And carry a big baton

When Larry Rachleff first took the stage as music director and conductor of the San Antonio Symphony in 2004, both audience and orchestra were more than ready to get the “comeback season” going, even though it meant fewer concerts
Absence makes our hearts grow fonder: Symphony Music Director Larry Rachleff promises a bigger musical footprint on upcoming seasons.
When Larry Rachleff first took the stage as music director and conductor of the San Antonio Symphony in 2004, both audience and orchestra were more than ready to get the “comeback season” going, even though it meant fewer concerts. One couldn’t help noticing the resolve, energy, and sheer exuberance of the musicians — who had lost an entire season to bankruptcy, administrative overhaul, and contract negotiations — and how much they seemed to respond to this new figure on the podium. He may have been a newcomer, but he was clearly in control of the situation, and bringing fantastic music to life.

Now entering his third season with the San Antonio Symphony, Maestro Rachleff’s musical integrity, dry humor, and peculiarly charismatic presence have given his initial burst of energy a certain degree of staying power. It’s one thing to show up at a poignant moment, quite another to sustain the subtle mix of dynamism, stability, affability, and absolute authority required to successfully lead a large ensemble. Ultimately, art-making is not democratic. Rachleff’s responsibility to the orchestra and its patrons is to maintain a level of artistic engagement that elevates everyone involved. Intimidating? Perhaps, but Rachleff doesn’t seem bothered by it.

“Different cities have different artistic personalities. Houston sees itself as a museum city, despite the fact that it has strong music institutions,” observes Rachleff. “San Antonio has the potential to be a great symphony city. This is a strong orchestra — many of our alumni are in the top five orchestras in the country. My goal is to create a more cultured sound, with each person playing at their optimal level.” Noting that Cleveland, Ohio, is home to one of the best orchestras in the country, Rachleff says, “Their demographics aren’t much different than San Antonio,” implying that a city doesn’t have to be particularly cosmopolitan, or overly wealthy, to sustain a superb orchestra.

What it does require, though, is consistency. Rachleff doesn’t live here and has, in previous seasons, conducted fewer than half of the concerts. As is typical of sought-after conductors, Rachleff holds positions in multiple cities. This is his 11th season as music director of the Rhode Island Philharmonic, where he conducts about seven concerts each year. The Houston resident is in his 15th year as music director of the orchestras at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, where he is also professor of conducting. Add those obligations to guest conducting engagements around the country and family life — he has a young son with his wife, soprano Susan Lorette Dunn — and it’s just another day in the life of a maestro.

The abundance of external engagements can’t help but point up the scarcity of his San Antonio appearances, but it’s only fair to acknowledge that Rachleff accepted his position here just a few months before the Symphony cut short its 2002-03 season, eliminating what would have been his first concert, and subsequently cancelled the entire 2003-04 season. In some ways, it was a leap of faith for Rachleff to keep the San Antonio job at all. But, Rachleff says, “I love being in San Antonio, and I look forward to spending more time here.” Rachleff will have more of a presence in San Antonio this season, conducting six of the 12 Classical Series and, he promises, “more next year.”

“The more we’re together, the more we know each other, the better it gets,” he says.

There’s an inherent dilemma in being the primary spokesman for the artistic quality of an orchestra for which he also makes the aesthetic decisions, and Rachleff’s comments are suitably politic. When the outcome of any given action or choice is dependent on 70 or so other people on stage, each with his or her own personality, aesthetic opinion, and level of artistic commitment, there are bound to be ego clashes and disappointments. In conversation, there’s an edgy, restless sense of artistic drive behind his polite analysis. By contrast, his honest enthusiasm for the music and, ultimately, this orchestra, are definite. It is his articulate engagement with audiences and deep understanding of the repertoire that will sustain his personal and collective goals for the San Antonio Symphony.

Rachleff’s programming philosophy is simple: Each program should feature a piece you already love, a work you’re getting used to, and a composition you’re trying out for the first time. As in most endeavors, a broader range of experience broadens the palate. “There has to be a mix of core masterpieces and newer works,” says Rachleff. “One of the essential components of having a live symphony orchestra is having something to perpetuate. All of these works were new at one point.” He adds, “How will we know what the canon of tomorrow will be if we don’t listen to works being written today?”

Of particular interest this season is the March world premier of San Antonio composer Tim Kramer’s “Modus Operandi,” one in a five-part Living Composers Project. The schedule also includes Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov’s “Last Round” in February, and in May Scotsman James MacMillans percussion concerto “Veni, Veni Emanuel,” and Chinese female composer Chen Yi’s “Momentum.”

Rachleff sees his role as building on an established trajectory. “This is one of the oldest professional music entities in the state. San Antonio has always done a great deal of new music. I want to continue that, not because it’s a trend, but because it’s essential to artistic growth.”


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