Boise Philharmonic embarked on a wide search for its new leader

These seven conductors will lead the Boise Philharmonic over the 2016-’17 season and one of them will become the orchestra’s next music director. They are (top, left to right) Aram Demirjian, Michelle Merrill, Keitaro Harada, Alastair Willis, Andrés Franco, Eric Garcia and Brett Mitchell.
These seven conductors will lead the Boise Philharmonic over the 2016-’17 season and one of them will become the orchestra’s next music director. They are (top, left to right) Aram Demirjian, Michelle Merrill, Keitaro Harada, Alastair Willis, Andrés Franco, Eric Garcia and Brett Mitchell.

Get ready for a thrill ride as the Boise Philharmonic searches for its next music director. Seven conductors from all corners of the country will come to Boise this season to work with the orchestra as well as to explore the city and the possibility of becoming the organization’s next artistic leader.

In January, music director Robert Franz announced he would step down from his position after eight seasons. It shocked many of his audience members, the musicians and Boise Philharmonic Master Chorale members he worked closely with.

“I feel really good about the artistic quality of the orchestra ... and the community we’ve created,” Franz said. “There is a deep sadness in me for leaving, but the artistic director in me says it’s time.”

That decision opened the door for these seven accomplished musicians to step up to lead in Boise.

The lineup is Knoxville (Tenn.) Symphony Music Director Aram Demirjian, Detroit Symphony Orchestra Assistant Michelle Merrill, Cincinnati Symphony Associate Keitaro Harada, freelance conductor Alastair Willis, Signature Symphony Music Director and Pittsburgh Symphony Assistant Andrés Franco, Oklahoma City College Director of Orchestral Studies Eric Garcia and Cleveland Orchestra Associate Brett Mitchell.

Link to a story about the conductor candidates here.

They are, as a group, ambitious, brilliant and on the vanguard of bringing classical music to new venues and a younger, tech-savvy audience.

They all have impressive credentials and seek to connect Boise to its history, arts and community through music.

The Boise Philharmonic — an 80-member orchestra and 100-voice chorale — is the logical next step for any of them, says Jeanie Smith, a board member who helped head the search committee this time and in 2007 when the orchestra hired Franz.

Between then and now, there’s been a shift in the classical music industry.

Eight years ago, when Franz took the job, he replaced James Ogle, who had 18 years at the podium. Franz was the first music director in the organization’s history who had commitments to other orchestras (at the time Buffalo, N.Y., and Houston). Today, Franz continues to make Boise his home base. He is an associate conductor at Houston Symphony, is music director of Windsor Symphony in Ontario, Canada, and the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival in Alaska.

This round, the search committee doesn’t blink at the possibility of the next music director leading a second orchestra (or third?), says Steve Trott, who also was on both search committees.

“We were spoiled with Jim. He was here for a long time and was dedicated only here,” Trott says. “That’s the old model, and it doesn’t work anymore. If you require that, you’ll lose 75 percent of your applicants.”

This round of candidates all have other gigs, meaning they are associate or assistant conductors at major orchestras, guest artists at symphonies around the world or already heading their own, smaller orchestral groups.

The search was on

This process is part of the life cycle of an orchestra. Musicians come in and move on to larger symphonies; music directors leave to pursue new challenges.

“When we first heard the news that Robert was leaving, a number of the musicians were devastated,” says violinist Geoffrey Hill, now in his fifth season with the Philharmonic. “Others were like, ‘OK, this is the change we need.’ I think generally the consensus is that we’re excited.”

I hope at the end of it all, we have a really tough decision to make.

Boise Philharmonic violinist Geoffrey Hill

These moments are bittersweet, says Michael Faison, executive director of the Idaho Commission on the Arts.

“It’s hard when you lose strong artistic leaders, but I’m pretty excited by the new blood and to see what changes and inspirations they bring,” Faison says.

As soon as Franz announced his departure, philharmonic Executive Director Sandy Culhane and Board President Julie Kilgrow organized a search committee of 12 people — six musicians who were nominated by the orchestra, and six board and community members. The team is headed by Trott, Smith and former Phil executive director Anthony Boatman, who all had done the previous search.

They received 197 applications from 20 countries.

“I was still receiving them six weeks after the deadline,” Boatman says.

“The talent of our orchestra is appealing,” Culhane says. “Conductors want to come to Idaho because of the quality of life, and they want to work with our musicians. And we have a full chorus and youth orchestra — which some similar-sized orchestras do not — so we’re a full and vibrant organization.”

The committee broke into three groups, each headed by a musician — concertmaster Geoffrey Trabichoff, principal horn Brian Vance and trombonist Dan Howard — that culled through the resumes.

