Zeitouni chosen as music director of Colorado Music Festival

French-Canadian maestro was “consensus choice” of the search committee

By Peter Alexander

Jean-Marie Zeitouni

Jean-Marie Zeitouni

The board of the Colorado Music Festival and Center for Musical Arts has announced the selection of Jean-Marie Zeitouni as music director for the festival, succeeding Michael Christie. He is the third music director in the festival’s history.

During an initial three-year term, Zeitouni will oversee all artistic planning for the festival, lead five weeks of Festival Orchestra concerts each summer, and be involved in the center’s music education program.

The board’s announcement states that Zeitouni emerged as a consensus choice of the search committee. He was one of three official finalists for the position, along with William Boughton and Carlos Miguel Prieto. Each of the three conducted two programs during the 2014 festival—one with chamber orchestra and one with the full symphony orchestra. These three finalists were selected from a roster of dozens of conductors who were interested in the position.

The decision comes just weeks after the CMF’s new executive director, Andrew Bradford, officially began work. The festival had been without a permanent appointee for either position since August 2013.

zeitouni.3“It is a real honor to join CMF and CMA as music director,” ZeitouniZeitouni said. “In both programs I conducted, the orchestra played sensationally and was a true pleasure to work with. It was the kind of collaboration that every conductor dreams of. With an orchestra of this caliber, an important music school in the center, and a delightful community like Boulder, I could not be more excited for the opportunity to lead this marvelous organization into the future.”

Ted Lupberger, search committee co-chair and a CMA and CMA board member said, “From the very first time the search committee spoke with Jean-Marie during the early stages of the search process, we were thoroughly impressed with his dynamic personality, his understanding of the many roles of the 21st-century music director, his passion for music and music education, and his excitement about the Boulder community.”

Jeffrey Work, CMF principal trumpet who was involved in the search process, added, “With the appointment of Maestro Jean-Marie Zeitouni, the CMF & CMA gains not only a leader of high artistic ideals, but one with a vision for the future of this treasured institution.”

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hsJean-MarieZeitouniOf the three candidates, Zeitouni probably has the lowest profile. Outside of his two concerts at Chautauqua this summer, he remains largely an unknown quantity in Boulder. That is not necessarily a bad thing—Michael Christie was largely unknown when he took the helm at CMF, too. But we have very little to go by in judging Zeitouni’s likely qualities as a festival director.

The two concerts he led this summer offered very solid performances of demanding orchestral works, and he certainly gets high marks for those. I was not entirely convinced by the nuances of the two great Strauss tone poems that he led, Don Juan and Ein Heldenleben (A hero’s life), but two concerts are hardly enough to have an idea of his vision as the director of a major festival. Programming for all conductors this summer was circumscribed by the situation and the requests of the CMF.

Zeitouni’s conversations with the CMF board and search committee may have been extensive and revealing, and we may hope that the board learned about his long-term vision and leadership skills. But those conversations were of course confidential.

Nor does he have a past professional record that reveals much. He was conductor of the Columbus (Ohio) Symphony, a position he relinquished as of Aug. 14 of this year. It is not clear why he left Columbus, except that it was, Zeitouni said, an “amicable” parting. He remains artistic director of I Musici de Montréal and maintains an active schedule as a guest conductor, but these are not professional activities that have yet built a record of achievement.

Still, there should be no doubt about his musical qualifications. In addition to the two first-rate concerts here, Zeitouni has gotten high praise from musicians and critics alike. When he moved to Columbus, he had several strong endorsements.

Laurent Patenaude was head of artistic administration for Les Violons du Roy, a chamber orchestra in Quebec that Zeitouni has conducted. Patenaude was quoted in the Columbus Dispatch saying that Zeitouni “has a real clear idea of the sound he wants, and he’s able to create it. . . . Because he’s such a great leader and listener, he can build something with what he has in front of him and at the same time bring the musicians someplace else.”

