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Chester County Press

The search for the Kennett Symphony's next music conductor

01/07/2015 05:05PM ● By Kerigan Butt

By Steven Hoffman

Staff Writer

In the 73-year history of the Kennett Symphony of Chester County, there have been eight music conductors who have led the orchestra, including Mary Woodmansee Green, who provided the artistic vision for the organization for 25 years before retiring at the conclusion of the 2012-2013 season. Now, the 2013-2014 season is dedicated to finding the next music conductor with each of the three distinguished finalists—Michael Hall, Rei Hotoda, and David Alexander Rahbee—taking a turn with the conducting baton at a show in Chester County.

On Sept. 21, at the Madelieine Wing Adler Theatre on the campus of West Chester University, Hall was the first of the finalists to have the opportunity to lead the Kennett Symphony as he served as the conductor for the “Opening Night Spectacular” that ushered in the current season. Hotoda will be leading the symphony during the “Spirit of the Season” performance at the Kennett High School auditorium on Dec. 7. Then, on March 22, 2014 Rahbee will be the conductor for the “Welcome Spring!” show at the Madeleine Wing Adler Theatre on the campus of West Chester University.

To everything there is a season, but Kennett Symphony officials will spend this fall, winter and next spring concluding the search for the new music conductor.

“Orchestras don’t do this very often,” said Monica Buffington, the executive director of the Kennett Symphony. “In our case, it was 25 years ago that we last did a search and we didn’t have this kind of search process 25 years ago.”

In December of 2012, the Kennett Symphony formed an eight-member search committee comprised of four board members and four musicians who perform with the symphony. The committee utilized various national outlets to publicize the job opening. The response was incredible as dozens of highly qualified candidates expressed interest in the position.

“We were overwhelmed, delighted, and very excited,” Buffington said. “We received over a hundred applications.”

The applications came from conductors not only from across the U.S., but from international candidates as well. The search committee spent several months reviewing the applications. The musicians on the search committee led the first round of the search process by eliminating those conductors that, for various reasons, didn’t fit with what the Kennett Symphony was looking for.

“You could quickly see that some candidates didn’t have the professional experience that we were looking for, or that the professional experience just didn’t match what we were looking for,” Buffington said.

The field was narrowed to 18 candidates after the first round of screening. All those candidates were asked to provide references from the administrative staff, the board members, and musicians of the symphonies that they were a part of. Members of the Kennett Symphony’s search committee then reached out to their counterparts, finding out important details about how the conductor candidates related to each component of a symphony's organization. Buffington said that the Kennett Symphony was looking for someone who could work in perfect harmony with not just the musicians, but the board of directors and the staff as well. This round of screening narrowed the search to seven semifinalists.

After another round of interviews, the candidate list was narrowed to three.

The search committee planned out a visit by each of the three finalists. They would each have the chance to work with the Kennett Symphony during a major show in the 2013-2014 season. The Kennett Symphony performs six concerts annually, including two children's concerts, in venues throughout Chester County.

Hall arrived in Kennett Square on Tuesday, Sept. 17 and spent the next few days on whirlwind tour of the area. He met with various community groups, including the Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary, and also visited Longwood Gardens.

“It was very invigorating,” Hall said of the visit. “I'm struck by how quaint and beautiful this part of Pennsylvania is. They've tried to get me to experience as much of the community as possible.”

Hall said that he felt like there was a good musical opportunity with the organization.

“You look at a situation on paper and it looks like it might fit,” he explained. “Everything I've seen—from the attitudes of the musicians to the way the organization is run to the strong financial situation—suggests that this could be a wonderful place to grow the orchestra. You have a great pool of musicians in this part of the country.”

