Alexandria Symphony nears selection of new conductor

Alexandria Symphony nears selection of new conductor
Nicholas Hersh performs at the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra last weekend (Courtesy photo)

By Alexa Epitropoulos |

As the curtain closes on the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra’s 2017-2018 season, the organization is getting close to naming its first new conductor in three decades.

The process of searching for a replacement for longtime Maestro Kim Kluge, the 28-year symphony veteran who set down his baton in May 2016, was extensive. The symphony’s search committee fielded more than 170 applications from around the world and steadily narrowed the list down from 35 to 17 to the final four.

Those four – Michael Rossi, James Ross, José-Luis Novo and Nicholas Hersh – auditioned for the role by each conducting a concert. Rossi opened the season with “Wagner, Strauss & Beethoven” last September, followed by Ross in October with “Britten & Brahms” and Novo in February with “Debussy & Sibelius.” Hersh concluded the season Saturday and Sunday with “Bach, Piazzolla & Brahms.”

Each applicant was given a similar experience, according to Melynda Wilcox, co-vice chair of the symphony’s board of trustees and a member of the search committee. Rossi, Ross, Novo and Hersh were given the same amount of time, with rehearsals followed by Saturday and Sunday performance dates. Applicants created their own event programs and were given a performance budget for musicians, instrument rentals and music

Michael Rossi (Courtesy photo)

rentals. Members of the search committee attended rehearsals and concerts to observe candidates in various aspects of the environment.

“The rehearsal process is almost as important as the actual concert because you get to see how they relate to musicians,” Wilcox said. “You get a sense of how they interpret the music and how they communicate their interpretation to musicians. You also
want to see how the program progresses from first rehearsal to dress rehearsal to the actual performance.”

During each performance, members of the audience were asked to give feedback through paper surveys, where they could rate each candidate’s conducting skill, presentation and whether or not the candidate made comments onstage, according to ASO Co-Executive Director Melinda Kernc.

James E. Ross (Courtesy photo)

“We’ve had a really strong attendance throughout the whole season and an extremely high rate of response from surveys,” Kernc said. “Over half [of audience members] responded to the surveys. All have been really positive about the candidates. It will be a very difficult decision, I think.”

Musicians were able to give feedback through SurveyMonkey, where they rated how candidates conducted rehearsals, how easy they were to follow, as well as their interpretation of the music, among other things. Bryan Bourne, ASO principal trombone, said musician participation was high.

“This is the first [search process] I’ve been involved in where the board really values the input of musicians,” Bourne said. “I think we’re all hoping that the best man for the position, for every aspect of the job, is also the best musician.”

In addition to the symphony surveying audience members and musicians, five musicians were appointed to serve on the search committee, including Amy Horn, ASO principal horn.

Jose-Luis Novo (Photo Credit: John Bidhal)

“The vetting process was very involved and the board members and the musicians on the search committee worked together,” Horn said. “What we were all looking for, what’s primary for the musicians, is we want a good musician, someone who is able
to communicate the music, communicate what they want for us, someone who inspires us and challenges us and brings the music out of us.”

The applicants the board of trustees will choose from have varying backgrounds, experiences and geographic points of origin. Rossi is the founder and artistic director of the Miami Summer Music Festival and was the youngest member to win a position in the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra. Ross is the music director of the National Youth Orchestra USA at Carnegie Hall, the music director of the Orquesta Simfonica del Valles and part of the conducting faculty at the Julliard School at Lincoln Center and the University of Maryland. Novo is the music director and conductor of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, while Hersh is the associate conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and artistic director of the Baltimore Symphony Youth Orchestra.

Nicholas Hersh (Courtesy photo)

All bring different skills to the table, Bourne said, from a musician’s point of view. He described Rossi as having a clear beat and enthusiasm about the music and Ross as having a mature interpretation of the music and clarity as a conductor. He recalled Novo having good energy and a clear sense of the music. He said Hersh, the most recent performer, was a good technician of the music and fully engaged in the performance.

“I think it’s going to be a very challenging decision because you have a pretty strong field of candidates,” Bourne said. “In terms of the regional orchestras that I’ve played with … these candidates are probably stronger than any of those.”

The next stage for the search committee is to pull together the survey data, review videos of all four of the concerts and revisit notes about all interactions with candidates, including oneon-one interviews, meet and greets between musicians and audience members and conversations held with members of the board of trustees.

“All four of the candidates have been very well-received by our audiences and
we’ve gotten really tremendous feedback from audience members. … We’re estimating that, by the end of the comment period for this last candidate, we will have accumulated 1,500 surveys,” Wilcox said. “Most of those comments at the bottom where people express their viewpoints have had a lot of comments in the vein of ‘We never knew ASO could sound this good.’”

The board of trustees is expected to make an offer to a candidate in May and an announcement about the new conductor should be made shortly afterward. 

Wilcox said, regardless of the board’s choice, there’s one clear hope in the minds of all parties involved.

“I think there’s an excitement, there’s energy around the selection and there’s a sense that the future is going to be bright for ASO, regardless of which one we choose,” Wilcox said. “There’s a feeling that, with a new music director, not only are we going to be able to continue to offer this really high-quality experience for our audience – we’re going to be able to expand the types of programs and events we have and be a bigger presence in the community.”