In 2012, the Boston Globe critic wrote of Zeitouni’s performance with the Handel & Haydn Society that the conductor’s “punk-tinged ‘Eroica’ was . . . the best live performance of this symphony I’ve heard.” And in 2011 the Seattle Times praised “one of the most memorable ‘Messiahs’ this city has seen.”

So we can be comfortable with his musical skills. But the music director has to do far more than conduct the orchestra. He has to maintain relations with the executive director, the board, major contributors, and other cultural leaders in the community, and of course he has to help raise funds. He has to bring in the audience on the strength of his perceived personality.

Zeitouni.2Zeitouni has a reputation—what maestro doesn’t?—for being prickly, which might not play well in Boulder. When I interviewed him, I did not sense the same level of eagerness to engage Boulder on its own terms that I have found in the other candidates and in musicians who have been successful here. But now that he has been here and met the board, he may well have a better understanding of the town and the audience. He appears to have the kind of quick intelligence that would be up to the task.

Another critical part of the music director’s job is programming for the festival. If the programs do not consistently capture the audience’s interest, the festival cannot remain viable. And here we have very little idea what Zeitouni might bring to the task. He has no record with an event comparable to the CMF.

Concentrated in a short period of time, festivals have different programming needs than an orchestra season that is spread over eight or nine months, so Zeitouni’s tenure with the Columbus symphony is not pertinent. Nor does his record as a guest, conducting individual concerts around the world, tell us what we would like to know: what can we expect from a Zeitouni-led festival?

We will know far more when we see the program for 2015. If Zeitouni and Bradford share a common vision for the festival and work harmoniously to achieve that vision, there is reason to be hopeful. But until they get to work, we will all have to reserve judgment.

The next chapter starts now.

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My previous interview with Jean-Marie Zeitouni can be found here. A further interview will follow when Maestro Zeitouni returns from traveling in France.

Four or more for Music Director

By Peter Alexander

Rumors have been swirling around Chautauqua all summer.

When the Colorado Music Festival announced its summer season, it was stated that three of the guest conductors were candidates to replace Michael Christie as music director of the festival. Those three were William Boughton, Carlos Miguel Prieto and Jean-Marie Zeitouni. Of the three, Boughton and Prieto have already appeared at the festival, and Zeitouni will conduct in the festival’s final week, Aug. 3 and 7-8.

But other conductors were well liked by the orchestra and had expressed an interest in the job. Were they candidates or not?

That depended on who you talked to. Members of the orchestra said they were. Or some of them were. But officially, they weren’t. Or probably weren’t.

Officially there were three candidates, and the CMF Board and search committee admitted they had no contingency plan if none of the three worked out or accepted the position. That seemed a perilous situation, considering the festival’s past record of hiring an executive director, when it took a year and one failed hire to get Andrew Bradford into the job. But that was the official position.

Until now.

 

Andrés Cárdenes, another potential candidate for music director of the CMF

Andrés Cárdenes, another potential candidate for music director of the CMF

Today the search committee issued a statement acknowledging that more than just the three official candidates were finalists for the job. Andrés Cárdenes, who taught violin for two years in CU Boulder and is co-director of Strings Music Festival in Steamboat Springs, is also a candidate, even though he was not able to conduct this summer. And apparently the committee is open to other possibilities as well.

Here is the statement from the search committee:

 “We have three candidates for the music director position, and these are Maestros Boughton, Prieto, and Zeitouni. A fourth finalist, Andrés Cárdenes, was unable to conduct in Boulder this summer, but members of our team observed him in Steamboat and he did meet with the committee. These wonderful men emerged from a search that produced scores of applicants, and they have been thoroughly vetted and examined, and we have been fortunate to attract them this summer. They are all highly accomplished musicians who would be of interest to any great orchestra. We’ve also been fortunate in finding and engaging other guest conductors this summer, including Michael Butterman, Joshua Gersen, Andrew Grams, and Lawrence Rachleff. At the end of the summer, we will meet and discuss the matter and make an approach to the person whom we think is best suited for the job, and we will be looking at everyone we have seen.”

