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As 2009 takes a bow, still no music director

The many candidates have been heard, their qualities weighed and debated. Yet the Philadelphia Orchestra today isn't much closer to naming a music director than it was in 2006 when it confirmed that it would part with German conductor Christoph Eschenbach.

Guest conductors the board has considered include Canadian  Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who had a promising first appearance but a disappointing second one ...
Guest conductors the board has considered include Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who had a promising first appearance but a disappointing second one ...Read more

The many candidates have been heard, their qualities weighed and debated. Yet the Philadelphia Orchestra today isn't much closer to naming a music director than it was in 2006 when it confirmed that it would part with German conductor Christoph Eschenbach.

But as the search wends through another year and as the need for a musical authority figure grows more urgent, at least three possible paths are emerging.

Some orchestra leaders say it's time to offer Charles Dutoit, the group's 73-year-old chief conductor, the full responsibilities and title of music director as it continues to look for a younger conductor to take over.

Others advocate simultaneously naming a principal guest conductor, perhaps Russian-born Berliner Vladimir Jurowski, who may or may not one day become music director.

And many would rather see the orchestra stay on its present course, working through a list of promising talent for first and second visits.

The orchestra board, which has sole authority to make a hire, would like to name a music director this season - and do so with an enthusiastic nod from the two search committees and rank-and-file musicians.

But no consensus has swept the ensemble on who should win the post, which will likely pay from $1.5 million to $2 million a season. And it's important to remember that the orchestra board can hire without a recommendation from musicians, although the Eschenbach outcome proved the perils of a unilateral decision.

The search coincides with depressed ticket sales and a fiscal crisis so severe that the orchestra is trying to raise a $15 million emergency bridge fund to see it through the next few years.

Every decision at the orchestra today goes back to money. Some board members think a new conductor can revive attendance; this season, on average, the house has been only 63 percent full (including college students, who attend for a nominal fee, so ticket income is even lower than that).

There are compelling musical reasons to name someone soon. In some ways, the ensemble is rudderless. In his highly unusual and reduced role, Dutoit does not have a say in personnel matters, such as the hiring of players. But there are equally convincing arguments to wait, since the musicians have not been galvanized by any current contender. No one wants to repeat the futile waiting-for-chemistry Eschenbach era.

"Speed dating" is what some observers are calling this period in the orchestra's artistic life, and the trouble with it was again underscored early this month by the visit of young Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin. He had had a promising first appearance, and musicians and board had convinced themselves that a second would clinch it. But the second visit was a disappointment, and now musicians are ambivalent about him.

The other trouble with such speed dating is that there is nothing speedy about it. Conductors' schedules are usually packed several years in advance, so if conductor and orchestra have a successful first encounter, it can be a year or two before a second date can be arranged.

Romance is one useful metaphor, but the better one may be bumper cars.

A few weeks ago, Italian conductor Daniele Gatti was out of favor after an October appearance. Now, after Nézet-Séguin's more recent visit, Gatti is back in play. Would he survive a second visit?

On its unofficial roster of candidates during the last few years, the orchestra has hosted some of the most substantive musical personalities active today: Michael Tilson Thomas, Iván Fischer, Osmo Vänskä, Jirí Belohlávek, Jaap van Zweden, and Stéphane Denève.

But there's a growing sense that as the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra turn up their noses at various conductors, the world's top podium talent is moving on and taking other jobs.

What's not clear, even to many musicians and board members, is what the criteria are.

Allison B. Vulgamore, slated to take over as president Jan. 18, has already been involved in the music-director search, attending meetings with musicians and conductors. She and new board chairman Richard Worley will have to decide how much weight to give to purely musical qualities and how much to factors such as willingness to raise money and engage in community and education projects.

"There is no one good answer to that question," Vulgamore said in September, after agreeing to take the Philadelphia job after a long tenure at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. "Because if you have an extraordinary talent, then the question the organization has to ask itself is: Do you surround him with an infrastructure that is unique to that person?

