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Final countdown

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After a decade at the helm, Colorado Springs Philharmonic music director Lawrence Leighton Smith is getting ready to hand off his baton to — well, someone.

The six-month search to find a worthy replacement attracted some 250 applicants, from which five finalists have been chosen to conduct guest performances during the upcoming season. Leighton Smith himself will open and close the Philharmonic's Masterworks series, which runs from Sept. 25 to May 22, 2011.

The rest of the dates will be given over to his potential successors: Leif Bjaland (Sarasota [Fla.] Orchestra and Waterbury [Conn.] Symphony Orchestra); Shizuo Kuwahara (Symphony Orchestra Augusta [Ga.]); Viswa Subbaraman (Houston's Opera Vista); Ward Stare (St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Youth Orchestra); and Kynan Johns (Rutgers University orchestras).

In addition to selecting two of the three pieces they'll be performing here, the finalists were asked to propose repertoire for the Philharmonic's next two seasons, including the Masterworks, Pops and Vanguard Performances series.

"I think there are subtle differences at this level of judging," says Philharmonic president/CEO Nathan Newbrough of the five finalists. "You'll find that these are all expressive gentlemen, and you'll find that they can connect well with the players, but each in his own way."

Battle of the Brahms

Coincidentally, the first two visiting finalists originally chose Brahms symphonies as part of their repertoires. Leif Bjaland's Oct. 23 and 24 performances will feature the composer's Symphony No. 2, while Shizuo Kuwahara had initially selected Brahms' Symphony No. 4 for his Nov. 13 and 14 programs.

Bjaland laughs when asked which is the better Brahms. "The stock answer to that is, 'Would you ask me to choose between my children?'"

Which would be unnecessary, since Bjaland already has.

"That's true," he says, "I did choose Child Number Two. They're both great pieces that reflect how Brahms felt at the time."

Bjaland says the symphony he's chosen to perform conveys a unique vitality and spontaneity, especially in the aftermath of Brahms' first symphony, which took some two decades of arduous labor to bring to fruition.

Bjaland's program will be rounded out by Schumann's Piano Concerto and Chabrier's Fete Polonaise.

"Emmanuel Chabrier is a wonderful French composer that's not heard from much. His most famous piece, of course, is España, but this is from an opera of his called King for a Day. And the reason that I wanted to include it is that it's a little less familiar — unjustly so — and it's an incredibly exciting and vivacious piece. Every time I've heard it performed, and every time I've performed it, I feel my pulse quickening. It's also very fun and interesting and challenging for the orchestra to play."

As fate would have it, Kuwahara has since revised his program after learning that another one of his original selections — Chasing Light, by contemporary American composer Joseph Schwantner — would not yet be available for performance.

Kuwahara has since substituted Bartók's 1943 Concerto for Orchestra, and in the process opted to replace the Brahms as well. (He will instead conduct Beethoven's Coriolan Overture.)

"When he took a look at the whole schedule, he realized that Leif had chosen Brahms as well," explains Newbrough, who goes on to praise Kuwahara's willingness to consider the bigger picture and adjust his program to fit within the context of the overall season.

"That's a good sign for Shizuo."

Balancing acts

Kuwahara differs from the other candidates — and for that matter, from most conductors in general — in that he never uses a baton. ("I needed to get closer to the orchestra," he once explained. "The baton kept getting in my way.")

Regarding his upcoming repertoire, Kuwahara says the Bartók inclusion will maintain his intention to "make sure that the program is balanced with both classical and more modern music. Beethoven and Mendelssohn are both familiar pieces to most audiences. Bartók may be a newer work, but it is an amazing piece."

The Concerto for Orchestra title, he adds, was meant to emphasize its "soloistic and virtuosic treatment of various instruments of the orchestra. It is a great piece to show off the strength of the orchestra."

Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, meanwhile, is the sole survivor from Kuwahara's initial repertoire and will feature longtime Philharmonic concertmaster Michael Hanson as violin soloist.

In broader terms, the two candidates say they're drawn to the music director position by the Philharmonic's past achievements as well as its future potential.

"The city, musicians and people of Colorado Springs are what attract me," says Kuwahara. "The orchestra's staff and musicians work very hard, and that is evident from what they have accomplished. Colorado Springs has so much potential, and the citizens of the city, I believe, have a stronger sense of ownership than other cities in the country. Finding what makes an orchestra more relevant to the community is a very challenging and important task."

Bjaland is also impressed by what he finds here. "I think the orchestra has a great history," he says, noting its strong reputation within the broader orchestral community. "I was at Tanglewood with [former Colorado Springs Symphony music director] Christopher Wilkins, and I continued to know him as he was involved with Colorado Springs — so I'd heard about the orchestra during that period.

"The challenge for an orchestra of any size is to create new contexts for music," Bjaland suggests, citing the success of the Springs' Vanguard Performances Series as well as that of his own Journeys to Genius program with the Sarasota Orchestra.

"It's just avoiding the monotony of concerts where there's an overture, a concert and a symphony. Oops, by the way, guess what I'm doing: overture, concert and symphony. [Laughs.] But I hope it won't be monotonous. I'll keep my fingers crossed that, since I'm sort of the new flavor, I'll provide the variety in that concert."

That diversification, Bjaland believes, is also important when it comes to an orchestra's role within its community.

"I think that's the big challenge for whoever is fortunate enough to be chosen as music director in Colorado Springs," he says, "and also for orchestras in general. There are many orchestras that are basically in the entertainment business. I think orchestras have to be in the community business, which is to say the education business, and the public service business, and the business of making their community better on a lot of different levels, not just at concerts. I think that's the key to the future of orchestras."

bill@csindy.com

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