story with the Pittsburgh Symphony and Basil Twist's take on The Rite of Spring with the Orchestra of St. Luke's at Lincoln Center.

After all four have conducted, impressions will be gathered, qualities weighed. "A survey will be posted online, and we hope to hear the views of musicians, audience members, reviewers, and of course, the search committee and other board members," says board vice president Jean Dowdall. The board will decide in April.

"A primary criterion is musical ability," says Dowdall, "but while that is an essential feature, it is not sufficient in itself to make a good artistic director. Other criteria include leadership, the ability to articulate a vision and engage others, including donors, in pursuing it; management, working within a budget, planning effectively, and handling important personnel decisions; and personal qualities like communication skills and approachability."

Freeman was local, but now there is no residency requirement. Leaders call this an advantage: Whoever comes can import new ideas - artists, repertoire, novel concert formats.

For anyone who has tracked 2001's run, Freeman's departure raises important questions: Will it continue to perform at Swarthmore? Yes, at least through 2016-17, and, 2001 hopes, beyond. Is touring - which has taken it to Russia, Qatar, Cuba, China, and Dubai - still important? Maybe more than ever. Is the ensemble still interested in avant-garde giant George Crumb, now 85? Very much so.

Artistic growth is the goal. "Of course, we expect our relationship with Crumb to continue, but we need other Crumbs," says composer Andrew Rudin, board member and interim artistic coordinator. He says the group also aims to make new friends for new music. "We think our vision will attract not only a new artistic director, but also new sponsors, board members, and donors."

What will the future sound like?

As artistic director, Ogren says, he'd search for intersections of repertoire and space, "including places one may not expect to hear a concert.

"I can envision a new staging of a chamber opera where singers, players, and audience members travel together through different rooms of a renovated warehouse. But I can also imagine pairing the music of Lachenmann and Beethoven - music that lends itself to a more hushed, acoustically whitewashed experience - working perfectly at the Kimmel or Swarthmore's Lang Concert Hall."

Ogren, also a composer, studied conducting at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm with highly regarded pedagogue Jorma Panula and says he loved new music even as a child.

"I wasn't immediately drawn to Bach, Haydn, or Brahms, but I scoured the shelves at the library and record store for John Adams, Steve Reich, Aaron Copland, and Samuel Barber. This music resonated with me then for the same reasons it does now: There's an immediate freshness to the sounds, a dizzying array of colors and harmonies with vast expressive potential, and an edge to the music - and often a sense of fatalism - that, for better or worse, rings true in the modern world."

When Timothy Weiss led the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble at the Cleveland Museum of Art a year ago, the Plain Dealer called it an "astonishingly vital performance." Weiss, 48, offers experience. Director of Oberlin College's Division of Contemporary Music, he has degrees from the Royal Conservatory of Music in Brussels, Northwestern University, and the University of Michigan, and has mentored the new-music group Eighth Blackbird.

Like the others, he is attracted to alternative venues. Repertoire, he says, "should include the well known and the unknown, the minimalists and the maximalists, proven, established composers and young up-and-coming composers," as well as Philadelphians and composers new to audiences here.

"How do we select works that illuminate each other, so that the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts?" asks Ryan McAdams, 33, another candidate from Brooklyn. A Juilliard School and Indiana University graduate, he was the first-ever recipient of the Sir Georg Solti Emerging Conductor Award. "In terms of genre, some of the best contemporary music today is being written for theater, for dance, for opera. I come from the theater, so that's my comfort level."

One former Philadelphian is a candidate. Jeffrey Milarsky, a 1984 Central High graduate now on the faculty at Juilliard, is founding director of Axiom, Juilliard's new-music ensemble, and a percussionist. "I have known about this legendary group since my student days at Juilliard," said Milarsky, 48, who lives in Manhattan. "Being from Philadelphia, of course, this adds special meaning for me. I hope to continue with the long traditions of the group while adding some of my specialties, such as larger sinfonietta pieces of the great Europeans - Boulez, Birtwistle, Messiaen, as well as American composers such as Davidovsky, Druckman, Lang, and Reich."

With four strong candidates, all slightly different specialist's specialists, it's easy to imagine Orchestra 2001 benefiting from each. In fact, it may. Says Rudin, in a twist not found in many other talent searches: "No matter who becomes artistic director, we hope to maintain relationships with all four."

MUSIC

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Orchestra 2001 Music Director Candidates in Concert

Jayce Ogren, Saturday and Sunday; Ryan McAdams, Jan. 23 and 24; Jeffrey Milarsky, Feb. 13 and 14; and Timothy Weiss, March 19 and 20.

Information: 267-687-6243 or www.orchestra2001.orgEndText

215-854-5611