Like others in the running to become the Pacific Symphony's new music director, Lawrence Foster says he is high on the orchestra. "An absolutely first-class group of players," he said in a recent phone interview from Switzerland. "With a challenging repertoire and some serious work, it could be molded into one of the finest orchestras in the country."
Foster, who conducted the opening concerts of the orchestra's season in October, is fully aware that he's in the running to do that very molding. But he tries to avoid sounding like a politician running for office.
"My problem," he said, "is (that) I really enjoyed conducting the orchestra very much--which is what people expect one to say. I regret that. It sounds like such a cliche. But this was something very different. The contact with the players was something I have seldom felt."
Considered among the top candidates for the job, Foster, 48, was born and raised in Los Angeles. He is in his last season as music director of the Orchestra Philharmonique de Monte Carlo, and is music adviser of the Jerusalem Symphony.
Keith Clark, founding music director, resigned last year after the Pacific Symphony's board of directors voted against extending his contract.
In an interview published in the German magazine Opernwelt, Foster said he would take over as music director of the Jerusalem symphony if the orchestra could be reorganized and separated from its radio and television obligations.
He does not think that that appointment would take him out of the running for the Pacific's music director, however. Nor does he intend to give up guest conducting appearances with other orchestras.
"Not at all," he said. "The Jerusalem commitment is for a certain number of weeks of the year, which far from utilizes the full year. I also do not live in Jerusalem and will not live in Jerusalem. I live in Monte Carlo."
He does have some reservations about the position with the Pacific, given the orchestra's schedule, however. "It's a difficult position for scheduling purposes. There are not many concerts, and they are quite stretched out. I can only say that given the right circumstances, any conductor would enjoy working permanently with such an orchestra, including myself."
One thing he learned from his brief visit to Orange County is that any plan to turn the Pacific into a full-time orchestra would open the risk of driving away the excellent free-lance players who earn their fortunes in the Hollywood film market and play in the Pacific to satisfy their deeper musical urges.
"I think any expansion of the Pacific Symphony would tend to make it more, rather than less, attractive," Foster said. "But the expansion has to be gradual, and it has to be done in a way to keep the top players. I do think that's possible."
"I think the future looks pretty bright for it," he repeated. "You have a very loyal public, a very high quality ensemble, an enlightened board of directors. All the ingredients are there for a brilliant future."
Asked to assess what the Pacific needs to become truly "world-class," Foster became thoughtful.
"That's a complicated question," he said. "The problem is really to develop a sense of style and ensemble. This will come by working together with any good music director. As far as world-class goes, it's a very vague term, a problematical term. It is thrown around a lot. I have seldom heard the Royal Philharmonic playing as well as the Pacific Symphony. It certainly is potentially world-class. . . .
"Obviously, what I think the Pacific Symphony needs is a major cycle of classical works, a major cycle of Haydn and Mozart, to sharpen the ensemble. The orchestra, in order to play repertoire well, whether (it's music by) Tchaikovsky or Janacek, has to have its basic, central European chamber style of playing.
"Any orchestra that can really develop sensitivity in Haydn and Mozart can then transfer that sensitivity into all the repertoire and perform it in a very special way--because you will have an ensemble that is sharp and sensitive to dynamics and rhythm and doesn't present a kind of anonymous sound that we find so often in music today. Most of the major orchestras tend to sound like one another.
"One wonderful thing about the Pacific is that while most of the players have certainly played the standard repertoire somewhere or other, the amazing and joyous thing about the orchestra is the enthusiasm with which the group as an ensemble is willing to approach any standard work. There is no routine as such. Everything is really fresh.
"Nothing is jaded or world-weary about any work. You have an orchestra that is totally open to any kind of suggestion."
Recalling his rehearsals with the orchestra, he said wryly: "I think they were very exhausted with my week's work. I tend to be a very detailed-prone musician, especially in rehearsal. The players tend to know the pieces as well as possible anyway, and so I listen to the orchestra. My purpose is to liberate the orchestra as much as possible so that it plays with ease and freedom.
"I tend to prefer more tension in the rehearsal than in the concert," he added. "Concerts which run on nervous energy are more superficial than those from an assured command of the piece.
"My model as far as working or building an orchestra, which is not so original, is basically what (George) Szell did in Cleveland--hopefully with a much more human face on it." Szell was known as one of the holy terrors of orchestral discipline. But under his guidance, the Cleveland Orchestra became one of the foremost American orchestras.
Foster's concerts with the Pacific drew mixed critical response. Asked how he thought the concerts went, Foster brushed the question away. "Basically, it's not for me to judge," he said. "I think it's up to the people who heard the concert to judge."