Acclaimed conductor DePreist to advise troubled Pasadena Symphony and Pops

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The economically troubled, controversy-racked Pasadena Symphony and Pops announced Wednesday that it has hired an artistic advisor – and, for two October concerts , a conductor -- in James DePreist, who led the Oregon Symphony for more than 20 years and is current director of conducting and orchestral studies at the Juilliard School in New York City.

DePreist, 73, received America’s highest artistic honor, the National Medal of Arts, from President George W. Bush in 2005. He is a nephew of the great contralto Marian Anderson.


DePreist will conduct the Pasadena Symphony Oct. 23 in its first two concerts at its new home, the Ambassador Auditorium. But Paul Jan Zdunek, the orchestras’ chief executive, said DePreist is not a successor to Jorge Mester, whose 25-year tenure as music director ended last month amid conflicting accounts as to whether he had cut off contract negotiations and resigned, or been fired even after offering to take a substantial cut from a salary in the low $200,000s.

Zdunek said that DePreist will advise on picking guest conductors for three of the other four classical concert programs for 2010-11 and probably for at least another season beyond that.

Instead of beginning a formal search for a new music director, Zdunek said, the plan is to work with a series of guest conductors, with no strict timetable for designating a music director.

With DePreist on board overseeing artistic matters, Zdunek said, the organization will have “the breathing space to find the right person.” Rather than set a deadline for seeking applicants and hiring one, he said, the Pasadena Symphony will bring in a series of guest conductors until “the magic happens” and a lasting marriage results.

Zdunek said he never has met DePreist, but his name kept coming up as Pasadena orchestra officials began looking for an artistic advisor. Zdunek approached DePreist’s management, then he and general manager Lora Unger had a phone conversation with him. “It was a wonderful and immediate synergy we had together,” Zdunek said. “We have a formidable artist at the helm” – albeit one whose input is expected to come mainly by telephone, e-mail and video conference rather than in person.

Zdunek (pictured left) said that a triad of Mester, himself and Unger picked the repertory and soloists for next season’s symphony programs, as well as choosing Maximiano Valdes as guest conductor for the final symphony concerts on May 7, 2011. The Chilean conductor is music director of the Puerto Rico Symphony and the Orquesta Sinfonica of Asturias, Spain.


Starting with the 2011-12 classical season, Zdunek said, DePreist will be involved in choosing repertory and hiring soloists and guest conductors, as well as advising on all artistic, educational and audience-outreach facets for both the symphony and the Pops. The program he’ll conduct includes Brahms’ Symphony No. 2, Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto with soloist Anne Akiko Meyers, and the overture to Rossini’s “La Cenerentola.”

The coming Pasadena Pops season is set under its longtime music director, Rachael Worby, and will open June 19 at a new venue, a lawn near the Rose Bowl.

The orchestras, both plagued by frequent deficits before their 2007 merger, failed to realize any immediate savings from the union, and found themselves imperiled after the September, 2008 economic meltdown. Concerts were canceled, and deep staff cuts ensued. Under Zdunek, hired that December, the organization has made many changes in its business operations, changed its venues and adopted a recovery plan.

Mester’s management said he had offered to take a large pay cut but was rebuffed and fired; orchestra officials announced that the separation was voluntary after negotiations failed.

Some board members have become displeased and resigned, but the board’s president, Melinda Shea, said recently that about 30 remain and are committed to raising the money to stabilize the organization.
A musician who protested Mester’s departure was fired last month, according to Local 47 of the American Federation of Musicians, which filed a union grievance seeking the player’s reinstatement. Morale was said to have plummeted among those who remain.

A news release announcing DePreist’s appointment quoted Andrew Malloy, head of the orchestras’ musicians’ committee: “A musician of Mr. DePreist’s stature and credentials would be welcomed by anyone with a special affection and concern for the future of the Pasadena Symphony.”


Besides leading the Oregon Symphony from 1980 to 2003, DePreist has been music director of the Orchestre Symphonique de Quebec and the Malmo Symphony in Sweden. He was permanent conductor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra from 2005 to 2008 and has been a regular with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood, its summer home. He lives in New York City and has a home in Scottsdale, Ariz.

DePreist will help guide an organization that recently reported $1.2 million in debt, and that has reduced its spending from $5.7 million to $3.2 million over the past two years.

-- Mike Boehm


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