With last week's announcement that Stefan Sanderling has accepted a two-year appointment as Toledo Symphony's principal guest conductor and music advisor, the orchestra has taken important steps in the effort to guarantee itself a bright future. Confidence is high that Sanderling will lead the orchestra to new standards of artistic excellence.
Sanderling's selection also has important long-term implications. It raises the bar for all candidates when the search for a permanent music director gets actively underway this fall.
Young and energetic, optimistic and apparently prodigiously gifted, the 37-year-old Sanderling is a risk taker and a dreamer. When not conducting orchestras around the world, he pilots airplanes to relax. As a student looking for artist freedom he once used his prose to take on the East German government.
Such characteristics bode well with Toledo musicians and administrators.
“Without question Stefan Sanderling has the knowledge and technical ability to guide the further development and expertise of our wonderful orchestra. During his recent visit, I believe he was favorably impressed by the capabilities of our musicians. But perhaps more important, he appeared to achieve an emotional connection that was very special,” said Joe Magliochetti, chairman of the symphony board.
Concertmaster Kirk Toth agrees.
Sanderling “brought experience and very fine musicianship. He knew what he wanted and stayed with it until he achieved it. Equally important, his treatment of the orchestra was collegial and respectful. That is essential for bringing out potential,” said Toth.
Toth and Sanderling appear to be on the same wavelength.
“Music is all about sharing emotions. I need to convince people with my music making, not by being the big boss,” said Sanderling recently from Texas where he was conducting at the Round Top Festival.
“It is very important for me that I have a good connection with the musicians and understand the things that they would like to do. The Toledo Symphony is their life and they certainly see problems as clearly as the management,” he said.
German by birth, Sanderling studied music in Leipzig, and beginning in the late 1880s at University of Southern California and Tanglewood. His father, Kurt Sanderling, is regarded as one of Europe's most distinguished conductors.
Despite the lineage – his older brother is a conductor as well – a conducting career was not part of Sanderling's early career plans.
“I never intended to become a conductor, that happened by accident. I wanted to study musicology in East Germany but, because I liked to provoke the government officials, we didn't get along very well,” said Sanderling.
“I had a job writing program notes in Halle. When the orchestra was playing Shostakovich's 6th Symphony I wrote that the piece was really a four-movement symphony but that the first movement [which is traditionally based on the development of contrasting musical ideas] couldn't exist in a country where development and discussion don't exist. So, I concluded, there was no need for a first movement.
“Somehow the article was missed by the censors and accidentally published. It was a big, big disaster. It changed my life. I had wanted to become a musicologist but that future suddenly didn't exist for me.
“Today I'm not too proud of what I did. I created problems for a lot of innocent people who lost their jobs. Certainly I didn't have any power to change the regime,” said Sanderling.
Shifting careers in mid-stride, Sanderling went to Leipzig at the invitation of Kurt Mazur. There he began to study conducting.
Although not yet able to speak English, Sanderling came to the United States in 1988 to study at the University of Southern California. Later, at Tanglewood, he studied with Seiji Ozawa and Leonard Bernstein.
Sanderling assumes the post of music director of the Tampa-based Florida Symphony beginning with the 2003-2004 season. He continues as chief conductor at the Orchestra de Bretagne in Rennes, France where he has conducted since 1996. He is a frequent guest with major American orchestras.
Despite his international profile, Sanderling is not star-struck by the status of the big cities.
"You don't need to be in Paris, New York, or Berlin to make great music. You can do that anywhere," he said.
Paris or Toledo, it is clear to Stephen Stranahan, a former board president and longtime symphony advocate, that Sanderling is a "rising star."
"You could sense that there was a mutual respect. The orchestra was paying so much attention and he was doing the same towards them," said Stranahan describing a rehearsal he attended last February.
Sanderling's goal is to use his skills as a musician and communicator to tap Toledo Symphony's potential.
"Every conductor goes somewhere because he thinks the golden century starts with him and he comes to make the orchestra better. Of course that is my intention, to make Toledo a great orchestra," said Sanderling.
Symphony musicians believe he can accomplish this.
Sanderling is special, says bassist and search committee member William McDevitt who was instrumental in getting the Toledo Symphony to consider the conductor's credentials. McDevitt says Sanderling made "an indelible impression" on him when he played under the conductor's baton 10 years ago with the St. Louis Symphony.
"That experience is one that I will never forget. Most musicians come across very few great conductors during their careers. For me, Sanderling has been one of those few."
Symphony members seem to agree. In a poll taken after the concerts of last March the conductor was given universally positive ratings. The players committee was unanimous in its approval of offering Sanderling this two-year contract.
Many in the orchestra would have liked to attempt to hire him for the permanent music directorship right then and there, said McDevitt.
Instead, however, the extended search will continue as originally planned. That is the correct choice.
The season will feature some of the finest conducting talent available to a regional-level orchestra. While none of these individuals have formally put their names in as applicants for the music director position, the orchestra members will be looking at each with an eye to the long term.
Grant Llewellyn, music director of Boston's Handel and Haydn Society, opens the Classics Series on Sept. 20. Peter Oundjian, former first violinist of the famed Tokyo String Quartet, conducts in January. Additional guests, all internationally acclaimed, include Giselle Ben-Dor, Yoav Talmi, Dmitri Sitkovetsky, Victor Yampolsky, and Ignat Solzhenitzen.
A year ago, any of these might have seemed an excellent catch for Toledo. Not necessarily so today.
"There is uncertainty who the next music director will be, but when the orchestra sees someone of [Sanderling's] talent on the podium we feel assured that the next director will be in that league. That may the most crucial element to come out of this appointment," said Toth.
Now, with Sanderling in hand, so to speak, management and musicians will find themselves expecting even more of this season's guests. That is good news for everyone. For Toledo's classical music lovers the coming season could well prove to be the most interesting in its 59-year history. For the players the season should reach new heights of accomplishment and inspiration.
For management these developments almost inevitably mean that there is no turning back from aggressively pursuing the best candidate available and affordable. Anything less will be a letdown.
How far can the Toledo Symphony rise? That, as Sanderling stated last week, depends on "how well we all dream together. This orchestra can be as great as it is willing to believe it is."