Handicapping the Race for a Conductor : Pacific Symphony has apparently narrowed the field to a precious few and a selection is expected "this winter or spring"

Every guest conductor of the Pacific Symphony over the last two years has been scrutinized by the orchestra, board of directors and audience as a candidate for the music director's position.

The job has been open ever since founding director Keith Clark lost a bitter battle with the board in early 1988 and stepped off the Pacific podium for the last time in May, 1989.

Now the search is winding down, according to executive director Louis G. Spisto, who expects to announce the name of the new music director in "late winter or early spring."

Of this year, that is.

Officially, the roster of candidates includes at least nine people, all of whom have conducted or will conduct the Pacific this season:

* The Pacific's music adviser and Warsaw Philharmonic music director Kazimierz Kord.

* Jerusalem Symphony music adviser Lawrence Foster.

* BBC Scottish Symphony director Christopher Seaman.

* Boston Symphony assistant conductor Carl St. Clair.

* Former Oakland Symphony music director Richard Buckley.

* Former New York City Opera music director Sergiu Comissiona.

* Chattanooga Symphony and Opera Assn. music director Vahktang Jordania.

* Sydney Symphony music director Stuart Challender.

* Portland (Maine) Symphony music director Toshiyuki Shimada.

Kord, however, has taken himself out of the running, and some observers argue that Comissiona, with his extensive professional background and credits, isn't likely to take the job if it is offered him.

Although technically all are eligible, none of the three conductors who appeared last summer during the orchestra's outdoor pops-tinged series at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre--Jorge Mester, Kate Tamarkin, Shimada--is likely to grab the brass ring.

And, except for Jordania, the names of guest conductors from the previous season--Albany Symphony music director Geoffrey Simon and New Mexico Symphony music director Neal Stulberg--are rarely brought up any more.

Speculation has already--perhaps prematurely--narrowed down the list of front-runners for the initial three-year contract to Foster, Challender and Jordania. St. Clair may figure into that list, depending on his showing with the Pacific at the end of the month.

Spisto now reveals that the orchestra actively recruited the conductors it was interested in.

For instance, when Zdenek Macal, who was originally scheduled for a pair of concerts in December, said he was not interested and pulled out, the management contacted Sydney's Challender to give him a chance in the race.

"As is normal, the people who send in applications are usually the people who are not the most desirable," Spisto said in a recent interview in the orchestra's new administrative offices in Irvine.

What the contenders share, says Spisto, is "experience building an orchestra, whether it be a regional, urban or a major orchestra. They've all been responsible for bringing an orchestra from point A to point B."

Reaching point B, for the Pacific, would entail two things, he said.

"We need a conductor who will focus on the musical task of bringing more unity to the sound, especially establishing an ensemble identity, and basically taking this orchestra through a great deal of the core repertoire that we've heretofore not done."

Spisto believes that the orchestra already has demonstrated an advance over the Clark years.

"This may sound like marketing hype, but I really believe with all my heart and my ears that we've reached a 'next' level this year in the playing of the Pacific Symphony by virtue of several forces that have come together--i.e., a consistently high quality of conductor, in addition to the fact that we had some critical positions filled this summer."

One of the key questions the search committee has been grappling with is whether to go with a younger, lesser-known conductor and hope that as his career takes off, the orchestra rises with him, or whether to chose a more-established conductor who will automatically bring a certain cachet to the orchestra.

"To have the Pacific Symphony recognized at a higher level-- recognized, I'm not saying playing at a higher level--is probably not as easily attained with someone who's not known," he said.

"It has been pretty clear from the onset that where possible, this (search) committee favored experience. It is definitely leaning toward conductors who have a substantial amount of experience."

That may explain, at least partially, the fading interest in such impressive, but younger, past-season candidates as Simon, 43, and Stulberg, 35.

"We've certainly seen that the more experienced conductor tends to get better results with this orchestra because this is a very diverse group of people," Spisto said.

"Some of our newer players, and frankly some of our quite talented players, too, are going through the repertoire in an orchestral setting for the first time. So you've got varying levels of background in the orchestra, and because of that we probably need a conductor who's been there before."