Hall has already worked with his share of of great musicians. He has an extensive background in music that has taken him around the world for guest appearances with some of the finest orchestras in North America. He holds a master's degree in conducting from the University of Michigan, studying with the renowned conducting pedagogue Gustav Meier. He also studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where he worked with Sir Colin Davis. While studying in England, Hall also held the position of assistant conductor of the Havant Symphony Orchestra. He was a finalist in the 2003 International Conducting Competition in Besancon France, and was awarded third prize in the 2004 Cadaques Orchestra International Conducting Competition in Spain. Closer to home, he has performed with the Houston Symphony, the Toronto Symphony, and the Vancouver Symphony, among others. In Central America, Hall collaborated with the Orquestra Sinfionic Nacional De Costa Rica. He has frequently been a guest conductor with the Tucson Symphony over the last eight seasons. He recently concluded his fifth successful season as music director of the Southwest Florida Symphony, and his tenure has resulted in artistic growth and enthusiastic responses from audiences and critics alike. Before being appointed as the music director of the Southwest Florida Symphony, Hall held the position of associate conductor with the Pacific Symphony in California, where he developed innovative family concerts based on his own original scripts. His success in California led to his initial three-year position being extended to an unprecedented six-year tenure.

“Every stop has had great moments,” Hall said. “Every place has been interesting in its own way.”

Why did Hall pursue a career in music?

“Ask any musician that question and I think the answer will be that it’s about how the music touches you and affects you—how it speaks to you and about how it really is to be a human being. You have to love it. If you can take it or leave it, it will be hard to make a living at it.”

Hall said that he would bring the same level of innovation to his next venture in an effort to make the concert appealing to longtime devotees of the symphony as well as engaging to younger people who are more technologically savvy.

“What you really want,” he said, “is an art form that can be shared by as many people as possible.”

Hall rehearsed twice with the musicians in the Kennett Symphony in preparation for the “Opening Night Spectacular.” Then, he led the orchestra through a program that included Zoltan Kodály's “Intermezzo from Háry János,” Evard Grieg's “Piano Concerto in A Minor,” and Dvořák's “Symphony No. 9 in E Minor from the New World.

“It was a tremendous evening,” Hall said. The opportunity to make music with such a dedicated and talented group of musicians was a real joy. The orchestra played brilliantly and the energy I felt between us was something quite special. The audience was very much engaged, and I was pleased that so many people joined us after the concert for an informal question-and-answer opportunity. It was the culmination of an enjoyable and musically fulfilling week.”

Hall said that he selected Symphony No. 9 for his turn at leading the orchestra because it has a variety of emotions in it and gave the musicians an opportunity to showcase their skills.

“The musicians perform at a high level,” Hall said. 'They are very proficient on their instruments.”

Buffington said that she is very excited to welcome Hotoda and Rahbee and take them on a similar tour of Chester County that Hall received in September.

Hotoda's “Spirit of the Season” performance will include Strauss “Die Fledermaus Overture,” Vaughan Williams' “Fantasia on Greensleeves,” Bizet's “arandole from L'Arlesienne Suite #2,” Tchaikovsky's Selections from Nutcracker Suite: Overture, March, Waltz of the Flowers and “Polonaise from Eugene Onegin.” Copeland's “Variations on a Shaker Melody-Simple Gifts,” Herbert's “March of the Toys,” Silvestri's “Polar Express,” and Anderson's “A Christmas Festival” will conclude the program.

Hotoda, who was born in Tokyo, started playing the piano at the age of three. Shortly thereafter, she moved to Chicago, Illinois. She went on to earn a Bachelor of Music in piano performance from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. She completed her Masters and Doctorate in Musical Arts in piano performance at the University of Southern California, and then studied conducting with Gustav Meier at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, Maryland.

Hotoda is a protégé of acclaimed conductor Marin Alsop and winner of the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship in 2006. She has built a strong reputation with guest-conducting appearances with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, Duluth-Superior Symphony, the Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra, and the International Contemporary Ensemble. She completed three seasons as the assistant conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, and also previously served as the assistant conductor of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra from 2006 to 2009 and the assistant conductor for the 2005 Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in California.