For anyone who has been following the festival over the summer, this is a fascinating statement. Until now, Cárdenes has not figured in the discussion of potential candidates. The rumors have all been about other guest conductors on the summer schedule, particularly Rachelff and Grams.

None of this is about qualifications, by the way. Cárdenes has extensive experience as a violinist, teacher and conductor that would make him an interesting fit for the job leading both the CMF summer festival and the Center for Musical Arts. (Disclosure: I knew him slightly when we were both graduate students at Indiana University.) And some of the guest conductors have made impressions as strong as, or stronger than, some of the official candidates—which makes the very last phrase of the statement particularly fascinating.

The committee says “we will be looking at everyone we have seen.” But they do not specify just who is included in “everyone.”

In any case, it is now official that the search committee is considering other possibilities than the three “official” candidates. And by saying so, the festival has helped settle the rumors.

 

The quality of the music making is most important

Introducing Jean-Marie Zeitouni, third and final official candidate to lead the Colorado Music Festival

By Peter Alexander

Jean-Marie Zeitouni

Jean-Marie Zeitouni

Each of the three official candidates to take Michael Christie’s position as music director of Boulder’s Colorado Music Festival has conducted concerts this summer at Chautauqua. When each candidate has visited Boulder, I have taken the opportunity to introduce him (and yes, they are all male). I asked each candidate about his interest and ideas for the festival, and give him a chance to introduce himself to the public. I hope this gives a clearer picture of the strengths of each candidate.

Jean-Marie Zeitouni is the third official candidate to visit CMF this summer, with concerts August 3 and 7–8. (Read about the concerts in Boulder Weekly. To learn more about Zeitouni, you can read his full press biography here.)

Here are his answers to the questions I asked:

 

PA: Here are my more general questions for you. What interests you most about the Colorado Music Festival?

 JMZ: You know, I don’t know much about it yet, but the first thing that attracted me  is the quality of the music. I know of the festival, not from the outside world, not from the usual conductor searching. I actually know about the festival from many friends that I have made over the years who play in many different orchestras who go there in the summer, to play with this group. They all told me it’s fantastic, the orchestra is on a very high level, people are there because they want to keep (playing) music in the summer because some orchestras don’t have a big summer season. So it’s really from the musicians’ perspective. I have friends from the St. Louis Symphony, San Antonio Symphony, Montreal Symphony, Hawaii, and I’m forgetting a few but I have many friends who have played or who are still playing in the orchestra—friends from the Oregon Symphony, Omaha Symphony and all across the board who play there—and  they said, ‘Oh, it’s a great place, we go there, I mean the mountains and everything, but the orchestra is good, people want to play, they want to sound good.’ So, when I got the phone call to ask me if I was interested to go to this festival and to maybe be considered I said, yes, of course, I’d love to go and to have the experience at least. As for the future we’ll see.

You have partly answered the next question. What do you think are the strengths of the festival?

 I’ve seen the variety of the programming. I sat down and I read what was done the first year, and then the second year, and then this series was introduced, and then they tried to have a musical mashup, and then they did—so I’m aware of kind of the buoyancy of the variety of programming and the search for something that’s a little bit different, that will attract the audience. The philosophy seems to be very active, and—I’m sorry, English is not my first language so I’m trying to translate what I‘m saying. The creativity of the programming is basically something that attracts me and of course the quality of the music making for me is the most important.

zeitouni.3You said you’ve looked over the past programming going back 15 years. What ideas would you want to bring to programming?

 To me it’s really too early to talk about this right now. I do have some ideas and I’ve tried things over the years on my own, but you have to really to understand a style of festival, a style of community, the mentality of concert goers, even to breathe the air of the place before you can dare say I know what’s good for you and we should do this and we should try this. So it’s not because it’s a non-committal thing, it’s really from the humble place that I’m going to say I need to go there and see it for myself and be listening carefully and be sensitive to that kind of of energy and of people who are there and then I’ll create and adapt if the fit is right, something that will take into consideration the heritage of this festival and its participants, and audience of course.

