Decision time is at hand for Colorado Music Festival

CMF Music Director search now in the hands of festival officials

By Peter Alexander

And then there were none.

Chautauqua Auditorium home of the Colorado Music Festival

Chautauqua Auditorium, home of the Colorado Music Festival

All of the conductors have come and gone: the three official candidates to succeed Michael Christie as music director of the Colorado Music Festival, the unofficial candidates, the popular favorites, and the other guest conductors.

It has been an interesting few weeks, with rumors swirling and unexpected statements from the search committee—in one case, from the stage before a concert. As a professional violinist who has played worldwide and participated in several conductor searches wrote to me recently, “Nothing brings the blood to a full boil as a conductor search can!”

Now it’s up to the CMF board, the search committee, and the new executive director, Andrew Bradford. The decision will be entirely in their hands: there will be no musicians from the orchestra and no CMF staff members other than the newly-arrived Bradford at the table. Deliberations will begin this coming week, with a decision to be announced after all the details fall into place. Let’s hope everyone’s blood has gone off the boil as the decision gets made.

Here is what we know: the committee originally selected five finalists. These were culled from recommendations to the board as well as applicants who contacted the CMF. Of those five, three were able to schedule a full week of concerts here at Chautauqua during the summer, with two different programs each—one for the full symphony and one for chamber orchestra.

These were the summer’s official music director candidates. I have posted interviews with all three: William Boughton, Carlos Miguel Prieto, and Jean-Marie Zeitouni.

Over the summer, the festival was in the hands of several other guest conductors—a fact that gave the season a rather colorless quality compared to the vivid festivals Michael Christie put together, and probably contributed to the lower attendance this year. (This does not reflect on the quality of the guests, official candidates and others, some of whom gave excellent and exciting concerts.)

Many of the guest conductors were clearly not in the running for music director. Michael Butterman, the director of the Boulder Philharmonic who conducted the opening night concert, has stated he did not want to take on the festival. Cynthia Katsarellis, director of the Colorado Pro Music Chamber Orchestra in Boulder who conducted children’s concerts, was not in contention.

With some of the other guests, the status is more murky. With word getting around that some of the guests were popular with musicians and others in the community, the search committee released a statement Aug. 1 that concluded “we will be looking at everyone we have seen,” a splendidly ambiguous sentence that might refer to the other guest conductors. Or might not.

The most surprising announcement from the search committee was that violinist/conductor Andrés Cardenes, who taught at CU-Boulder for two years and is co-director of String Music Festival in Steamboat Springs, was “a fourth finalist” who was “unable to conduct in Boulder this summer.”

In reality, however, Cardenes can be ruled out as a serious candidate. The board would be unlikely (and unwise) to hire someone who has never conducted the CMF orchestra and is unknown to the public, after so much time and energy has been invested in the other candidates.

The music director’s job is far more than what the orchestra and the public see on the podium. He has to maintain relations with the executive director, the board, major contributors, and other cultural leaders in the community. He has to help raise funds for the festival. And he has to be able to plan a six-week festival that engages successfully with all of these constituencies. Much of this work is done behind closed doors and is invisible to public and critics alike.

But of course he must also excite musicians and audiences with his performances. In other words, the public part of his job has to be exciting, if not spectacular.

With that in mind, here are my impressions of the conductors who have a shot at the job of music director:

William Boughton; photo by Harold Shapiro

William Boughton; photo by Harold Shapiro

The first to appear this summer, William Boughton has a British charm that Americans love. He would be excellent in the social aspects of the job—working with boards and contributors. He is also a decent conductor who did a good job with the concerts he led. But it was no more than that. The performances were solid but not exciting, and I fear that the festival under his direction would not have the cutting edge it needs to keep growing. As much as I enjoyed Boughton’s presence at the festival, he would be my third choice of the three official candidates.


