Whatever you do, don’t call the conductors “finalists” or their concerts “try-outs.”
Southwest Florida Symphony’s search for a new music director is a much less formal process than the last time it had to find a maestro. Four conductors — each handpicked by a search consultant — are leading the symphony as guest conductors this season.
Maybe one of those conductors will be the symphony’s next music director.
The idea is to take away the pressure and the “beauty pageant” mentality, says Amy Ginsburg, the symphony’s executive director.
Instead, she calls the concerts “test drives.” And she says they’ll keep inviting guest conductors until they find a good fit.
“We really don’t want the pressure of going, ‘OK, we’re putting a deadline on ourselves. Out of these people, this is who we have to choose and when we have to choose that person by,’” Ginsburg says. “So this kind of gives us, as an institution, the latitude to pursue all of our options.”
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The orchestra hasn’t officially advertised the guest conductors as candidates for the music director job, but Ginsburg says it’s already understood by many members in the audience — some of whom have already approached board members with their thoughts about the guest conductors.
The four conductors were handpicked by the orchestra’s music-director search consultant, Bob Moir, a retired vice president of artistic planning and audience engagement for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. He’s working with a symphony search committee featuring a mix of musicians, employees, board members and people from the Southwest Florida community.
One of those conductors, Vladimir Kulenovic, led the first “Masterworks” concert of the season in December. Three more guest conductors are scheduled, starting this Saturday with Laura Jackson — the first female conductor ever to lead the orchestra, according to the symphony.
Right now, those are the only candidates being considered, Ginsburg says. But they’re not being called “finalists,” since — unlike the last search for a music director — there were no preliminary rounds. And more candidates could guest conduct next season if none of these are a good fit.
The average music director stays with an orchestra six or seven years, Ginsburg says. So they want to pick the right one.
“It’s a big commitment,” she says, “and we want to make sure we’re making the right decision for us, that it’s the right decision for whoever chooses to join us, and that it’s a period of growth for everybody.”
The symphony’s previous music director, Nir Kabaretti, left the orchestra in 2020 after leading it for six years. He was the fifth director in the Fort Myers orchestra’s 60-year history.
Here’s a closer look at the four guest conductors being considered for the symphony’s next music director. You can learn more about the symphony and the guest conductors at swflso.org.
His concert: “Masterworks 1” on Dec. 11 at Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall in south Fort Myers. The program featured “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Ravel’s “Piano Concerto in G” and Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite.”
Current home: Chicago
How he describes his conducting style: “Collaborative.”
“On the one side, I strive to be the advocate of the composer, and on the other to be the instrument of the orchestra musicians… ” he says. “The practical purpose of the conductor is to listen to the inherent energy of the orchestra musicians. This is where the collaborative magic is.”
Why he’d make a good music director for the symphony: “All I can tell you is that I will give and commit myself entirely to this task and this team,” he says.
Current and previous jobs: He’s been music director of the Lake Forest Symphony in Illinois, associate conductor of the Utah Symphony, resident conductor of the Belgrade Philharmonic and principal conductor of the Kyoto Festival.
Musical education: A bachelor’s degree in piano and a master’s degree in conducting from Boston Conservatory, a graduate diploma from Peabody Institute from Johns Hopkins University, and a graduate performance diploma from Juilliard.
Learn more about Vladimir Kulenovic: vladimirkulenovic.com
Her concert: “Masterworks 2” on Saturday, Jan. 22 at Mann Hall. The program features Bellido’s “Fiesta!,” Haydn’s “Cello Concerto No. 1” and Sibelius’ “Symphony No. 2.”
Current home: Ann Arbor, Michigan
How she describes her conducting style: “I aim for concerts that are above all, vibrant and engaged,” she says. “With music-making, I fervently seek vital, passionate, thrilling performances always, in every genre, whether it is a Mahler symphony or a Frank Sinatra song or a narrated fantasy piece for a third-grade audience.
“In addition to vitality and passion, I bring accessibility and warmth in my approach to music.”
Why she’d make a good music director for the symphony: Jackson says she values listening and constantly seeks to connect with others. She says she’ll approach the audiences, musicians and symphony staff “with respect and as my cherished partners with valuable impressions — feedback that will inevitably make me better at what I do and bring to Fort Myers.”