We hear a lot about the crisis in classical music, with audiences declining and so forth. Andrew Bradford, the new executive director of the festival said he doesn’t believe that classical music is dying. What do you think? Is there a crisis, and how should institutions address it, if there is one?

I agree. I don’t think that classical music is dying at all. There are some places that are actually blooming more than ever. It’s just that there is a model shift in musical institutions and what they do and how they present what they do. The challenge is to be appealing without watering down the content, because the content is ultimately what is important. And so the challenge lies there. There are so many different initiatives that I see all across the United States, but also in Canada and in Europe to bridge the gap between younger generations, or even now middle-age people that were never in contact with this art from early on. There are very successful endeavors, but the mentality of everybody is changing. People don’t commit to buy subscription the way they did 20 years ago; it’s a different model. And I myself am a consumer of entertainment and art, and I don’t shop the way I used to do 20 years ago. I’m not going to buy a whole 12 subscriptions to symphonic concerts, because I want the freedom to go to an event that I want to see—I’m no exception, everybody is like that right now. There’s much more choice out there, and so the challenge lies in making this appealing to people and trying to create an event in which each of the concerts will have some appeal, and at the same time being very careful not to alienate the folks who have been supporting the art form for many, many years. I would say these older people are the, we say in French the “pure-in-heart” followers and they are really there because they love their music and they love their concerts and I think that just as respect for them and the art form the contents should not be watered down. It’s a matter of packaging and it’s a matter of communicating. I’m convinced more than anybody else that the music of Strauss, Mozart and Bernstein or Shchedrin or whoever is the best thing out there and it should be heard by the biggest number of people possible, but I need to get their ear sensitive about this. But it’s a long term. I work in an orchestra in Montreal, and we do different concert formats for different age groups and different levels of sophistication. There are so many different strategies that we can do with good marketing. I’m totally aware of the shift but I’m not discouraged by it at all.

And now I have three less serious questions. Boulder is known as a great city for food. Do you have a favorite cuisine?

 Oh boy. I’m a big foodie! I grew up in a family of cooks, and actually my dad’s family were professional pastry chefs. I do have, we’ll say quite an open mind for food. Everyplace I go in the world I read beforehand and try to find the best place to eat, and I go and I also collect wines, so I like pairing food and wine. There’s no end to this so I don’t have any favorite type of food—I’m ready to try everything.

Outdoor activities are important in Colorado. Do you have a favorite outdoor activity?

 I’m a golfer. I used to go to Banff every summer in the Rockies, and of course I don’t want to say that it’s the same as Boulder, but there’s this kind of mountain landscape, and we used to go hiking and sightseeing and going to the natural hot springs and all of this, so I enjoyed the hiking and everything. But I’m dead crazy, I’m completely gaga over golf. (Zeitouni explains that would be “complètement gaga” in French.) I’ve golfed in the Rockies before in Canada and it’s an exceptional experience, and I assume that there must be some golfing in Boulder.

 

Jean-Marie Zeitouni. Photo by Hugo-Sébastien Aubert, La Presse

Jean-Marie Zeitouni. Photo by Hugo-Sébastien Aubert, La Presse

This year’s festival overlapped earlier with the soccer World Cup. Are you a a soccer fan, and who do you support?

 Of course, yes. I was always growing up a supporter of the Italian team, but they didn’t do so well this year. But they had a better run in the past.

Why is a French Canadian a supporter of the Italian team?

 Well, my dad is from Egypt—he’s from Alexandria actually, so (there it is) more Mediterranean and the culture is even more Greek than Arabic if you will. That’s why I know all the pastries and the food form the Mediterranean that I grew up with. This year I think that my favorite team was Argentina. They had a heartbreaking final match, but this was a very special team.