The search is on

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The search is on
The Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic. (Photo/wmpamusic.org)
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By Kassidy McDonald kmcdonald@alextimes.com

Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic has an exciting 2022-2023 concert season ahead – but with a special twist, as the organization is in the final stages of finding its next music director.

The Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic Association, originally called the Mount Vernon Orchestra Association until 2004, is a 65-person symphony orchestra that performs 10 concerts annually in Alexandria. This year’s concert season marks the 51st anniversary of the WMPA.

The Mount Vernon Orchestra Association was founded by bassist H. Stevens Brewster in 1972, according to the WMPA website. After Brewster’s death in 1984, Ulysses James became the conductor and music director of both the WMP and the Washington Metropolitan Youth Orchestra.

Ulysses James. (Courtesy photo)

James was not a trained conductor when he took over the WMP. He was, however, a talented musician and had a focus in the Navy on organizational development, which he said helped lead him to becoming conductor. At the time, his daughter was a violinist in the Mount Vernon Junior Chamber Orchestra, which led him to buy a trombone and cello. He watched the Mount Vernon Chamber orchestra disassemble due to organizational problems and decided he knew enough about conducting and music to try and help bring it back together.

James has continued his dedication to the organization since 1984, as he is still currently the artistic director of WMPA and Conductor of the WMP. James will retire in May 2023 in what will be the last concert of the season.

During his tenure, James said he’s been most impacted by the many musicians that have returned to play with him.

“The things that stand out most are the way in which very fine composers and musicians have enjoyed working with me and the orchestra, and they will return and do more,” James said.

In terms of his retirement, James says it is something that becomes very hard to let go of because he’s done it for so long. He is hopeful and optimistic about the future of the organization in his absence because of how great all four finalists are.

“My hope is that [the WMPHA] continues to fill the space in which the orchestra members are a combination of high level amateurs and professionals, because that way of doing things makes great contributions to the community,” James said. “There is always a push to become professional – which isn’t always the best way to go – and it is really important for us to fill the space we’re in and get better.”

The final concert of the season will be held on May 20, 2023 at 3 p.m. James will take the stage with the WMP for the last time to celebrate his career and long tenure of the orchestra.

The process

The hunt for a new music director is currently underway. The search began in March, and has been whittled down from more than 50 applicants to four finalists. Caroline Mousset, the executive and artistic planning director of the WMPA, said there are five members on the search committee, including two members of the Philharmonic. She has been working with the guest conductors to plan this year’s season and has been chairing the search committee.

“It is a really exciting time because anything is possible. We really are following – by the book – the guidelines set forth by the League of American Orchestras for our music director search,” Mousset said.

The search committee gave each applicant rankings based on the following categories: education and training; conducting experience; music director or comparable leadership/administrative experience; and special or unique gifts/appeal/skills. Based on this criteria, they then created a spreadsheet and cut the applicant pool in half. The 25 remaining candidates were interviewed.

From there, the search committee narrowed the list down to eight candidates. Mousset explained they then had a meeting to decide the four final candidates that was taken to the WMPA Board of Directors.

“The WMP’s 2022/2023 Season honors the legacy of Artistic Director Emeritus Ulysses James in presenting great works with a particular focus on championing underrepresented and American composers. After experiencing the artistry of all four music director finalists in concert throughout the season, both audiences and orchestra members will be able to share their thoughts through surveys, which will be impactful in determining the Philharmonic’s next music director,” Mousset said in a news release.

For the 2022-2023 season, each of the four music director finalists will have five rehearsals and one concert performance. They will be evaluated not only by the Board, but also by the orchestra and the audience members as well. According to Mousset, each member of the orchestra will receive a survey evaluating each finalist during rehearsal and their concert performance, and the audience will receive a survey evaluating the concert they attend.

“The Search Committee will review the results of these surveys, and meet after the fourth guest conductor concert on March 26 to determine who we will recommend to the Board as the new music director,” Mousset said.

Erin Freeman

Erin Freeman. (Photo/wmpamusic.org)

Erin Freeman, the first guest conductor, will hold a concert on Sunday. Freeman got her start in music by attending the symphony in Atlanta with her mother and attending productions like Annie with her grandmother. She currently lives in Richmond, but is moving to Alexandria within the near future. Freeman is artistic director of The City Choir of Washington, artistic director of Wintergreen Music, resident conductor of the Richmond Ballet and recently concluded successful tenures as director of the award-winning Richmond Symphony Chorus, according to her WMPA bio.

A close friend suggested that Freeman audition with the Philharmonic to become the next music director. She auditioned and now finds herself in the final four.

“I didn’t think of it as an audition,” Freeman said. “I thought of it as an opportunity to make music with people.”

Her concert is inspired by the word “philharmonic,” which means love or devotion to music. Her program is about the power of love and music, and even features a sibling duo violinist and cellist playing a piece together.

