Abrupt Coda

Just when we thought it was safe to count on the Symphony, the November 8 announcement that Music Director and Conductor Larry Rachleff's contract would not be renewed for the 2008-09 season came as a shock. Some musicians are up in arms, others are taking it with a battle-weary "Here we go again ..." attitude. The board presents it as an unfortunate, difficult, but necessary decision. To the community at large, it sends a message of lingering instability. In any case, it's bad timing for an organization just getting back on its feet financially, administratively, and artistically.

The issue, ostensibly, is the amount of face time Rachleff can give to San Antonio `see "And carry a big baton," October 18-24`. The board, and CEO David Green in particular, feels San Antonio needs a full-time Artistic Director who can assert a more active presence in the community. In short, someone who lives here. This makes sense from a PR and a fundraising position which, to be fair, is rightly Green's priority. The logic is that in this particular funding climate, San Antonio money likes to support San Antonio. Rachleff, as the artistic "face" of the Symphony, isn't around much.

Artistically, Rachleff's goal of developing a signature sound for the Symphony would benefit from more time with it. He knows this, and it's been an issue for many of the musicians. Building the dynamic, intuitive ensemble playing of a major orchestra requires time and familiarity, and the two years Rachleff has been with the Symphony have shown hints of greatness. As musician and Orchestra Committee Chair Brian Petkovich put it, "Larry works well with this particular orchestra. With new conductors there's always a honeymoon phase, and this one's either lasting a lot longer or it's a good relationship. The musicians want him to stay. This is not a popular decision."

The bottom line is that everyone wants more of Rachleff, and he's always indicated he wants more of San Antonio. So why are we firing him? Contract negotiations are confidential, so we don't really know what went down. It doesn't seem to be a decision anyone wanted to make, and Green is clear that it was not a capricious move. But somewhere along the line there was a

Surely the board can't expect Rachleff to leave his tenured professorship in Houston for an orchestra with a long history of poor administration, only recent financial stability, and a 12-week season. What fool would? We have musicians who aren't resident, or have supplementary gigs in other cities, for exactly the same reason. Rachleff's time constraints were known when he was hired. The reason he's in demand as a guest conductor is that, musically, he's worth it. Firing him seems artistically short-sighted, despite administrative arguments for long-term development.

Great conductors don't come along that often, and most work in multiple cities. A major concern is that if residency is a requirement for Rachleff's replacement, what caliber of conductor will we get? At this point, it isn't a question of whether the Symphony can survive another blow. By and large, it's proven fairly resilient, in part because we have a core group of dedicated musicians, and an audience, willing to compromise for 12 weeks of excellence. But if we compromise that excellence, what's left?


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