Jean-Marie Zeitouni

Jean-Marie Zeitouni, the most recent of the candidates, would be second choice. He led an impressive performance of a couple of virtuoso orchestra show pieces, the Richard Strauss tone poems Don Juan and Ein Heldenleben (A hero’s life). The performances showed off the orchestra’s skill and Zeituoni’s ability to manage the orchestral forces. But the interpretation was too one-dimensional, with too much reliance on the orchestra’s ability to deliver a impressive sound. A more nuanced interpretation would show a more consistent balance within the orchestra, create a contour over the entire span of a large work, and deliver a greater impact at the end.

In other ways Zeitouni does not seem a good fit for Boulder. He is more of a maestro than the others, which implies a kind of distance that could create barriers. I do not believe he would work effectively with the public, the board and the donors.

Carlos Miguel Prieto. Photo by Peter Schaaf

Carlos Miguel Prieto. Photo by Peter Schaaf

My first choice of the official candidates is Carlos Miguel Prieto. I loved his program of Diaghilev ballets, and it was especially exciting to hear the full, original version of Stravinsky’s Petrushka, which is exactly the kind of programming that a summer festival can exploit. In that one concert he showed the knack for creating a program that is both musically exciting and intellectually engaging.

His rapport with the musicians and the genuine enthusiasm with which he recognized the players was evident. Because the Colorado Music Festival depends to a larger extent than standing symphonies on the personal relationships among conductor, players and public, that is an especially important quality for the next musical director.

His past record of leading a festival in Mexico City and creating programs based around interesting ideas is very appealing for the CMF. He was very approachable, he seems gracious and personally charming, and shows a great enthusiasm for the music he is conducting. I believe he has the ability to take the festival into the future.

One other conductor needs to be mentioned. I have never seen a greater show of enthusiasm for a conductor from an orchestra than the CMF players showed to Andrew Grams at the end of his very exciting concert of Russian masterworks. The entire program was electrifying, and his work with piano soloist William Wolfram was magical.

Grams is not an official candidate, but he has a very interesting perspective on his time here this summer. He considers every guest

Andrew Grams

Andrew Grams

conducting engagement an opportunity to build relationships for the future.

“I approach every engagement that I have as a potential time to forge new and hopefully lasting relationships,” Grams said. “To me, it’s not that important to get a job. It’s much more important to find those connections that can make good quality work possible. When you find it, you want to nurture it and keep it going.”

Whether as guest or in a more permanent relationship, there is no doubt that Grams is interested in the Colorado Music Festival. “The time that I’ve had here, just with the musicians alone, has made this whole festival seem incredibly attractive,” he said.

Grams confirmed that he met with at least some members of the search committee while he was in Boulder. “They would ask me questions and I answered them, and I asked them questions,“ is the way he put it. “It was productive in that I think it really helped clarify where everybody stands.”

It should be noted that neither Grams, nor anyone from the festival, used the word “interview” to describe the contacts. But the concert he conducted, and the rapport he established with the musicians, were such that we should all hope that the connectivity he found here will continue into the future in one form or another.

Michael Christie. So-Min Kang Photography

Michael Christie. So-Min Kang Photography

The final word about the search should go to Michael Christie, a music director so beloved to Boulder audiences that I heard several festival patrons discussing the newest addition to his family on the Hop2 Chautauqua bus after a concert. He truly became like family to many in Boulder.

Earlier this summer, I asked him if he had any thoughts about the future of the festival he had led so successfully. “Naturally, I wish them and their future leaders well,” he said.

“A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into the success of that festival over my time and certainly many years before then. There’s a solid artistic foundation a music director can build upon and I can’t imagine anyone would put anything less than 100% into it.”

The stakes are high. Let us all hope that the board has found the director who can build on Christie’s foundation, and that he will rebuild the festival’s impressive momentum from past years.

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NOTE: Corrections have been made to this post on 8/10/14. I inadvertently typed “Colorado Springs” instead of Steamboat Springs as the location of the String Music Festival, and I originally typed “about six” candidates when in fact my notes show that I was told there were five.