When Ken Bowermeister, a much-loved musical figure and formative Pine View School orchestra director, stepped down as music director and conductor for the Venice Symphony at the end of the 2015–16 season, he left a house suddenly and unexpectedly divided. In the midst of a new executive director in Christine Kasten and an interim music director in Imre Palló, a Hungarian-born conductor with an international resume of near countless philharmonics, orchestras and operas, some crucial part of the lines of communication seemed to short out, leading to confusion within the orchestra, rumors and, ultimately, resignations. Some musicians’ contracts weren’t renewed, others left of their own accord and Palló stepped down earlier than expected. Today, in the midst of a 2017-18 season full of sold-out shows, last year is the distant past and Venice Symphony looks to the future in its search for a new music director. With a themed season dubbed Finding Maestro, the orchestra performs under the guidance of a different conductor for each of the seven concerts, giving the musicians, the administration and the community at large a chance to imagine a continued relationship. And with four under their belt and three to go, a decision will have to be made soon. “The musicians have never played better,” says Kasten. “Now we just need that last component—that music director to take us even further.”

JANNA HYMES

But finding the perfect fit takes time and hard work, and Venice Symphony’s search actually began way back in June of 2015, when a search committee first formed under the leadership of Edmund Campbell, Jr., a member of the Venice Symphony board and former president of the board. Together with 12 other members, including orchestra musicians, other board members and important donors, Campbell set about the business of getting the word out that the Venice Symphony was looking for a new music director. They solicited guidance from the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University and the Pierre Monteux School in Hancock, MA. On the advice of the American League of Orchestras, each committee member received a copy of Roger Saydack’s Music Director Search Handbook. They posted notice in trade magazines and asked applicants to submit a quick bio, an account of their repertoire, their reasons for wanting to join Venice Symphony and videos of both a performance and a rehearsal. They hoped for a respectable show of interest; they got 164 applications. 

STILIAN KIROV

Some were obviously overqualified, says Campbell, or held similar positions in other towns already and could not realistically be expected to be the ambassador to the Venice community that Venice Symphony is looking for. Kasten agrees. “We want somebody who can be here,” she says. “Unfortunately, nowadays, it’s unusual to find a music director who is based in the community. But this person has to be willing to engage with the community.” In this first culling, Campbell and his crew would whittle the 164 applicants to a more manageable 35. “We did have communication with every one of them though,” says Campbell with a note of pride. “Everyone that submitted an application got a response. We were very careful not to burn any bridges.” From those conversations, and further deliberation, the 35 became 14.

At this point, the question becomes very little about technical acumen. Each of the 14 are tried and true professionals, with experience and accolades to back their bid. The question becomes of a personal nature—what kind of music director and conductor are you? Kasten, with her business and marketing background, emphasizes the community role expected from a Venice Symphony maestro, wanting a partner in fundraising, establishing youth programs like the youth orchestra and generally expanding the audience. Campbell agrees, but takes the question a step further, asking not only for community engagement but compatibility as well. For example, many applicants on the younger side were looking to entice a young audience through their programming, but Campbell wants to be sure that Venice Symphony’s current supporters, an older audience, remains a focus. And, he emphasizes, Venice Symphony has its traditions, which he expects to be respected, likely a reference to reported disagreements between Pallo and Symphony administration over the 25-year practice of playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before every concert. In fact, the committee asked every candidate their position on the matter. “It isn’t anything unusual to our town,” says Campbell, “and we wanted to make sure it wasn’t anything unusual to our candidates.” Interviewing all 14 via Skype for roughly an hour each, Campbell and his crew narrowed the field to the final seven. With nothing left to glean from conversation, all that remained was to see them in action. And with seven prospects and seven concerts, Finding Maestro was born.

TROY QUINN

Each conductor comes to town for roughly a week, arriving on a Sunday, rehearsing a few times through the week and then leading concerts on Friday evening and Saturday morning before departing. During the daytime, the members of the committee show off the Venice area and its amenities and cultural touchstones. “Showing what they ought to see and what they want to see,” says Campbell, noting that the auditorium, built only two years ago, remains a major draw. 

Teresa Cheung arrived first, leading Finding Maestro’s debut concert in November. A 10-year veteran of the Altoona Symphony Orchestra, where she served as music conductor, Cheung regularly collaborates with symphonies, ballets and operas around the world, including the New York City Ballet and the Hong Kong Sinfonietta. “The main goal is to make music a very vital part of the growth of the city, rather than just being entertainment,” she says, thinking back on her time in Venice. “Music has the ability to build a community and increase diversity. That’s something I see is very vital for Venice.” Making her Venice debut, Cheung led the orchestra in performing two selections of her own—Weber’s Overture to Oberon and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E Minor—and one of Venice Symphony’s choosing—Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B Minor. The choices are revealing of how Cheung would program a season, she says, looking for thematic connections for a rewarding concert beyond the obvious. All three pieces, while also achievements of the Romantic Era, also reflect composers at various points of tension in their lives, with Dvorak living abroad in a place he didn’t understand, Tchaikovsky facing the pressure of following up his instantly acclaimed fourth symphony and Weber confronting money troubles. These little stories add to the overall experience and further humanize what could be abstract.

Following Cheung, December brought rising star Wesley Schulz for a holiday-themed concert featuring Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker and more, followed by the arrival of Stilian Kirov, current music director of the Illinois Philharmonic, winning conductor of the 2017 Debut Berlin Competition and Sarasota resident. “It’s an orchestra with limitless possibilities to grow,” says Kirov, who led the musicians in performances of Tchaikovsky’s Snow Maiden Suite, Debussy’s La Mer and Richard Strauss’ Musical Epitaphs. And while he’s excited at the prospect of leading this growth, he knows when to play second fiddle, so to speak. “A very important aspect of a music director’s job is to learn about the orchestra as much as you can in the first year or first few months,” he says. “Then, together with the board, with the musicians, you set the course.” Following Kirov, conductor Steven Jarvi, interim artistic director of the Charlottesville Opera and resident conductor of the St. Louis Symphony, led the orchestra in February, followed by Janna Hymes (Carmel Symphony Orchestra, Williamsburg Symphony Orchestra) in March and Silas N. Huff (Astoria Symphony Orchestra, Boulder Concert Band, Paramount Pops) in April.

After the final concerts in May, under the baton of Troy Quinn, former concertmaster for the New York Philharmonic, Venice Symphony will move quickly to make its choice in time for the incoming season. “Without exception, everyone has been blown away by the quality of these candidates thus far,” said Campbell in January, but the decision will not ultimately lie with him or the search committee (which he agrees with, saying, “I can’t tell a good director from a bad director sitting in the balcony.”) The search committee will make its suggestions, as will the orchestra members themselves, but the decision will finally be made by the board. Kasten says they hope to have a decision by mid-May, but negotiations could last into June. “But we’re going to move as quickly as we can,” she says.