Santa Fe Pro Musica reaches the end of its season this weekend with two performances of an orchestral program conducted not by its longtime music director, Thomas O’Connor, but rather by David Felberg, a member of the group’s violin section who has been spreading his wings as a conductor in recent years. On the playlist are two magnificent works by Mozart (his Prague Symphony and Piano Concerto No. 12, with soloist Benjamin Hochman); the masterly, if astringent, Octet by Igor Stravinsky; and a piece that will be new to most of us: Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres), written in 2016 by Missy Mazzoli, a dynamic figure in the cultural diadem of hipster Brooklyn.
Although it is not entirely atypical of the orchestra’s recent concerts, there are tea leaves to be read in this program. In fact, Santa Fe Pro Musica is embarking on a time of change. Thomas O’Connor has been Pro Musica’s music director since he co-founded the group (initially called Ensemble of Santa Fe) back in 1980 with his wife, Carol Redman, who is associate music director. The group gave its first concerts the following year. He was the ensemble’s oboist, she was its flutist. Initially a chamber group, it changed to its current name in 1994, at which point it expanded to include some concerts with a chamber orchestra. Shortly thereafter, O’Connor and Redman grew fascinated with historically informed performance, which led to a period-instrument focus that remains part of its activities to this day. In 2005, O’Connor tried out his hand at conducting, and gradually devoted himself to that as he withdrew from oboe-playing.
It has been a good, long run, but O’Connor, who has now reached the age of seventy-one, is preparing to step away from the podium and from the music directorship — not immediately, maybe not entirely, but sooner rather than later. Already this season, two orchestral concerts have been entrusted to guest conductors; Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg opened the season, and now Felberg closes it. Precisely what the future will look like will coalesce over the next few seasons. In a frank and wide-ranging conversation, O’Connor and Elizabeth Harcombe, the organization’s executive director, said they anticipate that the orchestra will remain central to the group’s identity, that Pro Musica will continue to present distinguished chamber ensembles (specifically string quartets), and that period-instrument concerts of Baroque chamber music will remain in the mix, such as its popular Christmas- and Easter-season series at Loretto Chapel. “The plan,” O’Connor said, “is to expand and develop our repertoire offerings without alienating our core audiences.”
Harcombe has every intention of remaining at the head of the administration, where she plans to fine-tune the management structure, but the group expects the transition to new artistic leadership to be completed in time for Pro Musica’s 40th anniversary in the 2021-2022 season. What will that artistic leadership look like? “We have options,” said O’Connor. “It could take the usual model of a music director overseeing all of the artistic product, as we have now, or it could be that the lead artistic responsibility is divided among participants. We will consider very carefully the talent that is available and come up with the best possible way to use it to further Pro Musica’s effectiveness.”
One of the group’s goals is observable in this weekend’s program. The orchestra’s past few seasons have included works by quite a few living composers, including a strong representation of women; Missy Mazzoli is the latest to join a roster that now includes Gabriela Lena Frank, Thea Musgrave, Joan Tower, Jennifer Higdon, and Caroline Shaw. People who dug into the back half of this year’s program books ran across a page titled “Women Composers Project.” “Throughout history,” one reads, “women have not enjoyed significant access to concert programs, often relegated to secondary status or cultural curiosity.” The page tracks the group’s efforts to address this so far, and it ends with a promise: “More to come!” Indeed, Santa Fe Pro Musica Orchestra will play a recent work by Jessie Montgomery during the upcoming season; her impressive résumé includes a longstanding affiliation with the Sphinx Organization, which supports the accomplishments of young African-American and Latino musicians. The Elias String Quartet, which will give a recital next March under Pro Musica’s aegis, will perform a piece currently being written for them by Sally Beamish, one of the leading composers of Scotland.
Saying that classical music has been a field for white males is so obvious as to be embarrassing. Quick: Name a famous pre-21st-century composer who was a woman. Clara Schumann. Well done. Fanny Mendelssohn; yes, indeed, she whose father bluntly informed her that being a composer was fine for someone like her brother Felix but unthinkable for her. Keep going. We’re waiting … waiting. You get the point, right?
Eyebrows arched throughout the musical community when some of our nation’s most august orchestras announced their 2018-2019 subscription seasons. The number of female composers to be played by the Chicago Symphony: zero. The number to be played by the Philadelphia Orchestra: zero. The number to be played by the Cleveland Orchestra: one ( Jennifer Higdon). Make no mistake: Classical music has other issues of representation to address, too. Try the same exercise with composers of color. Plenty of work needs to be done in that area. But it is heartening that a relatively small organization like Santa Fe Pro Musica is doing what it can to make some impact in one area ripe for attention.
O’Connor and Harcombe told us that we can consider both of this season’s conductors — Salerno-Sonnenberg and Felberg — as in the mix as the organization weighs its future artistic leadership. In the 2018-2019 season, O’Connor will lead two of the six orchestral programs, and the other four will be conducted by three women and a man: Ruth Reinhardt, who is the assistant conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and of the National Youth Orchestra - USA; Lina Gonzalez-Granados, who is the 2017-19 Taki Concordia Conducting Fellow (an incentive created by conductor Marin Alsop to foster the development of female conductors); Gemma New, music director of the Hamilton (Ontario) Philharmonic and assistant conductor of the St. Louis Symphony; and Eric Jacobsen, music director of the Orlando Philharmonic and co-artistic director of The Knights, a chamber orchestra in New York City.
The three women’s appearances are part of an incentive Pro Musica is formalizing under the name “Women of Distinction: A Leadership Initiative.” To launch the project on Oct. 21, it will host an inaugural keynote address by Jane Chu, the inspiring chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Her speech at the Lensic will be followed by a roundtable in which she will join O’Connor and arts advocate and educator Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz, focusing on the state of women in the arts. “While women have made significant strides as performers,” Harcombe points out, “women conductors are rarely represented in the ranks, and women composers still lack frequent access to programming. Of the 22 largest American orchestras in 2014-2015, women composers accounted for 2 percent of the music performed.” Santa Fe Pro Musica is keeping an open mind as it considers the changes that will transform it over the next few years. “The goal,” O’Connor states, “is to make the best use of the best talent we can find.” In order to do that, the organization is determined to give women a fair shake. ◀