Conductors, start your batons

“I’m so glad I don’t have to choose …” sighs longtime Asheville Symphony fan Robyn Leslie.

Like most of the Symphony’s audience, she’s been on the fence for a while — about whom to select for next conductor.

With the departure of the beloved Robert Hart Baker, who recently completed a 22-season tenure with the local symphony, Asheville finds itself in need of a new maestro. But this isn’t the sort of position you just post in your newspaper’s employment section and then hope for the best.

Instead, the Symphony embarked upon an extensive auditioning process lasting nearly two years. Now, in the final months of the endeavor, a search committee has narrowed their scope to three finalists. After the third performance, the committee will make its recommendation to the Symphony’s Board of Directors, and will announce the lucky conductor in December.

So, how to name a winner?

Make ’em try out, of course.

At least they don’t have to face Simon Cowell

“This is a traditional way of [selecting],” insists Asheville Symphony Executive Director Steve Hageman. Sure, maybe it seems a touch American Idol — the contestants must perform on stage in front of a live audience, strutting their stuff in hopes of winning the affections of orchestra and audience alike.

But, unlike the popular reality show, these conductor hopefuls perform to live music. And, um, this is reality.

“My feeling is that they are both extremely capable and competent,” listener Dorrell Abbott tactfully remarks in another phone interview. She attended both the Sept. 18 concert, conducted by Daniel Meyer, and the Oct. 16 performance, where Alexander Mickelthwate demonstrated his talents. The third finalist, Timothy Hankewich, will appear this weekend — Saturday, Nov. 20.

Meyer is a native of Cleveland. He attended the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and Boston University, and studied at the Hochschule fur Musik und darstellende Kunst in Vienna, Austria.

Alexander Mickelthwate was born in Germany, and played cello and piano as a child. His studies led him to Baltimore’s Peabody Institute of Music, and he completed a fellowship at the Tanglewood Music Center.

British Columbia native Timothy Hankewich won the prestigious Aspen Conducting Award in ’97 and the Geraldine C. and Emory Ford Foundation’s 2001-2002 Immersion in New American Music for Professional American Conductors Award. He completed his doctorate at Indiana University.

Former Asheville Symphony maestro Robert Hart Baker, it’s worth noting, made his conductory debut at age 17. He holds a doctorate in conducting from Yale School of Music — and so leaves impressively large shoes to fill.

Blame it on Shoshtakovitch

“Both [Meyer and Mickelthwate] would be good for Asheville,” Abbott proposes. Like many symphony-goers, she’s quick to concede that the real choice should be left up to the musicians who will perform under the baton of the newly appointed maestro.

But she’s not completely without bias.

“The second [Mickelthwate] may have turned some people off,” she admits. “[Conducting to] Shostakovitch is a little hard. I think he might have chosen something more modern.”

Abbott goes on to reveal: “I live at Deerfields, where there are a lot of older people, and they came down hard in favor of the first one [Meyer].”

Meyer’s program included selections by Michael Daugherty, Sibelius and Tchaikovsky, as opposed to Mickelthwate’s more intense choice of Ginastera, Mendelssohn and the dreaded Shostakovitch.

“Alexander [Mickelthwate]’s just too young,” Jean Etter, yet another recently polled audience member, announces. Of course, all the finalists are young — meaning 30-somethings. And the two who’ve already put in a performance are also pretty easy on the eyes. But while looks might mean a lot for pop stars, Asheville Symphony-goers need a little something more.

“I found Daniel [Meyer] felt comfortable with us,” Etter continues. “And when I saw the [introductory] films, I preferred Timothy [Hankewich], his style.”

It’s Robyn Leslie who’s the most forthcoming about her favorite. “Daniel,” she discloses, but is quick to add, “It’s really hard to pick. They’re bringing so much enthusiasm and new, contemporary ideas.”

That sense of zeal can probably be attributed to each conductor’s relatively recent establishment in the field, as well as their individual achievements: Meyer was just promoted to resident conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and serves as music director of the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra. Mickelthwate was recently promoted to assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, and is also assistant conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. And Hankewich is resident conductor with the Kansas City Symphony.

Homeward bound

So why is Meyer Leslie’s top choice? “He was maybe a little bit more laid back. He seems to have a younger, fresher approach to what we’re used to seeing,” she maintains.

“The guest artist [violinist Nicholas Kendall] at Daniel’s performance was almost picking his strings at the end,” she enthuses. “It wasn’t ‘Rocky Top’ or anything, but it was so here, so Asheville. He had the whole orchestra doing it.”

And that’s a point in Meyer’s favor, because each guest conductor chose his own soloist.

But Symphony supporters’ top concern is which contestant will be able to spend the most time with Asheville Symphony — because, unlike Baker, these new candidates are unlikely to be residents.

“I think what’s most important for Asheville is who will be most available,” opines former board member George Sanger. “It sure would be nice if we could build the symphony up to where we could afford a full-time conductor.”

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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