US music director retires, 200 want his job

US music director retires, 200 want his job


norman lebrecht

May 19, 2021

After three decades in charge, Steven Larsen (pic) is retiring from the Rockford Symphony Orchestra in Illinois at the end of the year.

The orchestra has been swamped by would-be successors.

Today it whittled the long list of 200 down to nine: Yaniv Attar, Andrew Crust, Eric Garcia, Tania Miller, Radu Paponiu, Yaniv Segal, Scott
Terrell, Vlad Vizireanu, and Alistair Willis.


  • drummerman says:

    Several years ago the Asheville (North Carolina) Symphony advertised for a new music director. They received over 400 applications. This is why orchestras should never advertise a M.D. opening.

  • Larry says:

    Several of these folks already have a music director position elsewhere.

  • Jeffrey Biegel says:

    Steve is a legend. This is not just an orchestra looking for a replacement. These are big shoes to fill, and these are all wonderful candidates. Steve took the Rockford Symphony to new heights during his three-decade career, along with always fabulous staff (note: Mark Hanson now in San Francisco, was the Executive Director in Rockford in his early career). Perhaps the most vivid memory of this sweetheart of a guy and wonderful musician, is that he took my phone call thirty years ago at home. He was barely music director there, I found him in the phone directory (pre-internet and email) and he picked up the phone. We shared a long conversation as if we had already known each other. That’s Steve. Not only did he embrace the traditional repertoire with his orchestra, he brought the orchestra into several commissioning projects. He took a chance on a young guy starting out, which sustained a friendship for three decades. He is a mensch, a devoted supporter of music and a much loved member of his community. Each time I returned to Rockford, the orchestra sounded better and better. He leaves with a tremendous legacy, and the next music director will feel his spirit embrace every rehearsal and performance.

  • Eden says:

    Wishing continued great vibes to my great friend Steve!

  • Lee says:

    Rockford is a small, run-down and dangerous city…I’m surprised so many people rushed in for this job.

    It just goes to show that even talented artists are showing us how hard it is to get a job anywhere in music these days.

    • Euphonium Al says:

      There are portions of the city on the upswing, although I don’t dispute your general description. Still a great opportunity and also very close to Chicago, which presents additional opportunities for the successful candidate.

  • Old Man in the Midwest says:

    Make sure you check the boxes:
    > female
    > black (African American)
    > gay
    > transgender
    > doctoral thesis that knocks orchestras for being Eurocentric
    > photogenic
    > tells the board that he/she/they/theirs wants to live in Rockford IL because of its potential to create a great orchestra

    That should cull the herd by at least one or two candidates.

    • Lola says:

      You stole my comment! I was going to write that. You missed one much needed component of the resume: the candidate also has to have a disability. Any sorts of disability, which should be listed after the pronouns.

    • Alexr79 says:

      For sure! Nevermind quality, there are many “inclusion” and “visibility” boxes to tick.

    • And you, Old Man, make sure you check your facts.

      Obviously, one female conductor. Regarding race: if you look up the other candidates, your racial cynicism falls apart pretty quickly. Sorry for the inconvenience.

      I have no knowledge of gay or transgender status of any candidates, and who the hell cares?

      I will guarantee that nobody has written a doctoral thesis that “knocks orchestras for being Eurocentric”. Real musicians don’t have time for that crap.

      Photogenic? Why not? You saw my photo: it won’t take much to improve on it.

      And I guess you’re assuming the RSO isn’t a “great orchestra” already? You’ve heard it, have you?

      I didn’t think so.

      I’ll be the first to tell you it’s not, but it’s pretty damn good. Guest artists have commented consistently about how surprised they were that an orchestra in a city of 150,000 could play that well (the secret: being located 75 miles from Chicago and able to tap into that enormous talent pool).

      Now, go back and tell those kids to get off your lawn.

      • Peter San Diego says:

        Thank you, Maestro Larsen, for bringing sanity and actual human and musical values into the discussion.

