In a letter to the editor published on 11/26/06 in the San Antonio Express-News, the board leadership at the San Antonio Symphony (SAS) has made it clear that they have no intention of keeping Larry Rachleff and will insist on hiring a new music director that will reside in San Antonio. Unfortunately, the public letter doesn’t really resolve many outstanding questions to date and fails to demonstrate that the board reached this decision with much consideration for dynamic consequences…
One of the outstanding issues on the minds of many before the board submitted this letter is the board’s insistence on having a music director reside in San Antonio but the current music director, Larry Rachleff, only lives three hours away from San Antonio in Houston. As such, it isn’t terribly difficult for Mr. Rachleff to be in San Antonio as he’s needed.
However, the letter from SAS board chair Ken Oleson and chair-elect Debbie Montford appears to address this issue in a roundabout way by stating that Mr. Rachleff did not have his contract renewed due to the fact that “his full-time job is teaching at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University in Houston.” (the last time I checked, a position such as this is usually referred to as a professorship as opposed to simply a “teaching job”).
This “full-time job” apparently prevented Mr. Rachleff from fulfilling what the board believes are the duties of their music director. According to the letter, the board believes those duties require “…a deep understanding of and involvement in our community, teamwork with the entire staff and board and having an ear to the ground to get direct feedback from customers and non-customers alike.”
Unfortunately, there was no further definition as to what exactly constitutes a “deep understanding of and involvement in” the San Antonio community. Personally, I would be curious to know exactly what the board means by having a music director with “an ear to the ground to get direct feedback from customers and non-customers alike.” On one hand, the board members use the metaphorical reference of “an ear to the ground” to illustrate what they hope to find in a new music director but they couple that with a literal reference of “direct feedback” in the same sentence. As such, this line of reasoning sends a very mixed message.
How does the board expect a new music director to receive direct feedback? What if the new music director doesn’t like to do their own grocery shopping or sit and wait while they have the oil changed in their car? What if they prefer to dine in instead of frequenting restaurants? What if they prefer watching movies at home instead of in the theater?
Does the board plan to define how the new music director will have to interact with the community in the position’s job description? Will there be a formula to evaluate how well the music director is keeping their ear to the ground? Is there a written test to define a candidate’s level of understanding for the San Antonio community? And if so, are they going to compare this against the level of understanding demonstrated by previous SAS music directors?
Although there are no clear details in the letter to answer these questions, the board apparently understands this issue well enough to say that their definition of a music director’s role is “almost impossible to fill on an absentee/fly-in basis.” At the same time, they take the next paragraph to state that “Seeking a music director to live among us does not mean we are willing to settle for less because mediocrity is not an option.”
After reading that passage the phrase “good luck with that” came to mind. Furthermore, the board’s letter indicates that they are not only going to require a music director to reside in San Antonio but they will not tolerate a conductor that holds a separate full-time position.
As such, this partial list of conductors who hold full-time positions in multiple orchestras that are farther apart that San Antonio and Houston need not apply (listed in no particular order):
David Wiley (Roanoke and Long Island)
Joanne Falletta (Virginia and Buffalo)
Donald Runnicles (San Francisco Opera, Atlanta, and Orchestra of St. Luke’s)
Michael Tilson Thomas (San Francisco Symphony and New World)
Jeffrey Kahane (Colorado and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra)
Guillermo Figueroa (New Mexico and Puerto Rico)
Stephen Alltop (Cheyenne and Elmhurst)
Marin Alsop (Baltimore and Bournemouth)
Neeme Järvi (New Jersey and Hague Residentie Orchestra)
Paavo Järvi (Cincinnati and Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra)
Carl St. Clair (Pacific and the German National Theater and Staatskapelle)
Stefan Sanderling (Florida and Toledo)
Eckart Preu (Spokane and Stamford)
Michael Christie (Phoenix and Brooklyn)
Mario Venzago (Indianapolis and Gothenburg)
Jorge Mester (Louisville and Naples)
Keith Lockhart (Utah and Boston Pops)
William Eddins (Edmonton and National Irish Orchestra)
Kent Nagano (Montreal and the Bayerische Staatsoper)
Peter Oundjian (Toronto and Caramoor)
James Levine (Metropolitan Opera and Boston)
But more to the point, there is no indication in this current letter to shed any light on how the board has come to these conclusions; nevertheless, they owe it to the San Antonio community they serve to provide them. As board members, they retain the right to make the decisions they have, however, as stewards of the public trust, they should also be capable of justifying those decisions.
The board’s letter goes on to list some of the accomplishments they’ve been able to achieve since the organization has emerged from bankruptcy. Unquestionably, they rightfully deserve every bit of credit for those accomplishments. As such, this makes their decision to not renew Mr. Rachleff’s contract and this subsequent letter even more baffling.
In the end, it would be preferable if the board would have refrained from submitting this letter to the San Antonio Express-News in order to allow for as much leeway as possible to explore every possible option after receiving input from all of the organization’s stakeholders. Sadly, this letter prevents much of that discussion from taking place and even restricts the options at their disposal. It would be a shame to see the organization risk falling into institutional instability over such a thing, but now that distasteful option has replaced many of the more palpable options that would have otherwise been at the board’s discretion.
Postscript: Oddly enough, after all the time the board letter spent explaining that they want a music director to be in a position to receive “direct feedback from customers and non-customers” there is no telephone or email contact information on the SAS website for any of the board members. There is telephone and email contact information for the administrative staff and even resident conductor, David In-Jae Cho, but if you want to offer any direct feedback to board members, you’re out of luck.