Choking on the Pit?

When a symphony orchestra seeks a principal conductor, the process takes on all the bluster and maneuverings of a steamy courtship ritual. A successful pairing of a conductor and an orchestra requires mutual attraction and a special chemistry. If the attraction is one-sided, the marriage is doomed. The Houston Symphony's search for a new conductor -- officially known as the music director -- began shortly after Christoph Eschenbach announced his resignation in 1997. Soon afterward, a committee of six musicians, three staff members, 18 board members and two community representatives organized the search in hopes of replacing the man whose 11-year tenure helped the orchestra reach new artistic heights.

Led by veteran board member Walter Sapp, the search committee drafted a two-page list of criteria that the group is following in securing Eschenbach's successor. The committee is seeking a replacement with not only administrative qualities but also supreme musical talent on the podium. Musicality is essential, Sapp said, followed by a knack for conducting, the ability to raise the orchestra's international rank, a broad repertory and a recording history, among other qualities.

After the 1999 season, the musicians of the Houston Symphony found themselves in the frustrating position of replacing someone who had developed a rare bond with the orchestra. Characterized by chemistry, mutual commitment and a belief in putting the music first, this love affair between Eschenbach and the Houston Symphony, some say, was the envy of orchestral musicians nationwide.

Last year the symphony began narrowing the search for a new conductor. What followed was a parade of top-notch guest conductors of a caliber never before seen at Jones Hall. In a sense, it was a series of first dates. The winner would get an engagement ring, so to speak, from the Houston Symphony.

Here are several guest conductors who have been or are likely being considered for the position. Seven of the symphony's 97 musicians rated how they stacked up in rehearsal and in concert. In some instances, they spoke anonymously to prevent compromising their future relationship with the new hire. Based on these opinions, the Houston Press handicapped each "candidate."

Alan Gilbert

Alan Gilbert

Born in 1967 in New York

Chief conductor, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra (since January 2000)

Career highlights: Assistant conductor with the Cleveland Orchestra (1995-1997). Accomplished solo and chamber violinist. (His parents are violinists in the New York Philharmonic.)

Kudos: Winner of Seaver/National Endowment for the Arts Conductors Award (1997) and other conducting awards

Musicians say: "I think he demonstrates the strongest stick technique," said associate principal cellist Chris French.

"He's not over the top with musical ideas, but as he matures, [he'll stretch]," said a string musician.

"He had good baton technique, but I didn't feel like he was particularly inspired," said a woodwind player. "Some conductors get up there, and you feel like they're doing a mathematical problem instead of painting a picture."

General impressions: A number of musicians were impressed with Gilbert's ability to master repertory and the difficulties of technique at such a young age. But they don't hold much hope that he'll win. He lacks the seasoning the search committee desires.

Odds: 10 to 1. Highly respected, but lack of experience lowers his chances.

Roberto Abbado

Roberto Abbado

Born in 1954; grew up in Milan, Italy

Guest conductor for major orchestras and opera companies worldwide

Career highlights: Makes regular guest appearances with the Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall, Amsterdam's Concertgebouw, Milan's La Scala, Dresden Staatskapelle and others. Before age 15, he wanted to be an aircraft engineer.

Kudos: Numerous award-winning recordings on BMG's RCA Red Seal label

Musicians say: "I thought he was at the top of the heap," said one woodwind player.

"He deserves to be considered on the short list," said a string player. "I don't think he'll make the final cut. I don't think he ought to.He had two weeks to establish some chemistry, and there was a distance."

"By nature, any conductor has to be a dictator. [However,] all of us are together making this, and [in rehearsals Abbado would say,] "I want this.' That would get real old for me," said another string player.

General impressions: Several musicians thought Abbado was a personable, talented conductor capable of growth. One said honestly, "He talks the talk." Another felt he left a good impression and would like to see him invited back as a guest conductor. But during their two-week stint with him, some players sensed a lack of chemistry. The son of the famed Claudio Abbado, former conductor of La Scala and the Berlin Philharmonic, was emotionally detached. Some said he insisted on having things his way. One string musician felt he talked too much during rehearsals because he was inept at using his hands. A woodwind player found his talks beneficial because they encouraged musicians to listen to one another.

Odds: 4 to 1. Though he didn't truly connect with orchestra members, he probably has a decent shot because of his stature and name recognition.

Yakov Kreizberg

Yakov Kreizberg

Born in 1959 in Leningrad, Russia

Principal conductor, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (since 1995)

General music director, Komische Oper Berlin (since 1994)

Career highlights: Regular concert and operatic engagements in major orchestras of Berlin, London, Amsterdam, New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco and others. Piano was his first instrument. Initially studied conducting at Leningrad Conservatory but trained mostly in the United States after immigrating here in 1976.

Kudos: Conducted Mozart's Don Giovanni at Glyndebourne Festival Opera in 1996, which was filmed for a video release.

Musicians say: According to bass player Red Pastorek, when a conductor is good, the players keep their music stands high. When he's bad, the stands come down. "[With Kreizberg], the stands were down."

