Arts Capital - May 2011

By Charlie Huisking May 1, 2011

Why is Leif Leaving? Ever since Leif Bjaland announced he was resigning as conductor of the Sarasota Orchestra, his fans have expressed dismay at the loss. People keep asking me if there is more to the story. Why, they wonder, would Bjaland leave the orchestra without a firm job commitment elsewhere?

The artistic director and conductor since 1997, Bjaland announced in February that next season will be his last here. “I have learned that personal growth often requires one to make changes, and this belief has prompted me to embrace a new chapter in my life,” Bjaland said in a letter to subscribers.

But if he has any concrete plans or job offers, he didn’t disclose them in the letter. And he has declined repeated requests from journalists to elaborate.

Bjaland is one of five finalists for the conducting job at the Colorado Springs Orchestra, which has a smaller budget and scope than the Sarasota Orchestra. But that search process isn’t over yet. And in an interview with me in December, Bjaland said that were he to get the Colorado job, he might explore leading it and the Sarasota Orchestra simultaneously.

That’s not an uncommon occurrence in the orchestra world. During his time in Sarasota, Bjaland has also conducted the Waterbury Symphony Orchestra in Connecticut.

Bjaland said he still found his Sarasota position fulfilling, and was excited about the orchestra’s potential for even greater achievement. But Bjaland’s desire for change eventually made him decide it was time to go, says Marsha Panuce, the orchestra board’s chair.

“Leif embraces change,” Panuce told me shortly after Bjaland’s surprising announcement. “He would talk to me about it all the time in various contexts. It was clear to me as long as a year ago that he has some different interests, that he wanted to try some new things, to explore his creativity even more. When someone has such a creative edge and wants to take his life in a new direction, you just can’t stand in his way.”

But in part because of Bjaland’s silence, some wonder if he’s leaving because he sensed the orchestra’s management and board might have been ready for a change, too. Relations between Bjaland and CEO Joe McKenna, who recently signed a new three-year contract, haven’t always been smooth. One insider told me that relations are better, but that Bjaland was concerned about a suggested structural change that would have the conductor report to the CEO rather than the board. Panuce says “any ideas about a possible reporting structure” for the conductor’s position are premature.

I’ve heard that some board members soured on Bjaland because they perceived him as being too close to the musicians in the 2009 contract dispute with management. Panuce declined to address that contention, because the board is about to negotiate a new contract, “and our policy has been not to comment about labor matters when we are negotiating.”

When he took the job, Bjaland, building on the foundation of longtime conductor Paul Wolfe, took the orchestra in new and exciting directions. He’s had great success with his innovative Journeys to Genius concerts, which incorporated video and spoken word elements. And he’s extremely popular with audiences, as the ovation he received at the first Masterworks concerts after his announcement made clear.

Several orchestra members I contacted say they’d been told by management not to speak to the press about Bjaland’s announcement. One who did comment, principal violist Yuri Vasilaki, says Bjaland is still held in high regard by most players.

“He has grown as the orchestra has grown, so how could you not respect him?” Vasilaki says. “I admire him so much. He has built strong relationships between the orchestra and the community, and the orchestra and the board. As for his conducting, he’s been great about giving you the big picture in rehearsals, but also allowing for a lot of give-and-take.

“I have the utmost respect for Leif, and working with him has been such a rewarding experience. So I’m feeling, well, not depressed, but certainly pensive and unsettled.”

Still, 15 years is a long run at one orchestra for any conductor. “When Leif was hired, I figured we’d be lucky to have him here for five years, because he was so talented,” says former board member Robert Kimbrough, who was on the search committee that recommended Bjaland. “So while I’m sorry he’s leaving, we were fortunate to have had him for so long.”

The orchestra will have several guest conductors next season (Bjaland will conduct two Masterworks series programs). A search committee will identify a handful of finalists to succeed him, and they will be guest conductors in the 2012-13 season.

Some worry that the orchestra will lose momentum and consistency during the search. On the other hand, exposure to so many new and different conductors could be energizing. The orchestra certainly pulled out all the stops for guest conductor Anu Tali in February.

Good neighbors In a past column, I wrote about some friction between the Sarasota Ballet and the Asolo Rep, which share the FSU Center for the Performing Arts. But lately, the ballet has been singing the Asolo’s praises.

Confronted with having to pay more than $30,000 to the San Diego Ballet to rent a set for The Lesson, the ballet asked if the Asolo scene shop could build one. The shop did, for half the price. “And now we own the set, so we can rent it out and make that money back,” says managing director Michael Shelton.

And when the ballet had to find accommodations for a representative of the George Balanchine Trust for three weeks, they didn’t have to pay high-season rates at a hotel. The Asolo offered one of the apartments it keeps for visiting company members, at a much more reasonable rate.

Initial Reactions The other day, Herald-Tribune music critic Richard Storm told me he was on his way to review something at The HAT. “What’s The HAT?” I asked. “Oh, that’s short for the Historic Asolo Theater,” Storm said. “That’s what everybody calls it now.”

I figured this was one of Storm’s affectations. But then I heard a couple of Ringling Museum employees calling it that, too. As acronyms go, I kind of like it. It has nice connotations—Tip of the Hat…Hats Off to You…Top Hat. Maybe it will catch on, the way The Trop is now the common nickname for Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.

But I wondered if we could come up with hip acronyms for other performing arts facilities. Right away I thought of The VW for the Van Wezel. Why not be associated with one of the world’s most iconic car companies?

The Sarasota Museum of Art, which is still in the planning stages, is already using the acronym SMOA. That’s OK, I guess, but it sounds like a sleeping pill or something the lactose-intolerant would drink. And some people pronounce it Samoa, like the island. I wish they’d switch the name to the Sarasota Art Museum and call the place SAM. It sounds friendly and fun. Supporters could put bumper stickers on their cars that read, “I’m a Fan of SAM, I Am.”

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