Oklahoma City Philharmonic will select its new music director from six guest conductors 


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After founding Oklahoma City Philharmonic nearly 30 years ago, Maestro Joel Levine grew the orchestra and took classical music to places never before seen in this city.

Once again, OKC Phil finds itself in uncharted territory as it prepares for his absence. In December, Levine told Eddie Walker, executive director of the philharmonic, he will retire from OKC Phil in May 2018. Since then, the group’s board of directors has selected six candidates to publicly audition for the vacancy through March during the orchestra’s Classics programs.

Levine founded the Phil in 1988 after the city’s previous orchestra was discontinued by its board of directors. He is the only conductor and music director in OKC Phil’s history.

“There’s no institutional memory of how we did [a search like this] last time,” Walker said. “Which is good, I think, because we all started with a blank page.”

Andrés Franco was the first candidate to guest conduct with the orchestra during an Oct. 1 Classics performance. The other five are Alexander Mickelthwate (Nov. 19), David Lockington (Jan. 7), Andreas Delfs (Feb. 4), Daniel Hege (March 4) and Vladimir Kulenovic (March 25).

The finalists were selected from more than 200 applicants, including many from outside the United States. Of the six, only one was born in the U.S.

Walker said the replacement decision will be made by the board’s search committee with no special input from Levine, at Levine’s request. The committee values audience feedback, and surveys will be sent to everyone who attends a program.

Walker hopes to select a successor soon after the last guest concert March 25. It is not yet determined whether a new, full-time conductor will be in place by next season.

He said, ideally, the committee wants a replacement who would be both a talented lead for the musicians and an affable new member to the orchestra and local community.

“We want someone who can continue the music-making, so musicianship really comes first,” he said. “A very close second is, ‘Are they a good human being?’”

Complex role

Levine’s successor will be OKC Phil’s new music director as well as its new conductor. The two jobs, Walker said, are very different.

The role of music director involves planning and programming vision. It is not just deciding what the orchestra plays on a concert-by-concert basis, but what direction it will go in the future. It also involves the practical juggling act of finding ways to grow the orchestra’s local following while also appealing to longtime patrons and the musicians themselves.

“It’s those behind-the-scenes aspects of the job that are the most important but the least visible to the public,” Walker said.

The search’s scope and the great number of interested applicants point to the value of this type of position in the music community. Walker said there are about 50 orchestras OKC Phil’s size or larger in the U.S. and many, many more people in the world wanting to conduct. He said candidate enthusiasm for the opportunities this city presents has been strong.

“We sometimes lose sight of how we appear today because we know where we’ve come from,” Walker said. “But these outsiders are coming in, and they don’t know anything about what it was like in the ’70s and ’80s and they see this place they think would be terrific to live in. So who wouldn’t want to come here?”

The search is intensive in part because an orchestra contains so many moving parts. Orchestra jobs can be as hard to come by as conducting jobs, so it’s not easy for a musician to just leave if they do not mesh with a conductor.

“Orchestras have personalities; they come to play in certain ways together,” Walker said. “That’s based on the players in the orchestra, but a lot on who has been their conductor and what styles they’ve had, what repertoire they play. Orchestras are very individual entities, so the matching of a music director with an orchestra is so special that the business has come to do their searches this way.”

Fitting in

Tickets for the last Classics concert of the season April 15 are already in high demand from those expecting it to be Levine’s finale, but Walker reminds fans that it is still not known when the current conductor’s final show will be. He is technically under contract through the end of next season and might end up splitting time with his successor next year.

What is certain, however, is the impact Levine has had during his time as the orchestra’s leader.

“It will be extremely difficult to find another Joel Levine who can and wants to do as much as he could,” Walker said.

Whoever follows Levine will be wise to connect to his new home in the same way that made the conductor a fixture in the local community.

“I think [Levine] has been successful because the city’s appetite and his tastes were very much the same,” Walker said. “They liked what he liked.”

Visit okcphil.org.

Print headline: Classic quest, The retirement of conductor and orchestra founder Joel Levine puts Oklahoma City Philharmonic in an unfamiliar position. 

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