"He had nice hair," said one brass player. "He clearly shopped at the conductor store. He wore the black turtleneck and black pants."

"I don't think he had any idea of what he was doing," said a woodwind player.

"He had all the trappings of a conductor," said a brass musician.

"He had a hard time accompanying Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, which is death to an orchestra," said a string player.

General impressions: Several musicians felt strongly that Kreizberg was better at playing the role of conductor than leading an inspired orchestra. Some said his refusal to conduct the orchestra without a score while accompanying esteemed guest artist Salerno-Sonnenberg was unprofessional.

Odds: 40 to 1. Wasn't terribly popular with musicians. Has more style than substance.

Hans Graf

Hans Graf

Born in 1949 in Marchtrenk, Austria

Music director, Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine

Career highlights: Numerous guest conductor appearances in the United States, Europe, Japan and Australia. As opera conductor, he has extensive experience in German and Italian repertory.

Kudos: Recordings of Mozart's complete symphonies

Musicians say: "In my opinion, probably the overall favorite amongst many of the musicians is Hans Graf, who indeed does have some of Eschenbach's characteristics," said violinist Christine Pastorek.

"He's a gentleman. He hears everything," said associate principal cellist Chris French.

"And that gets a visceral respect with musicians," added Tom Elliott, who was interviewed at the same time. "The reason is simple. We put so much focus into what we produce.He has [a similar] focus on the music."

"He's extroverted, self-assured, prepared. He has good nonverbal communication skills. I wouldn't say he has a brilliant stick technique, but it's adequate," Elliott continued.

"He always had a smile. He wasn't trying to teach [his interpretation] to us in a way that was demeaning.The respect was there on both sides," said hornist Nancy Goodearl.

General impressions: The consensus among musicians was that Graf would win hands down if a popularity poll were conducted today. Most said Graf has the personal and musical qualities they want. Several felt he also has the administrative and leadership skills preferred by the search committee. This impression, according to Elliott, is based on Graf's success in rallying the Calgary community to build a new concert hall for the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra.

Odds: 2 to 1. Odds-on favorite to win. Musicians' first pick. Players think Graf has the ability to carry on Eschenbach's traditions of high standards, mutual trust and putting music before personal career goals.

Claus Peter Flor

Claus Peter Flor

Born in 1953 in Leipzig, Germany

Principal guest conductor, Dallas Symphony (1999-2000)

Career highlights: Permanent guest conductor of Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra (1991-1996). Successful opera conductor. Studied violin and clarinet.

Kudos: His recording of Mendelssohn overtures for RCA Victor

Musicians say: "I think the orchestra has great respect for Flor musically," said associate principal cellist Chris French.

"He's definitely a tyrant. I like him," said a string player.

"I've heard a lot of things about him," said a brass musician. "I could see him simmering."

"He's a very good conductor and very musical. But you have to weigh the negatives and positives. If [he has] the potential to make people miserable, it's not worth it," said a woodwind player.

General impressions: All who spoke had mixed feelings about Flor. They felt he was more than competent musically, and approved of his conductor skills, but perceived an impatience in his manner during rehearsal. One strongly felt that his tyrannical manner would strike a blow to the symphony's musicality.

Odds: 8 to 1. He's got no chance if the musicians have their way.

Peter Oundjian

Peter Oundjian

Born in 1955 in Toronto, Canada (schooled in England)

Music director, Nieuw Sinfonietta Amsterdam chamber orchestra (since 1998)

Career highlights: First violinist of the world-renowned Tokyo String Quartet (1981-1995). Studied violin and conducting at Juilliard. Became fascinated with conducting after appearing as a chorister/instrumentalist on three recordings under composer Benjamin Britten.

Kudos: Artistic director, Caramoor International Music Festival in New York, previously held by André Previn. His life and career were recently featured on CBS Sunday Morning.

Musicians say: "Being from a string background is a huge plus for any conductor," said associate principal violist Tom Elliott. "His ability to critique the string section was evident.His manner was disarming, very personal, and on-the-level."

"His demeanor on the podium was totally charming," said one musician.

"I thought maybe he was a little bit of a micromanager," said a string musician.

General impressions: Oundjian appeared to be the one candidate the musicians could identify with. They respect the fact that he successfully toured as a chamber violinist with the Tokyo String Quartet. They also approve of his "string knowledge" because it allows him to understand the largest segment of the orchestra. In rehearsals, they liked the fact that he worked fast and efficiently. Regrettably, most said, he won't get picked because he hasn't conducted all of the major works in the repertory.

Odds: 40 to 1. Musicians' favorite after Hans Graf, but lack of a proven track record on the podium diminishes his chances.

Scratched before post time:

Paavo Järvi -- considered by the search committee until he was named music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, a post he'll officially assume in September 2001.

Robert Spano -- considered a leading candidate until he was named music director of the Atlanta Symphony last February. He assumes the directorship in September 2001.


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