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Thierry Fischer

These are exciting times for the Utah Symphony & Opera.

In its five-year existence, US&O has enjoyed remarkable stability in its artistic and management leadership.

But that is about to change.

President and CEO Anne Ewers left the organization last June to assume a similar position with Philadelphia's Kimmel Center. The marketing and communications position has been vacated. And symphony music director Keith Lockhart announced he will leave his post at the end of the 2008-09 season.

There is no doubt that it's time to inject some fresh blood into the company. In fact, it is long overdue. And with some carefully formulated planning and with the right people in place, US&O is poised to ensure its creative health for the foreseeable future.

Ewers has spent the majority of her career in opera. And in her 16 years as the Utah Opera's general manager, she oversaw its development into one of the more significant regional companies. She expanded the season from three to four operas and was also involved in commissioning or co-commissioning new works. And with this growth, the company has been able to attract better singers, stage directors and conductors.

One of Ewers' major operatic accomplishments during her time here was her involvement (together with the Minnesota Opera) in the production of Ricky Ian Gordon's "The Grapes of Wrath," which received its local premiere last May. An unqualified success and important contribution to contemporary opera, Gordon's work without question has helped solidify Utah Opera's position among regional companies.

And while she has a proven track record in the world of opera, Ewers' time as head of the combined symphony/opera organization was less than noteworthy. It is here where a new CEO can make the greatest impact on the organization. (The opera is in the capable hands of artistic director Christopher McBeth, who has shown an eagerness to introduce newer works to the repertoire.)

The incoming administrative head needs to be more receptive to positive change and to listen to the concerns of the musicians. Too often in the 5 1/2 years since the symphony and opera merged has the musicians' input been neglected or been merely given token consideration. They are the backbone of the organization, of course, and need to be heard.

Selecting a new music director also needs to be done carefully, although time is running out to find Lockhart's successor. With only 1 1/2 seasons left before Lockhart leaves, the search committee needs to assemble a short list of candidates, if it hasn't done so already.

Who will replace Lockhart is anybody's guess. The search committee has been conspicuously tight lipped about it. At the last music director search a decade ago, prospective candidates to replace outgoing Joseph Silverstein were touted as such when they came to Abravanel Hall to conduct the Utah Symphony. This time around, it's being done behind closed doors. Ostensibly, every guest conductor appearing before the Utah Symphony this season and next is a potential candidate. But which ones are seriously being considered is open to speculation.

Among those who were candidates for the job 10 years ago, Pavel Kogan, Matthias Bamert and Graeme Jenkins would make extraordinary music directors. Their knowledge of — and insight into — the symphonic repertoire is impressive, they are firmly grounded in the romantic repertoire, they bring out the best in the orchestra, and they ignite the audience's enthusiasm.

Other conductors who have appeared here recently and who would make wonderful music directors are Andrew Litton, Thierry Fischer, Stefan Sanderling and Gerard Schwarz, although Schwarz has always had troubled relationships with his orchestras and his tenure here would probably be short term.

One thing needs to be clear — artistic criteria must be used to select Lockhart's replacement. The candidate's age, nationality and marketability should not be a factor in determining the symphony's new director. The orchestra (and concertgoers) needs a director who has a solid understanding of the standard repertoire, but also one who is not afraid to forge ahead and include neglected works as well as new music into the symphony's programs.

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Under Lockhart, the Utah Symphony has developed a negative reputation outside the state as being an orchestra that focuses too much on the music of Gershwin and Bernstein and not enough on the major symphonic repertoire — to the detriment of its national and international standing. With a new director, this perception must be replaced with one in which the symphony's true artistic merits are brought out.

The Utah Symphony is a marvelous orchestra — as great as any in this country. With the right music director, the symphony's reputation as a proponent of progress and innovation, as pioneered by music director Maurice Abravanel and continued by Joseph Silverstein, will be restored and its future as a major performing arts organization ensured.


E-mail: ereichel@desnews.com