Donald Munro

As first of 6 candidates for Fresno Philharmonic post arrives, a grueling musical job interview

Sameer Patel, assistant conductor of the San Diego Symphony, is the first of six finalists competing for the job of music director of the Fresno Philharmonic.
Sameer Patel, assistant conductor of the San Diego Symphony, is the first of six finalists competing for the job of music director of the Fresno Philharmonic. Special to The Bee

This is one tough job interview.

Just ask Sameer Patel, the first candidate in a lineup of five men and one woman vying for the open position of music director of the Fresno Philharmonic. Patel, the assistant conductor of the San Diego Symphony, arrives in town Tuesday to begin a whirlwind week of search-committee interviews, photo ops with young musicians, mingling with subscribers, schmoozing with donors, media lunches and articulating his vision on how to keep the city’s pride-and-joy of an orchestra humming smoothly for years to come.

And did we mention he has a concert to rehearse and perform? (It’s 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 2, at the Saroyan Theatre.)

As the Fresno Philharmonic embarks on this season-long search for a new artistic leader, it’s a good time to review the selection process – and remind people how significant it will be.

The orchestra’s most recent music director, Theodore Kuchar, had the job for 15 years, after all. That’s a lot of time to put an artistic stamp on a community. As conductor, Kuchar boosted the musical reputation of the orchestra. He served as an ambassador for Fresno to the rest of the classical-music world.

In broader terms, a conductor – particularly one with a vigorous public presence – can become a well-known face of a city. Even for people who don’t consider themselves classical music fans, a conductor can be a symbol of a city’s higher aspirations and dreams. Who doesn’t want to live in a place that values culture?

As for the selection process: The folks at the Fresno Philharmonic are keeping it as uniform as possible for each of the six candidates, though there might be slight variations. Along with several private events, each week will look like this:

Wednesday: Media day includes interviews with Valley Public Radio and local TV. Plus: The Bee will take each candidate to lunch at a restaurant with local character, and I’ll find out a little more about each candidate from a personal point of view.

Thursday: A “Meet the Conductor” lunch will be open to the public. (The first will be at Torino’s. Cost is $25 for subscribers/$30 for others. Reservations are required by calling the Fresno Philharmonic at 559-261-0600.) That evening will be the first rehearsal with the orchestra.

Friday: Two rehearsals will be held with the orchestra, one in the afternoon, the other in the evening.

Saturday: Dress rehearsal at the Saroyan. (For Patel’s visit, string students from Biola-Pershing Elementary School will attend.)

Sunday: At 2 p.m., an hour before the concert begins, the candidate will join the orchestra’s Ben Boone for an “Inside the Music” lecture on the Saroyan stage. This will be one of the best opportunities to get an impression of a candidate’s ability to talk about music in an accessible way – always an important attribute for a conductor. At 3 p.m., the concert will take place. (The first program features Jonathan Leshnoff’s “Starburst,” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 with guest artist Gabriela Martinez, and Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2.) A reception in the Saroyan’s lower lobby will follow.

As you may have figured out, music is a big part of the candidate’s schedule. As it should be. Members of the orchestra will have an opportunity to evaluate each candidate in terms of musicality, leadership, etc. And several musicians on the orchestra’s board of director’s search committee – which has the ultimate say in the hire – will offer input, too.

“Musical excellence is absolutely critical,” says Stephen Wilson, the orchestra’s executive director and CEO. “It’s absolutely non-negotiable.”

Then again, given the caliber of the six candidates, all of whom have positions at prominent orchestras nationwide, it’s assumed that each one is an excellent musician. (The six finalists were narrowed down from 105 applicants.)

What else is the search committee looking for?

A compelling leader with a strong artistic vision. An effective fundraiser. A charismatic networker who can make connections with other local arts organizations. An experienced professional who understands the intricacies of the classical-music world. A collaborator who can get along with a board of directors, musicians and donors.

One of the most essential qualities: to be able to get people excited about classical music and appreciate the tremendous diversity of the central San Joaquin Valley.

Above all, the committee is looking for a certain spark. A special fit.

As I think about the selection process, something occurs to me. Because the Fresno Philharmonic is a professional orchestra whose musicians are covered by a union contract, there are rules about how new players are hired. Auditions are done anonymously, behind a screen. It’s about the most fair way you can think of to do a job search.

Yet the conductor is the only member of the orchestra who can’t be hired by putting him or her behind a screen. This person is a leader, an inspirer – a cajoler or evangelist, even, spreading a love of music. It’s an indefinable quality.

To each of the talented candidates who will grace our city in the coming season, my thanks in advance. It’s going to be one exciting job search. Which makes that tough job interview worth it.

Fresno Philharmonic conducted by Sameer Patel

Concert preview

Ask the candidate

The Fresno Bee is taking each candidate this season out for an authentic Fresno lunch, and we want you to come along. (Well, via social media.) We’ll be doing a Facebook Live broadcast with Sameer Patel at approximately 1:15 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 28. If you have a question to ask, you can do it in advance by sending an email to dmunro@fresnobee.com. Or wait and do it live at www.facebook.com/fresnobee.

Upcoming conductor candidates

  • Daniel Meyer: Nov. 6
  • Alexander Mickelthwate: Jan. 22
  • Aram Demirjian: Feb. 19
  • Rei Hotada: March 19
  • José-Luis Novo: April 9
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