Eschenbach stepped down from the podium in 1999, and after a search that lasted more than a year, Graf was chosen as the symphony's 15th musical director (a post that has been held by such immortals as Leopold Stokowski and Andre Previn). Graf, who is currently the music director-designate, will officially assume the position this fall.
So why did the symphony decide to run with him? Well, the PR office plays it close to the vest, saying that he's the "best man for the job"; that his work has been well received by musicians and Houston audiences; and that the symphony has high expectations, yada, yada, yada. To be fair, the guy sports a loaded résumé and can seemingly earn critical acclaim at the drop of an eighth note.
The buzz surrounding the Austrian-born Graf began in 1979 when the young conductor won first prize at the Karl Böhm Competition (a contest in honor of another famed Austrian conductor). Five years later Graf became music director of the Mozarteum Orchestra in Salzburg for ten years, and has naturally become a prominent interpreter of old Wolfgang Amadeus.
Graf is also music director of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, at least through the 2003 season, as well as that of the Orchestre National de Bordeaux-Aquitaine -- not an unusual practice for any conductor. While that makes his position at the Houston Symphony one of three regular jobs, Graf seems committed to the Bayou City and plans to reside here. (Eschenbach was in such high demand during his Houston tenure that it was easier to get Yo-Yo Ma for an interview.)
One of Graf's objectives is to increase the symphony's outreach efforts, which already are among the most aggressive. In a video press release, Graf notes that the orchestra must "broaden [its] exposure, and approach new parts of society." Such efforts are necessary if new audiences for the underappreciated art form are to be found. Graf is making all the right moves. His performances this weekend, his first since being named leader, include satellite PR events, notably an open rehearsal on Saturday, and a "Coffee with the Conductor" chat next week.
Will Graf emerge from the shadow of Eschenbach and his predecessors? Will his style bring new audiences to the symphony? Is he da man?