For 23 years, I have had the privilege of being a member of the cello section in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. For the first time in over two decades we have selected a new music director, Nathalie Stutzmann. This is an historic appointment, not only because she is the first woman to lead the Atlanta Symphony orchestra in its 77-year history, but also only the second woman to have that position in a top 25 orchestra in the US, and currently the only one, as Marin Alsop stepped down from her role at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra just this past August.
The search process lasted three and a half years, but nobody could have predicted how fraught with challenges that time period would become. To put that in perspective, most of an orchestra’s season is probably planned at least one year in advance. From the time that announcement is made, it’s at least a year, if not longer, before you can really start to invite candidates to work with the orchestra, and each candidate would typically start with one full week with multiple live concerts. To really see what the chemistry is like between a conductor and the musicians, we would hope for multiple weeks for a full assessment. This would always be a lengthy process no matter what the circumstances were.
One year after the initial announcement of Robert Spano’s impending departure would have been around January of 2019, and we all know what happened roughly one year after that to the world and then locally to our season as a global pandemic began. So here we were, just getting into the meat and potatoes of our search, and everything came to a grinding halt. It wasn’t until September of 2020 that we were able to resume playing in significantly smaller groups, masked, sitting six to twelve feet apart, with plexiglass halfway around every wind and brass player, and recording concerts with no audience.
As grateful as all of us were to be back to some sort of music-making, although extremely challenging to say the least, there is no substitute for sharing our art with an audience and the energy that comes from that shared experience. But — not to minimize any of the horror of what we have all been through, or the tremendous loss of life — there were a few silver linings to this global interruption, primarily the sudden availability of many conductors whose guest appearances had suddenly evaporated all around the world.
Because of our management’s ability to be nimble and flexible, we were one of the few orchestras to return to the stage as early as we did. This meant that after a previous cancelled engagement with Maestra Stutzmann, once it was safe enough to travel, we were able to bring her back not only once, but for 3 separate weeks of rehearsals and recorded concerts. And she wasn’t the only candidate available during those months, so this was a special opportunity that we were able to capitalize on!
To be completely frank; at times rehearsals can be drudgery. However, when the tedious attention to detail, and the work to create cohesion of the conductor’s musical vision throughout the ensemble translates into epic performances, then any amount of drudgery is completely worth it! I would even venture to say that this is precisely why all of us became professional musicians, living each day on the job for those incredibly special moments that can only be created with an ensemble firing on all cylinders and an audience whose members are fully engaged in the experience. When this happens, the relationship between the musicians and the person on the podium becomes more trusting; then the musicians become more willing to take the risks being asked of them, and concerts only get better from there.
I say all of this to point out how miraculous it was that we found our next music director without playing a single note in front of a live audience. Nathalie Stutzmann comes to the ASO with a much bigger resume as one of the preeminent contraltos in the world, but a more recent decade of experience as a conductor. However, her musicianship is so foundational as a singer that learning the technical aspects of how to lead an ensemble can be achieved significantly quicker. She brings an incredible wealth of musical knowledge to this position. Her ability to pull a full palette of colors and expression out of the orchestra is second to none.
I had some mixed feelings about the announcement of our next music director. In my mind, one of the most important elements of this search process was missing — performing in front of a live audience. On Wednesday October 13, this news reverberated around the world, and that night we played our first concert in front of an audience with our new music director. By the end of the second concert, there was not a shred of doubt in my mind that the right decision had been made. The ensemble moved with a flexibility and stretched with magical color and phrasing in ways I have rarely experienced. Fortunately, enough of my brilliant colleagues saw something I needed more personal time to illuminate, and now we have a tremendously exciting orchestral future under a new baton!