"We don't have that luxury at the moment. We're fiscally more challenged than I've seen any orchestra be. It is a humble and courageous time for us fiscally. So we don't need to buy down, but we do need a partner in that position, someone who enjoys connecting with the city of Philadelphia, someone who does that musically and intellectually, and is open to various minds at the table and the programming.

"What I am hearing this organization wants to do - which is the final thing that put me over the top - is they're ready for an aligning, purposeful way of envisioning the future. So the next partner needs to want to be a part of that."

Even though Eschenbach left in 2008, the board's knowledge of the need for a music director goes back to at least 2006, when the orchestra hired its previous president, James Undercofler, with the understanding that he would facilitate Eschenbach's departure.

So why is the Philadelphia Orchestra, one of the country's top ensembles, having so much trouble signing new musical leadership?

Most successful relationships develop apart from the glare and pressure of announced music-director searches. If any orchestra is constantly engaging conductors with an eye to the future, relationships develop organically, and a smart succession makes itself apparent.

But after naming Wolfgang Sawallisch, who took over in 1993 at 70, and then Eschenbach in 2001, the orchestra has failed to develop deep relationships with a range of conductors.

At the moment, musicians and audiences have cultivated sustained connections only with Dutoit and Simon Rattle, who chose the Berlin Philharmonic over Philadelphia.

Jurowski, 37, may fast be catching up. Even musicians who don't love him respect him. His October concerts were well-attended - an orchestra spokeswoman declined to provide specific figures - despite being potentially thwarted by the World Series, Halloween, and bad weather. His forthcoming visits are selling well.

But would he take the job of music director?

Musicians and board members reported from a dinner with the conductor that the question had been posed to him and that he, in essence, had said no.

But anyone who takes that answer seriously doesn't appreciate classical music's coyest ritual. No conductor goes on the record with a "yes" for fear of being the publicly declared passed-over candidate if another gets the job.

Unless and until an offer is made, no one is sure what the answer would be.

Sometimes even "no" does not mean no. The orchestra might forget that Sawallisch first turned down the job before accepting.

But Jurowski isn't waiting around for the phone to ring. He is expected shortly to sign on for three more years with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and although he is expected to give up his post at Glyndebourne, the opera festival that keeps him in the English countryside several months each summer, other appointments are being discussed.

Some board members desperately want to hire youth, and look hungrily to the West Coast for inspiration. They admire 65-year-old Tilson Thomas' passion for education at the San Francisco Symphony, but speak longingly of the publicity machine that has puffed up around Gustavo Dudamel, the incessantly smiling, shaggy-haired 28-year-old music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

But Los Angeles is a different city with a different orchestra. Dudamel brings a boyish visage to a city that cherishes youth, and he carries a compelling rags-to-riches story.

It's important to realize, too, that Dudamel is three months into his Los Angeles tenure - too early to know what his presence might mean for ticket sales.

What also appeals to orchestra leaders here about both California groups is the idea that a conductor can connect an orchestra to its city - if not through revelations in the score, then at least by telegraphing ineffable qualities like charisma, sex appeal, and raw energy.

These nonmusical considerations come as the orchestra examines numerous assumptions about its role in the city.

Can it continue to play its traditional 100 or so subscription concerts in Verizon Hall each season, or will it take its music to the suburbs? Should it cut those 100 concerts down to, say, 75 and spend the other 25 doing pops concerts and education projects?

And where does a music director fit in?

"For me, it's a whole mind you're adding to the organization," Vulgamore said in September. "What are we looking for in that mind? We know what we're looking for in terms of excellence and the notion of taking the ensemble as far it can possibly go, and the person having a musical vision. But what about the holistic sense of designing something for the future?"

In a conductor search of competing values, Vulgamore expressed one idea with which no one can quibble:

"The right person has to come."