Anna Binnenweg

Anna Binneweg. (Photo/wmpamusic.org)

Anna Binneweg will be the next conductor to hold a concert. She got her start in music through earning her university doctorate at Northwestern University in conducting. While there, she attended a study abroad program in London that greatly inspired her to pursue conducting at a professional level.

“I always wanted to be in some kind of leadership role that was centered around teaching. And of course, by nature of conducting, we are teachers,” Binneweg said.

Binneweg has been the music director/conductor of the Londontowne Symphony Orchestra, the AACC Symphony Orchestra at Anne Arundel Community College and a frequent guest conductor on the national and international scene, according to her bio on the Philharmonic’s website. She heard about the music director opening through colleagues and other musicians in the area of her hometown of Annapolis.

“Especially for semi-professional and community orchestras, I think it is really important that the orchestra has a say because they’re all there for the absolute love of it and commitment to their community, so I think that is a very wise component of the audition,” Binneweg said.

Binneweg’s concert will feature work by living composer Micheal Stephen Brown, who was inspired by Beethoven. The overarching theme of her concert on Dec. 11 will be honoring traditions of the past in addition to featuring new music.

Glen Cortese

Glen Cortese. (Photo/wmpamusic.org)

The next guest conductor and finalist to hit the stage will be Glen Cortese, who got his start in music in a rather peculiar way. He began taking piano lessons at age 4, but soon realized he also wanted to play baseball and try the trumpet. His mother made him choose, and he ended up choosing baseball over piano. He continued with baseball for some time before sustaining a head injury that stopped his career in close contact sports. He picked up the piano again after his injury in what he called “the divine intervention in his life” that led him back where he was supposed to be. He went on to study piano, switched to composition and began conducting and writing music.

Cortese is the artistic director of the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra, artistic director of the Western New York Chamber Orchestra, just completed 12 seasons as music director of the Greeley Philharmonic Orchestra and was named music director emeritus of the Oregon Mozart Players after serving as artistic director for nine seasons, according to his Philharmonic bio.

He heard about the Philharmonic through job boards and postings and was immediately attracted to the organization.

“Smaller institutions are more flexible in terms of how many concerts they choose to do, the size of the orchestras they can hire … so they’re more flexible in maintaining the programming and product without being tied to a very stringent contractual obligation,” Cortese said. “I’m a big proponent of keeping these smaller cultural institutions healthy and helping them grow both artistically and financially.”

His February concert will explore many different periods – from the romantic era to a piece written in the 1990s, for a unique range of style and musical periods. Not only is the period of time of the pieces different, but pieces from a German, Russian, French and an American composer will be performed for a variety of cultural backgrounds as well.

Michelle Di Russo

Michelle Di Russo (Photo/wmpamusic.org)

The last to hold a concert will be Argentinian-Italian conductor Michelle Di Russo, who began dancing and taking voice lessons and fell in love with music by learning a range of instruments.She received a doctoral degree in orchestral conducting from Arizona State University and a master of music in orchestral conducting from the University of Kentucky. Di Russo is the interim director of orchestras at Cornell University and the new assistant conductor of North Carolina Symphony, according to her Philharmonic bio.

Di Russo moved to Washington, D.C. during the pandemic, and learned about the opening for the new music director through her agent.

“What really caught my attention was the diverse programming the orchestra champions, as well as American composers and due to my absolute love for collaborating with composers and premiering new music. I realized that I would really enjoy being able to carry on that mission and vision with this organization,” Di Russo said in a statement.

Her concert will focus mainly on American composers and on the voices in classical music today that are current and relevant.

During the pandemic, Di Russo co-created Girls Who Conduct. This organization has the mission of closing the gender gap in the conducting field. The organization empowers women-identifying and non-binary conductors by providing mentorship and training opportunities.

The gender gap

Using a database of 30 million profiles, Zippia estimated demographics and statistics for conductors in the United States: 13.1% of all conductors are women, while 86.9% are men.

Although there still continues to be a gender gap in conducting, with three out of four finalists for the WMP music director being women, the future looks bright.

All of the candidates were enthusiastic about the makeup of the field changing, and seemed hopeful for the future of the WMPA.

“[The majority women] shows a lot about the organization and the field in general, there are more conductors who are primed and ready for these positions who end up applying,” Freeman said.

“This is the first time I’ve been in a search finals where all the other candidates have been women. It doesn’t surprise me that much because I think the field has opened more and there is really no reason why there shouldn’t be more female conductors, it has to do with your musicianship and not your gender,” Cortese said.

“I was so excited and thrilled once they released the four finalists, that 75% of us are female,” Binneweg said. “I think it speaks really highly of the organization and that they’re really committed to being in-sync with the times.”

“I believe representation is crucial to inspire younger generations to dream without limits, and this is a step in the right direction in continuing to expand what classical music looks like,” Di Russo said. “There is still work to be done, but it is encouraging to see how things are starting to change.”

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