But experience exacts a price. Clark was paid $94,094 in his final year with the orchestra and Spisto estimates that the new director will be paid something close to that.

"The range will probably go from less than what Clark got to more, but not considerably more," he said. "It all has to do with their background and experience."

Beyond the money, there is another price to pay.

"It's basically a foregone conclusion that in order to attract a very experienced conductor . . . we would probably not be able to attract that individual to live here for the full year," Spisto said.

Translation? "We're probably going to have to share that individual with another orchestra or orchestras."

What will the orchestra require of its new conductor?

"We are looking for someone who will (conduct) six pairs of classical concerts of the nine" that are scheduled in 1990-91, Spisto said. "And we are looking for someone who hopefully will give a minimum of one of the summer concerts."

And how much time would the orchestra ask the music director to spend in Orange County?

"We would require about a month of administrative, fund-raising kind of activity, and that could be worked in adjacent to the conducting weeks, spread throughout the year."

Spisto said that while that may not sound like much time, a lot can be accomplished without the music director's physical presence.

"A music director's time shouldn't be wasted," he added. "It should be well planned. He should be meeting the appropriate people in the community, working with the leaders, stimulating and motivating the leaders. But the primary agenda for a music director is the music."

Still, there certainly will be some extra-musical considerations: "Will the music director fit in and be interested in Orange County? Will he want to spend time with people in Orange County? Will he want to spend time with the board? All of the questions have to be answered in the affirmative," Spisto said.

Once a winner is selected, Spisto said that some of the runners-up are likely to return as guest conductors in the future.

"We feel strongly that three guest conductors a year is healthy because the orchestra always should have the ability to work with different people," Spisto said.

"In addition to that, as years go on, the orchestra needs to build a relationship with a cadre of conductors so that in the future, should a turnover in position occur, you do not have to wait three years to find your next conductor, because you already have a relationship with someone else."

Of course, the candidates, too, have been checking out the orchestra and have been laying out their demands.

"Larry (Foster) talked about having better rehearsal facilities," Spisto said. "He was very direct. He said that he wanted at least one more rehearsal in a higher quality--or upgraded facility--i.e., either upgrade (the orchestra's rehearsal hall in) Santa Ana or take us into the Center for one more rehearsal.

"Kord has been very vocal about his feeling about (instituting) daytime rehearsals, which is not in the cards for us within the next several years." The reason: Many of the orchestra's first-desk players are free-lance musicians who earn most of their money playing in Hollywood studios.

"Generally I would say that the consensus is that this is an orchestra that they can work with. None of them have said, 'Well, you really need to do some housecleaning.' "

Each candidate also has talked about building the educational programs. But to do all these things will cost money.

"We're an 11-year-old orchestra with good resources," he said. "We don't have all the resources we would like."

Spisto estimates that it would take about $50,000 to pay for the additional rehearsals next year and another $50,000 for the renovation of the orchestra's rehearsal facility in Santa Ana.

He said "about half of both those figures" has been built into a projected budget of $5 million for the 1990-91 season.

The organization will be looking toward government, corporate and private support to raise the rest of the money, he said.

As for the kind of power struggle between the executive director and the music director that led to Clark's ouster, Spisto does not foresee a repeat.

"It's as important for me to get to know the candidates and understand them, if not more important, than anyone else," he said.

"I need to be an advocate for the music director with the board and I need to be a reality check for the music director and the board. The music director might say, 'We need to do this, this and this,' and I need to help him set the priorities, with the understanding of the funding sources and the amount of funds we do have. . . . But I do not see an executive director functioning in the role of artistic director."

Both men will report directly and independently to the board of directors.

"I've gone on record as telling the board that a music director needs a free hand in musical programming, with the understanding that the music director would seek my advice in terms of what's appropriate to the market and what's appropriate to the kinds of outreach that we do.

"Our audiences are growing with us," he added. "I believe that if we develop a trust . . . built up over consistently good performances, they will be there with us. They will be there for us."

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