Rahbee's “Welcome Spring!” performance next March will be highlighted by Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 in F major and Copland's “Appalachian Spring.”

He holds a Bachelor of Music degree in violin and composition from Indiana University, a Master of Music degree from the New England Conservatory in orchestral conducting, and a Doctorate of Musical Arts from the University of Montreal in orchestral conducting. He has also participated in post-graduate conducting classes at the Universität für Musik und Darstellende Kunst, Vienna.

He has been selected to perform in master classes by such esteemed conductors as Kurt Masur, Sir Colin Davis, Jorma Panula, Zdeněk Mácal, Peter Eötvös, Zoltán Peskó, and Helmut Rilling. Nikolaus Harnoncourt is among his most influential mentors.

Rahbee is currently artist-in-residence at the University of Washington School of Music in Seattle where he serves as conductor of the University Orchestra and teaches conducting. He is recipient of the American-Austrian Foundation’s 2003 Herbert von Karajan Fellowship for Young Conductors, the 2005 International Richard-Wagner-Verband Stipend, and a fellowship from the Acanthes Centre in Paris in 2007. He has appeared in concert with orchestras such as the RTE National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg, Kammerphilharmonie Berlin-Brandenburg, Orchestre de la Francophonie, the Boston New Music Initiative, Savaria Symphony Orchestra (Hungary), the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra, and the Divertimento Ensemble of Milan. He has served as an assistant at the Vienna State Opera, music director and conductor of the Fidelio Chamber Orchestra in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and assistant conductor of the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra. Dr. Rahbeeʼs principal conducting teachers were Charles Bruck and Michael Jinbo at the Pierre Monteux School.

Once Hotoda and Rahbee take their turns touring the area and performing with the Kennett Symphony, the search committee will begin the process of making a final selection.

“We are getting feedback from all sorts of constituents,” Buffington said. “All of this will inform the committee’s decision. They will meet and make the final selection. Then that candidate’s name will be presented to the board of directors for approval. We expect that to be happening in April of 2014.”

That will clear the way for the new conductor to be in place in September of 2014 for the start of the 2014-2015 season.

Buffington said that while the search process is an exhaustive one, it's important for the organization to make the right decision when selecting its next artistic leader. There is an expectation that the new conductor will be fully committed to growing the Kennett Symphony.

“It’s understood that in order to build an organization, it takes more than one year. We need our artistic leader to be an integral part of our three- or five-year plan,” Buffington said.

The new conductor will be joining the Kennett Symphony at a transitional time in the organization's history. The executive director and board president are also fairly new to those positions. Buffington was named the interim executive director in July of 2012 and became the permanent executive director after a search process. She replaced longtime executive director Barbara Bullock.

“We’ve been blessed to have excellent executive directors. We were sorry to see her go,” Buffington said of her predecessor.

The organization also has a new board president in Paul Merluzzi, who took over after Bill Simeral’s two-year tenure as president ended.

After meeting with the Kennett Symphony's leaders, Hall said that it was an exciting prospect to work collaboratively with them to provide the artistic direction for the Kennett Symphony.

Buffington agreed that this is an exciting time in the organization's history.

“We are all focused on moving the symphony forward in a positive way,” she said. “The search is going beautifully with a lot of help from a lot of people. We have a great team here. It is a great opportunity for the symphony.”

The new conductor won't have to wait long to play a vital role in the Kennett Symphony's history as the  75th anniversary is already on the horizon.

To learn more about the the Kennett Symphony's conductor search season or to purchase tickets, call 610-444-6363 or visit www.kennettsymphony.org.


To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email editor@chestercounty.com.

Kennett Symphony music directors

Ray Ott, 1940 - 1961

Powell Middleton, 1961 - 1970

Calvin Bourgeault, 1970 - 1975

Stephen Gunzenhauser, 1975 - 1980

Terry E. Guidetti, 1980 - 1988

Mary Woodmansee Green, 1988-2013

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