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Michael Christie’s final season at Phoenix Symphony

Michael Christie’s final season at Phoenix Symphony

by Ed Masley – Aug. 24, 2012 12:02 PM
The Republic |

Michael Christie’s final season brings an intriguing assortment of guest conductors to the Phoenix Symphony, representing “the next generation of up-and-coming American conductors,” as the symphony is billing them.

Opening night finds Sarah Hicks, who’s toured with Sting and currently serves as the principal conductor, pops and presentations for the Minnesota Orchestra, conducting a program that features Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major and Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story.”

Other conductors include Tito Muñoz, Ignat Solzhenitsyn, Thomas Wilkins, Andreas Delfs, Daniel Meyer, Mei-Ann Chen, Andrew Constantine and Edwin Outwater.

It’s not uncommon in times of transition for symphonies to look at guest conductors as candidates for the upcoming vacancy.

But symphony CEO Jim Ward is careful not to put too fine a point on it.

“What’s really driving this next season in terms of these guest conductors is the transition of Michael Christie to the Minnesota Opera,” Ward says. “As he transitions, he has fewer appearances with us. And that opened opportunities for us to bring in guest conductors. So the driving factor here is his schedule and the transition that’s natural in this kind of a situation.”

Having said that, Ward adds that “the guest conductors that we have coming in, we’re very excited about.”

“Whether they are ultimately candidates or not is totally dependent on how things go, how they feel, how we feel, etc.”

Hicks says any time a person guest conducts, regardless of whether the music director is leaving, “you know that you’re probably being looked at.”

“That’s just part of what conductors do,” she says. “We go and guest conduct. You know you’re being vetted, and you’re also checking out the orchestra to see if there’s some chemistry there. We never have tenure anywhere, unlike orchestral musicians. So we’re always looking for the next job.”

Muñoz, whose current position is music director of the Opera National de Lorraine and the Orchestre Symphonique et Lyrique de Nancy in France, sees the opportunity to guest conduct as the ideal way to get a feel for whether a relationship is worth pursuing.

“I think most orchestras that have guest conductors work in this way because you always want to develop a relationship,” he says. “But I always think it’s great to visit an orchestra without any preconceived notions, to really just go in and be yourself. And if the orchestra can be themselves and the organization can be themselves, you really learn each other honestly, as opposed to when there is a search and they’re scrambling to find somebody and everybody’s trying to put their best foot forward.

“I’m just gonna go in there and do my work and have fun.”

Asked if the symphony has broached the topic with these guest conductors, Ward says, “Look, any time a conductor comes in and knows that there’s a transition, obviously, they’re aware of that. But in terms of our conductors search and that type of thing, it’s a private matter for the Phoenix Symphony, the board of directors and our musicians. I’m not going to go into the details of that. But suffice it to say, we do have a wonderful opportunity to view a lot of great conductors coming in from all over the world.”

And if it does work out for Muñoz?

“I certainly would like to have an orchestra in America, and the Phoenix Symphony has a wonderful reputation,” he says.

Of course, a good deal of that reputation rests on Christie’s work these past eight years.

As Ward sums up the Christie legacy, “I think one of the best things that Michael has done for the Phoenix Symphony during his eight-year tenure is put a face of accessibility on symphonic music. Michael himself is one of the most gracious, open, welcoming, warm people that you’ll ever meet. And I think that has radiated through his programming and the experience. People love him because they feel comfortable, and he has made the Phoenix Symphony successful to all different types of folks.”

He’s also been a driving force for innovation.

“He has brought a lot of innovative programming over the years to the symphony,” Ward says, “by debuting new works, by experimenting with audio-visual and things like that. The ‘Navajo Oratorios’ was a commissioned work around our Native-American heritage and ‘Nixon in China,’ things like that just really pushed the envelope for the organization.

“A healthy organization is willing to push that envelope and experiment in a balanced, incremental way, and that’s what Michael has done very successfully.”

Christie says he would like to be remembered, first and foremost, for making the experience of going to a Phoenix Symphony performance more personable and relaxed.

“Every single patron I have met over the years, whether in the lobby during intermission or over a meal, is an important partner in the success of this orchestra,” he says. “I think I have a particular way of reaching out to people individually, and I hope that connection remains between them and the orchestra.

Secondly, he says, “I hope that I have been a good advocate for a diverse program. I have tried to balance the magnificent standard repertory with wonderful surprises that I hope makes people want to know about the many other great works that enhance their concert experience.”

Ward also notes Christie’s professionalism, expertise and impact on the symphony’s performance level.

“I think if you talk to any of our patrons,” Ward says, “and frankly any of our musicians as well, they will tell you that this symphony is playing the best that it has ever played in its 50-year history. In the past eight years, Michael has built the level of performance and professionalism in the symphony to previously unmet levels. And I think those are critical areas of his legacy and as we move forward. We want to make sure we build on that.”

A search committee has been set up, with members of the orchestra, staff and board members.

But Ward says it could take a while to find a suitable replacement.

“Michael is still with us for a whole year,” Ward says. “And in order to secure the next step because of contractual relationships, that takes a long time. So the plan is not necessarily to have a new full-time conductor in place for the 2013-2014 season. Michael has set a wonderful foundation for us for the future. And we’re going to continue that in all aspects, from repertoire to community engagement. So those are critical areas that we would look for in his successor. We’ve come so far with Michael, and we want to build on that momentum.”

Reach the reporter at [email protected] or 602-444-4495.


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