Current and previous jobs: She’s in her 13th season as music director and conductor of the Reno Philharmonic in Reno, Nevada. She previously served as the first-ever female assistant conductor for the Atlanta Symphony (2004-2007).
Musical education: An undergraduate degree in music history from the University of New Hampshire, and a master’s degree and doctorate in orchestral conducting from the University of Michigan.
Being the first female conductor to ever lead Southwest Florida Symphony: “That feels like a great honor!” she says. “I’m thrilled to be the first.”
Learn more about Laura Jackson: renophil.com/about-us/laura-jackson
His concert: “Masterworks 3” on Feb. 18 at Sanibel Island’s BIG ARTS and Feb. 19 at Mann Hall. The program features Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” and “Appalachian Spring,” Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez” and Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 7.”
Age: Mulligan didn’t provide his age
Current home: Berlin, Germany
How he describes his conducting style: Mulligan didn’t comment on this topic in written responses to interview questions.
Why he’d make a good music director for the symphony: Mulligan didn’t comment on this topic.
Why he chose the pieces for his concert: “The orchestra asked me for something by either Mozart or Beethoven,” Mulligan says. “And I felt that after a year without live music, it would be wonderful to play the most joyous music we could think of!
“When I think of Beethoven in a joyous mood, I think of the ‘Seventh Symphony.’ The piece is full of countryside dances, and it has this wonderful open-air feeling, which we thought would pair well both with music from Copland’s ‘Appalachian Spring’ — which depicts a wedding celebration out on the midwestern prairie — and Rodrigo’s ‘Concierto de Aranjuez’ — which conjures images of royal Spanish gardens.
“The three works share this joyful, fresh feeling, but differ greatly in their sound!”
Current and previous jobs: He’s freelancing out of Berlin, Germany, after starting his career in the United States. He’s held positions with the Atlanta Symphony (associate conductor), the Los Angeles Philharmonic (Dudamel Conducting Fellow) and Winston-Salem Symphony (assistant conductor).
Musical education: An undergraduate degree from Yale University, where he studied violin and composition, and a graduate degree in conducting from The Peabody Institute.
Learn more about Stephen Mulligan:stephenmulligan.com
His concert: “Masterworks 4” on April 23 at Mann Hall. The program features Ravel’s “Mother Goose Suite,” Korngold’s “Violin Concerto” and Brahms’ “Symphony No. 4.”
Current home: Naples, Florida
How he describes his conducting style: “I like to think of conducting as a very natural physical act of conveying music through gestures,” he says. “I believe that my initial training as a violinist has made a big impact on my conducting style. In the same way that a string player can draw different sounds from the instrument, a conductor’s gestures can also drastically influence the sound of the orchestra.”
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His concerts, he says, are all about sharing the joy of music.
“After endless hours of score study and rehearsals, it is such a privilege for the musicians onstage to gather all energies towards a common goal and to share the result with the community,” he says.
Why he’d make a good music director for the symphony: “There are three things that motivate me as a leader every single day,” he says. “The first is to connect and make music with every single musician in the orchestra.
“The second is to share this music with large audiences. It is my goal to make music accessible to everyone in the community.
“The third is the endless quest of studying and digging deeper into the incredible richness of the symphonic repertoire. Being a leader is both a privilege and a responsibility in serving this universal art form.”
Current job: He’s the associate conductor of the Naples Philharmonic and music director of the Naples Philharmonic Youth Orchestra
Musical education: Master of Music in Orchestral Conducting from New England Conservatory in Boston, Artist Diploma in Violin Performance from the Colburn Conservatory in Los Angeles, Bachelor of Music in Violin Performance from the Colburn Conservatory in Los Angeles
Learn more about Radu Paponiu: radupaponiu.com
Connect with this reporter: Charles Runnells is an arts and entertainment reporter for The News-Press and the Naples Daily News. Email him at [email protected] or connect on Facebook (facebook.com/charles.runnells.7), Twitter (@charlesrunnells) and Instagram (@crunnells1).