That process brought the pack down to 20; then as a group, they got it down to 13.

The whole process was very musician-driven, and everything was done by consensus, not majority.

Steve Trott, who helped lead the search

“The over-arching issue for the committee was to create a good environment for the musicians. We want them to feel good about where they are professionally and personally, that they’re growing and satisfied with the work,” Trott says.

Then the community members started calling references, while the musicians were calling colleagues they knew in the finalists’ orchestras. The committee interviewed the 13 candidates via Skype. And that brought the field to the final seven.

“So, we’re getting a three-dimensional look at who these people are,” Trott says.

Meanwhile, Culhane and Kilgrow organized the anchor pieces for each concert, the soloists and concertos. They were lucky and came up with some big names, including Basque piano superstar Joaquin Achucarro and violin prodigy Caroline Goulding.

Then each finalist was asked to build two to three programs around the concerto centerpiece. That’s when the juggling took place — of trying to find the right dates and choose the programs that would allow the conductor access to the full orchestra and the best chance to show their talent.

“We have seven who look good, but who’s got the chemistry when they hit the podium? And we only find that out when they get here,” Trott says.

The seven for next season

The classical music world is small, and these seven share close professional and personal connections. If they’re not personally connected, they are very aware of each other.

Demirjian also is a finalist for the Illinois Symphony in Springfield, a position recently vacated by Willis; Willis was an assistant conductor in Cleveland, where Mitchell is currently an associate. Willis and Garcia both were assistant conductors for the Seattle Symphony. Both saxophone players, Harada and Merrill met at a saxophone intensive several years ago. Harada and Mitchell both worked under noted conductor Lorin Maazel and roomed together. Demirjian and Andrés Franco share a Kansas City connection (Demirjian was at Kansas City Symphony and Franco at Philharmonia of Kansas City) and run into each other frequently.

“It’s such a small world,” Mitchell says. “You know when you’re younger you see everyone as competition. Now, the only thing that makes having this opportunity better, is I have friends who are doing the exact same thing.”

Legacy of excellence

“Robert leaves a sparkling musical legacy,” Faison says. “The music he was able to get out of the orchestra was so inspiring. I remember the Mahler Symphony No. 2 a few years ago. It was the most exciting musical experience for me in the past decade.”

I leapt to my feet, and I don’t do that very often.

Michael Faison, executive director of the Idaho Commission on the Arts

During his tenure, Franz expanded the orchestra’s repertoire to include more ambitious masterworks and championed collaborations with his neighboring local arts groups.

He expanded the orchestra’s reach into area schools by bringing musicians into classrooms across the Treasure Valley, brought the Boise Master Chorale under the philharmonic’s umbrella and worked with Boise State University to develop a graduate string quartet program that continues. He put an emphasis on performing the work of Idaho composers, including Jim Cockey, David Alan Earnest and David Biedenbender, and elevated the level of musicianship within the orchestra through new hires and nurturing the group as a whole through thoughtful programming.

“Robert has really prepared us for this,” Hill says. “We’re at such a higher level than we were eight, nine years ago that the orchestra will be so responsive to these seven conductors.”

Dana Oland is a former professional dancer and member of Actors Equity who writes about performing and visual arts as well as Treasure Valley culture for the Idaho Statesman and Treasure Magazine. Read more arts coverage in her blog at

Boise Philharmonic 2016-’17 season

You’ll hear the seven candidates for the music director’s position during the season. Concerts are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, unless otherwise noted.

▪  Aram Demirjian, pianist Andrew von Oeyen and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1: Sept. 30-Oct. 1.

▪  Michelle Merrill, violinist Caroline Goulding and Beethoven’s Violin Concerto: Oct. 21-22.

▪  Keitaro Harada, pianist Kevin Cole and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue: Nov. 12-13.

▪  Holiday Pops (a guest conductor to be announced): Dec. 9-10.

▪  Alastair Willis, pianist Joachin Achúcarro and Grieg’s Piano Concerto: Jan. 27-28, 2017.

▪  Andrés Franco, cellist Edgar Moreau and Elgar’s Cello Concerto: Feb. 17-18, 2017.

▪  Eric Garcia, violinist David Kim and Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto: Saturday and Sunday, March 10-11, 2017

▪  Brett Mitchell and the Boise Philharmonic Master Chorale, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9: April 7-8, 2017.

Season tickets: $90-$459 in Boise, $81-$260 in Nampa; Single tickets: $24.50-$70.50 in Boise, $22.50-$45 in Nampa. 344-7849.