BWW Interview: CEO of the San Diego Symphony Martha Gilmer, Part 2
As described in part one of the interview, Martha Gilmer works hard to expand San Diego Symphony audiences. That makes the summer program another priority. "It's more ambitious than ever. We've really invested in it this year. And the results are spectacular. We already have advanced sales greater than those of
past seasons." Visiting artists include Leslie Odom Junior, Tony Bennett and Herb Alpert. There will also be a special program devoted to Broadway. Gilmer said Rob Fisher, "Has created a program for San Diego, dedicated to the work of Bock and Harnik. Rob and I share a passion for little known musicals, but, of course, the second half will be Fiddler on the Roof." Music director, conductor, and arranger Fisher's credits include Chicago, the recent revival of An American in Paris and many other successful productions.
Gilmer uses local artists when possible, and San Diego State University students will audition for some of the roles in the Broadway program. I believe the audience will be pleasantly surprised by how seamlessly they mix in with professional singers and dancers.
Realization of an orchestra CEO's vision of larger audiences and increased artistic and financial success depends heavily on how well the music director satisfies audiences, critics and donors. Maestro Ling announced three years ago that he would be retiring at the end of the 2017 season. Since his announcement many guest conductors have, in effect, been auditioning. To impress the audience--and the search committee--they demand the best the orchestra can give, often in difficult music conducted in styles that may differ from one conductor to the next. Gilmer said the experience has been valuable for their artistic growth.
Maintaining the orchestra's skill level will be one of the biggest challenges for the new director. Like sports teams, orchestras outside of the largest markets often lose key players to New York, Boston or elsewhere. Fortunately, turnover has been
relatively low under Maestro Ling, and there's never been a larger supply of talented, well-trained musicians, eager to audition for open spots. (San Diego's reputation as an attractive place to live hasn't hurt either.)
Still, vulnerability to poaching is a problem. Ling's bond with orchestra musicians, his extensive network of personal and professional contacts, and an exceptional ear for the talent of potential replacements have been invaluable. His successor needs the same strengths.
Gilmer said, "You'll be hearing from us, I would think, sometime next year. First and foremost, it's important that the candidate have a good rapport and chemistry with the orchestra. And you really can't predict that ... You can have a great success in Chicago and not quite click with Cleveland ... We also want this person to have the desire to connect with the audience ... Some great artists are completely in their head. They are there to create a piece of music, and if the audience comes along, fine. We want somebody who's creative and really passionate about bringing the audience along ... And a music director has to have a vision and a sense of where they want to take the orchestra. What kind of repertoire, what kind of sound do they want to create."
Gilmer played an important role in Chicago's selection of its outstanding current music director, Ricardo Muti. During her 35-year career there she worked with so many famous classical-music figures, I had to ask for a memory or two. She recalled her relationship with Pierre Boulez, a hugely influential, and somewhat controversial composer and conductor. They met in 1986, and became close friends. When poor health prevented him from traveling to accept a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, she accepted on his behalf at the taping of the 2015 Grammys, and traveled to Germany to give it to him. Although his public image was usually that of a stern, uncompromising modernist who composed immensely difficult music, Gilmer said, "He had a wonderful sense of humor, and loved to tell jokes and was sometimes almost unable to take the next breath because he was laughing so hard ... There was a childlike element to Boulez. I think there often is with geniuses once they're out of the spotlight."
In equal conflict with the image of modern avant-garde composers, Gilmer found he cared deeply about audiences. "He wanted the experience to be intimate, and informal. He didn't care what you wore coming to a concert. He wanted to be able to engage audiences."
Gilmer also recalled Leonard Bernstein, "I was fortunate to work with him once. He
was in Chicago for a week, and I had wonderful conversations with him." She remembered a moment in a rehearsal of Strauss's Don Juan. He was talking to three young conductors about how to give the beat for its complicated start. At one point, "He said, 'Well, it's not like Ein Heldenleben. Heldenleben goes like this.'" With a quick gesture of his arm, "The entire orchestra immediately began to play Ein Heldenleben from memory. Because, of course, they could. He was amazing."
On a recent visit with colleagues in Detroit, Gilmer was impressed with its symphony's contribution to that city's revitalization. It reinforced her belief that a successful orchestra is important to a city's societal and economic health. I came away from our discussion believing the San Diego Symphony has a leader likely to succeed in her plans to have a greater positive impact on the community, to increase recognition of how good the orchestra already is, and to guide the selection of a new music director who will foster continued artistic growth.
Visit the San Diego Symphony website for more information about future programs.