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The Longevity of West Coast Conductors

March 17, 2011

Once a music director has been with an orchestra for 10 years, people start gossiping about whether he or she will stay on longer or start to look for their next move.

Here on the west coast, our music directors seem to stick around for particularly extended periods. Gerard Schwarz is stepping down from the Seattle Symphony at the end of this season after 26 years on the podium. Michael Tilson Thomas has been at the San Francisco Symphony since 1995. Esa-Pekka Salonen stayed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1992 to 2009 and Kent Nagano continued to hold the title of music director of the Berkeley Symphony for 30 years, before relinquishing the position to Joana Carneiro two seasons ago.

Why the longevity?

I think the answer in most cases is simple, really. This part of the country is a pretty wonderful place to be. Conductors put down roots here in a way that they don't on the east coast. They watch their children grow up in the schools, buy property and become entrenched in the communities. After a decade of this kind of stuff, it becomes harder to leave.

But staying in one place for too long can cause problems for music directors, orchestras and their audiences. Audiences start to wonder whether the conductor is capable of moving on. Musicians and management get tired of dealing with the same person day in and day out over a long period of time. And it must be hard to keep things fresh and innovative as a conductor and programmer when you're working in the same environment for so many years.

Nagano and Tilson Thomas manage to balance their commitment to their west coast lifestyles with the need to keep moving their careers and interests forwards by forging strong connections with orchestras in other parts of the world and launching interesting new music projects.

But I wonder at what point the pull towards home starts to overpower the desire to make the west coast a base for international escapades for these people? Unlike the east coast, the west coast often feels like a long, long way away from the rest of the world.

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