    • JoshW says:

      You forgot the part about “wants to rethink the repertoire and offer neglected masterpieces.”

  • Anon says:

    Paponiu, Segal, and Willis are good. They are talented musicians, amongst a sea of incompetent young conductors.
    I don’t know the others.

  • Fernando says:

    Now I am curious to see their final choice. I only know Mr. Vizireanu, from Romania, who keeps an interesting portfolio on Vimeo.

    • Anon says:

      Vizireanu is great! I watched his final audition for the Cadaques Conducting Competition online a few years ago & I was very impressed!

  • z-anon says:

    It’s tough out there.

  • Timothy Hammond says:

    He was loved by his orchestra. I enjoyed playing under his baton as a substitute several times. Enjoyed his demeanor. Happy Retirement Steve!

  • RW2013 says:

    And no doubt every applicant has been acclaimed by the NYT for their dynamic, passionate conducting style, praised for infusing orchestras with energy, enthusiasm and high-level music-making, galvanizing audiences and communities alike.
    Or a variant thereof.

    • Lola says:

      Of course, NYT classical music writers honed the “critique “

    • Alexr79 says:

      And if the chosen conductor is a “white male” conductor there will comments about the lack of vision or inclusion, and if it is a “non-white” or a “female” the orchestra will be praised for its policies for inclusion and modernity. Oh, the crazy times we live in!!! We live in the pike of racism and sexism: never sex and race has been more important thanks to those who seek “equality”.

      • BRUCEB says:

        While it’s hard to say whether your prediction is accurate, I can confidently predict the opposite to be true regarding this blog:

        If a white male is hired, the decision will be praised to the skies by many, as a victory for the oppressed.

        If anyone else is hired, the decision will be condemned by many, since it will necessarily be based on woke-ness and box-checking. (Because as we have all learned from reading comments on this blog, if we didn’t know already: only decisions that result in a white male – preferably cisgender, preferably heterosexual – can be based on artistic criteria alone.)

  • Euphonium Al says:

    I live just up the road from Rockford in southern Wisconsin and I’ll be rooting for Maestro Andrew Crust. In addition to being a talented baton, he’s a great writer and visual artist. Crust’s cheeky cartoons of Shostakovich slaying Stalin and other composer caricatures are hilarious. I hope to pick some of Crust’s wall art up soon.

  • I wish the orchestra all the best, it’s efforts are very noble, but it is also important to look at the larger picture in order to understand the plight of artists in the USA. The orchestra only performs six classical programs per year. It has a small budget of $1.6 million compared to the Chicago Symphony’s which is around $80 million–a manifestation of America’s very top heavy arts funding system. It performs in a repurposed movie theater with an acoustical enhancement system–and I sure they are very proud of it. And yet there are 200 applicants for the job. Numbers like this for working conditions like that should tell us something.

    • Steven Larsen says:

      When I first started my career I wangled an interview for a conducting job out west (small city orchestra). Part-time, $5,000 per year.

      The orchestra’s board was stunned that 150 candidates applied, included a principal string player of a major orchestra who was willing to quit his job in order to conduct.

      I didn’t get the job, but I learned then that conducting isn’t a profession: it’s a mental illness.

  • CA says:

    The fact that there are at least 400 individuals seeking a career as a conductor just goes to show that this is a broken system/field, as there are just not enough positions to go around, in a similar way to the thousands of music school grads being pumped out by the conservatory system every year, who face infinitesimally small chances of getting jobs. Oversupply of candidates, extreme undersupply of jobs. It’s not just the arts with this huge problem either. It’s like this for basically every industry anymore. What is the point?

    • FrauGeigerin says:

      The problem is that most people who want to conduct want to do it for the wrong reasons (they want to conduct for the “prestige” and how conducting makes them field rather than to serve the music), that there are not enough orchestras, and that the business of music has shifted from making music to educating musicians under the lie that they will have a career in music (honestly, those who don’t get accepted in major conservatoires in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, London, Weimar, NY, and the like, should really forget about making a living in music). The latter is particularly true in the USA, where people go to minor colleges to pursue degrees in music at a crazy cost without any real chance of living from music.

