The Seattle Symphony has been without a Musical Director and resident conductor since January of 2022 when Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard resigned two years short of his contract’s term. The resignation was unexpected and still without a clear motive except for what seems to have been strained relations between the conductor and the orchestra’s management, as well as Covid issues for the Copenhagen-based Dausgaard.
Asked about the timetable for selecting a new music director, the Symphony’s press office would only say: “The Seattle Symphony continues to actively search for its next Music Director. The search committee, which consists of equal parts musicians, board members and administrators, meets on an ongoing basis and is committed to investing the time needed to choose the perfect candidate.” Meanwhile the SSO has just signed President Krishna Thiagarajan to a new three-year contract as general manager.
This has left the Seattle Symphony without a musical director for nearly three years, taking into the account the fallow Covid years of 2020-2022. Guest conductors have filled the void.
By contrast, the Bellingham Music Festival (while very different in scale) recently transitioned from its founder Michael Palmer who, with the Dean of Fine Arts at Western Washington University Robert Sylvester, founded the summer festival 30 years ago. There was a one-season search for a new Musical Director, during which five guest conductors were invited to lead the orchestra for the summer series of 2023 and in effect audition for a contract. The winner is Marcelo Lehninger, a rising star as a conductor who has been for seven years the Musical Director of the Grand Rapids Symphony in Michigan.
I often attend the Bellingham Festival. I recently spoke with a former member of the Festival Orchestra now retired in Bellingham. He had played for decades in the Michael Palmer years, retiring this past summer. He said his enthusiasm for the new conductor reflects that of his fellow orchestra members. “You know, orchestra musicians make up their minds about a new or guest conductor shortly after the first downbeat.” “He’s the real deal,” was the immediate verdict about Lehninger. “We were all delighted and we were unanimous by intermission time. “He’s the guy,” and we let the Board members know as soon as we had a chance.’ “
“How do you know so quickly? I asked. “It’s the way he knows the score and shapes the music,” was his quick answer. “An orchestra knows immediately when it has a conductor who has a vision and understanding of the music that is programmed.”
The same verdict came from a member of Boston Symphony Orchestra where Lehninger at 31 was chosen by James Levine to be his Assistant Conductor. A BSO veteran told me: “You know we eat assistant conductors for lunch. Generally we hate them; they are immature and don’t know what they are doing.” Lehninger remained with the Boston for the next two years.
Lehninger, now 41, is the scion of a musical family that has given him German and Brazilian citizenship via his violin-playing father, and piano-playing mother. When he became a conductor, Kurt Mazur, Music Director of the 250-year-old Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, became a mentor to the young Lehninger, then 26, and chose him to be his assistant at the French National Orchestra (Orchestre Nationale de France), the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, and the New York Philharmonic.
Lehninger said of his new appointment for Bellingham’s summer festival, “The reason I look forward to the Bellingham Festival is not only the quality of the orchestra made up of many first chair instrumentalists from orchestras around the country, but as a place to grow the Festival.” He hopes to build a master program for young conductors by inviting four of five of younger versions of himself and give them the opportunity to work with a professional orchestra under his mentorship. He also has ideas about starting a Youth Orchestra in Bellingham. Lehninger said he has also discussed with the board the possibility of fundraising to build a new concert hall to house a growing and expanding festival.