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Published: Sunday, 1/2/2005

Suite music: Toledo Symphony's Stefan Sanderling looks ahead to even more improvements

BY STEVEN CORNELIUS
BLADE MUSIC CRITIC

Halfway through a five-year commitment that extends through the 2006-2007 season, Toledo Symphony principal conductor Stefan Sanderling has put his stamp on the orchestra. The 40-year-old German musician has raised the artistic standard by challenging his musicians to play with newfound focus and intention. The orchestra's morale is high, despite pressing financial needs.

In an interview last week, Sanderling talked about his goals for the symphony and the challenges he must overcome to achieve them.

Q: What has gone well over the past 2 1/2 years?

A: Most important, the artistry has gone up. The orchestra's sound is both warmer and rounder. In terms of professionalism, we are playing in another league. There is still room to grow, but the tendency is a better orchestra every day. I like that.

Q: What has not gone so well?

A: These last two years have been difficult financially. And clearly, that has been hurting morale. People think that if they work hard then they should get more money, not less. The musicians see that finances have nothing to do with the public's appreciation of the symphony, or that the board thinks they deserve less. The reality is that the economy for all American orchestras is very hard. We have to tighten the belts and be careful with spending. Happily, ticket sales have been strong and we seem to be turning a corner.

Sure, it would have been easier to fulfill our dreams if there was more money, but that is not the case. We all know the rules. Let's not complain.

Q: Regarding finances, the musicians' new contract calls for wage and benefit reductions. Your response?

A: Well, now it's even more important that we succeed artistically, that we make sure that that part of our lives is fulfilling. If you don't have money, eventually you start to asking yourself why you are doing this. Then you start to think about a career change. We don't want that to happen.

Q: Resident conductor Chelsea Tipton II came to Toledo just before the opening of the 2003-04 season. What is your relationship?

A: We don't have the same taste in everything, but that's good. He is a strong musician and the orchestra enjoys working with him. From my standpoint, that's a win-win situation

Q: And your rapport with the musicians?

A: Sometimes after this much time, a relationship can wear out. But that's not the case here. I am looking forward to every rehearsal and concert, and the orchestra feels the same way.

Q: Are there any particular musical initiatives you would like to undertake?

A: We need to exploit a broader range of repertoire, but this must be done in the right way. We want to be careful that we don't alienate people who have been with us for the past 30 years.

We can go slowly. For example, we started something good last season when we premiered a fanfare at each concert. We should continue things like that. An orchestra the size of Toledo has an obligation to keep the music alive.

Q: You have been focusing on the music of late 18th and early 19th-century Vienna. Why is that?

A: Preparing this music is like performing micro-surgery, like dissecting a football game with a video tape. Because you can hear everything, you cannot allow even the smallest mistake. This is the repertoire that makes an orchestra better.

Q: Does that mean more of the same in the future?

A: Yes and no. I would like to take it even one step further back. Now that we understand Mozart and Haydn, let's do some Handel and Bach so we get a feeling for this music and its swing. Then, when you take this to Brahms, you understand him better. These early composers are the foundation of everything.

Q: How does an orchestra adjust from one composer or time period to another?

A: We have to learn to be like a chameleon, to change our colors very quickly. We need to know our styles and sounds. It's true that playing Strauss like Mozart is better than playing Mozart like Strauss, but we need to keep them separate. We need to come closer to the original ideal than we used to.

Q: Other musical goals?

A: It isn't enough that you are a great musician or soloist, you have to listen, and always listen better. And always we need to ask why the composer chose to do exactly one thing and not another. That's when the music starts to make much deeper sense.

Also, we need to make sure that we are never satisfied or resting. We have to force ourselves to improve with every rehearsal and concert. Where we will stop? I don't know.

Q: A couple of years ago there was a move under way to improve the acoustics at the Toledo Museum of Art Peristyle. Some changes were made, but work seems to have stopped. Are the acoustics still a priority?

A: Yes, that's our next task. It's time to get everyone to the table-the museum, the orchestra, the city-and see what we can do. The hall needs to have a certain look, and we don't want to change that. But the acoustic situation is far from ideal. We need to focus on how to bring sonic life into the hall. If the Peristyle is the home of the Toledo Symphony, it needs to be acoustically adequate. People who come to our concerts would have a far better experience if we could fix the hall.

Q: Your biggest dream?

A: I would not be a music director if I did not dream of our own concert hall, but you can't do everything at once. Before that, we need to raise the endowment fund so we can secure the stability of the orchestra.

Q: And the concert hall?

A: A hall makes a big difference for everyone because a city's cultural life improves alongside of its orchestra. A hall is a place that lets the city say, "This is the home of our orchestra." That's very important.

Contact Steven Cornelius at: scornelius@theblade.com or 419-724-6152.



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