      • Peter San Diego says:

        What you say is true of any profession with a tiny fraction of elite positions — say, professional sports. However, just as the vast majority of college athletes end up in different careers, or in careers at a relatively low tier in the hierarchy (e.g., as high school coaches), they also make a decent living and most of them find satisfaction. The equivalent in music is also to become educators, often at the secondary school level or as private teachers. And yes, most others go into unrelated fields, but they may exercise their love for music in amateur performance. It’s not as if the streets are full of homeless would-be maestri.

  • msc says:

    Miller did very well in Victoria, Canada. The symphony has about 35 full time musicians and plays about twenty regular suscription concerts a year (Wikipedia’s number seems wrong).i think she merits a decent mid-level orchestra.

    • Old Man in the Midwest says:

      Why would she want this job?

      This orchestra only plays about five concerts a season

      This is a step down from Victoria.

      • Steven Larsen says:

        Actually, pre-covid the RSO played 12 concerts plus a Nutcracker. Once again, Old Man in the Midwest, check your facts.

        I don’t know where in the Midwest you are, but you certainly don’t know much about Rockford.

    • Guest says:

      She’s lovely, and musicians like working with her.

  • TuttiFlutie says:

    Flute auditions in the US have been like this for years.

    Jobs that don’t even pay a full time salary attract hundreds of highly qualified candidates. Then when the big, well-paying flute jobs like LA or Chicago come open, they hire non-US players. Go figure.

    • FrauGeigerin says:

      You want the best, right? Or you want someone who also ticks the US-National box? If having non-US players is a problem in America, here in the EU we can ship back to you your musicians working in our orchestras. First one I would gladly send you back are Kent Nagano and Marin Alsop.

      • Anon says:

        Oh come on, Frau. You’re kidding, right? US players can hardly even get into EU auditions, let alone win jobs there! Unlike the US, EU countries almost universally give preference to their own citizens.

        For the few hardy US souls who do win jobs in the EU, they often face enormous discrimination. And interestingly, in the EU, foreign players are often more concentrated in more remote, lesser paying orchestras: the jobs EU citizens are not as interested in.

        The US does just the opposite. They often give preference to foreign players, esp. in the major leagues, and US players, if they can get a job at all, end up in smaller regional orchestras. Foreign players don’t seem to want those regional orch jobs. They are attracted to the US because the top US orchs pay so much more than most govt funded EU orch jobs. Private vs public art funding.

        I don’t know much about the conducting scene, but there don’t seem to be as many US conductors working in the EU as there are EU & British conductors working in the US.

        I can’t speak for conductors, but I can say without a shadow of doubt that there is a tremendous double standard which exists between the EU and the US orch hiring practices. EU players are welcomed into the US. US players are NOT welcomed into the EU. Period.

  • Norman, you must send a note to Alistair Willis to correct the way he spells his name on his website…

  • Alexr79 says:

    Without looking for any of the names online I can tell you that the position will go to what US-Americans like to call non-white, and very likely female, conductor regardless of the chosen one being the best of the final candidates.

  • O. Bergine says:

    Is there still a dearth of American conductors, or can they simply not get hired anywhere?

  • Piston1 says:

    You can all talk about the politics of this all you want, but the real issue here is that half of these people have no talent.

    • Zubin Mehta says:

      Are you pissed they didn’t advance you to the finals?

      • Ashu says:

        Oh, a comment by Zubin Mehta. That’s funny. And here I thought that the ones attributed to Steven Larsen were really by the man himself.

  • Ashu says:

    It’s like this in all professional fields now, for well known social and historical reasons. Fifty years ago, almost all of these people would have spent their lives in factories and offices. My PhD is in Sanskrit and indology. Fifty years ago, a professorship in Sanskrit would go to one of a small handful of candidates, all of them eccentrics from rich families. Now, a vacancy in even the smallest and lowest department attracts hundreds of applicants, all of them suits.