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In hiring process, orchestra's conduct flawed

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra -- management, board, and players -- has created a public-relations nightmare out of what ought to have been one of the triumphant moments in its history, the appointment of Marin Alsop as its new music director.

Alsop is the first woman to be named to a position of such importance in the American orchestral world. She has worked her way up the ladder from the Eugene Symphony in Oregon and the Colorado Symphony. In 2001, she became the music director of the Bournemouth Symphony in England, a breakthrough there, and the Baltimore job opens another huge crack in the glass ceiling securely installed over most other female conductors.

The announcement that Alsop was expected to be offered the post last Friday was cause for international celebration. There was every reason to expect a firestorm of congratulatory publicity. Instead, there has been the opposite kind.

The next day, the players' committee, representing a majority of the orchestra, chimed in, requesting an extension of the search process so the institution could consider such prominent figures as Hans Graf, music director of the Houston Symphony, as well as the relatively obscure Bjarte Engeset, music director of the Tromso Symphony in Norway, and Juanjo Mena, music director of the Bilbao Symphony in Spain.

The board declined and moved to offer Alsop the job on Tuesday.

The players issued a statement expressing their disappointment at the ''premature conclusion of the music-director search process," then patted themselves on the back: ''We will work together with Marin Alsop and every other conductor to present the inspiring performances our audience has come to expect."

At this point, no one should be patting themselves on the back except perhaps Alsop, the innocent bystander/victim in an ugly management-vs.-musician conflict. The management and board should never have let the news out before it had all the ducks lined up.

And once the announcement was made, the players should not have made a public issue of their dissatisfaction. What possible purpose could this serve? And what could their reasons have been?

No musicians are going to say they object to Alsop because she is a woman. Libel considerations prevent their attacking her musicianship. Are there problems with her commitment to contemporary music, especially American music? Could the Baltimore Symphony still believe that the mainstream 19th- and early-20th-century European repertoire is the only valid test of musical importance, the only thing that is going to attract the public?

The conservative tenure of departing music director Yuri Temirkanov has left the orchestra with a deficit of at least $10 million. And the most exciting period in the orchestra's recent history was the music directorship of David Zinman, whose skills and commitments parallel Alsop's.

Alsop's musicianship surely cannot be in question. For years before she began conducting, she was an A-list violinist in the fiercely competitive New York freelance scene. In the late '80s as a fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center, she earned the attention and support of Leonard Bernstein, who recognized her talent and gave her his undivided attention while there.

Alsop has now conducted many of the major orchestras of America, including the Baltimore Symphony, and she has regularly passed the greater test of being invited to return. She was the first woman to conduct the Boston Pops, and she will make her Boston Symphony Orchestra debut at Tanglewood Aug. 20 with Yo-Yo Ma as soloist.

Alsop has also become a media presence, at first probably in part because of her gender, but she has remained one because of her down-to-earth personality and vigorous intelligence. Few conductors of her generation have made more recordings, and more highly acclaimed ones, than she. Naxos's launch of her survey of the mainstream orchestral music of Brahms has won widespread praise, and justly so.

Historically, orchestral players were sometimes consulted about music-director appointments, sometimes not. Incidents in Ohio -- Lorin Maazel's appointment to the Cleveland Orchestra in 1972 and Michael Gielen's to the Cincinnati Symphony in 1980 (at a point when he had never conducted the ensemble) -- led to such outrage and so much negative publicity that consulting the players about appointments became a contractual necessity in most orchestras. Whether the players are the best judge in such matters remains an open question. It's worth noting that BSO musicians spent years helping negotiate James Levine's appointment.

The Baltimore players were consulted but overruled, and it's clear they don't like it -- and they can't say why. It could be that they are suffering delusions of grandeur -- but what makes them think that Graf would be interested in a lateral shift from Houston? Or that Graf, an excellent European conductor with a European core repertoire, would be ''better" than Alsop?

Apart from the bad faith of players, management, and board, the issue ultimately comes down to the mysterious matter of chemistry, which cannot be dictated; Alsop will work out, or she won't. Even some of the greatest conductors have not been equally successful with every orchestra. The prime recent example was the BSO debut of Christoph von Dohnanyi in 1989. Dohnanyi was a hero in Cleveland, but the first concerts in Boston, and the atmosphere surrounding them, were so catastrophic that he canceled his second week, citing illness, and fled. After an absence of more than a dozen years, he returned in triumph in 2002, and now he is a regular and much-admired guest conductor.

Alsop is going to face a difficult first rehearsal in Baltimore, but she's been in tough situations throughout her career, and she has learned how to handle herself. She may yet make the musical history in Baltimore that everyone, including the players, must hope she will.

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