“We took a moonshot, and we got lucky.” That’s how Thomas O’Connor, Santa Fe Pro Musica’s co-founder and music director, describes the selection of renowned pianist Anne-Marie McDermott as the group’s artistic director designate. In 2017, O’Connor announced his decision to eventually step down from his role as music director to the company’s board of directors, and the search for a successor began.
“From the first time I worked with Pro Musica, in the fall of 2015, I felt an instant chemistry with the musicians and with Tom,” McDermott says. “I have tremendous respect for what he and [co-founder and associate music director] Carol Redman created and have sustained for 38 years. And it’s so exciting to be starting on a new path. I’ve been an artistic director before but have never had a deeper relationship with a chamber orchestra.”
Her appointment, along with that of Mary G. Madigan three months ago as the group’s executive director, means Pro Musica is the first major performing arts organization in Santa Fe with all-female leadership. It’s a welcome and overdue development, especially for a city that prides itself on its progressive politics.
Due to her extensive professional commitments, McDermott will take over the artistic reins in a three-year, phased-in process. She typically plays about 100 performances each year, while also serving as artistic director of the Bravo! Vail Music Festival, a six-week summer festival operating on a $7.5 million budget and recording the complete Mozart piano concertos for Bridge Records, with the second volume just released in April.
In addition, she’s the artistic director of the one-week Ocean Reef Chamber Music Festival in the Florida Keys and the weeklong chamber music festival at McKnight Center for the Performing Arts at Oklahoma State University. She serves as curator of Mainly Mozart’s chamber music series in San Diego.
How can McDermott fit Pro Musica into all this? “I’m not really planning on giving up anything, at least not at the moment,” she says. “It’s more a case of trimming and rebalancing. My goal right now is not to be out there playing so many concerts each year. At first I didn’t see a path of being able to do this, but in talking with the board it seemed like the timeline could really work for me.”
Paradoxically, the coronavirus pandemic is giving McDermott an opportunity to be involved in Pro Musica artistic decisions earlier than anticipated. When the group canceled its March and April performances, including the season finale of Haydn’s oratorio, The Creation, it also began revising the already-planned 2020-2021 program. The Creation will be resurrected in the upcoming season, and McDermott will perform with the orchestra in January. Her point of view has also informed some modifications to the chamber music series. Details about the 2020-2021 season should be announced within the next few weeks.
Part of McDermott’s appeal to Pro Musica is her extensive network of performer relationships, which she plans to use in broadening the group’s pool of soloists and also in growing Pro Musica’s national and international profile. Santa Feans will see more of this initiative in 2021-2022, which is the group’s 40th anniversary season and is being jointly planned by O’Connor and McDermott. Beginning the following year, it’s 100 percent Anne-Marie’s vision.
“I want to expand the scope of the recital series so that it goes beyond string quartets,” she says, “and find ways for the audience to get to know these performers more in-depth, by having them play as soloists with the orchestra or give individual recitals. It’s very important to me to continue Pro Musica’s commitment to commission new works and to perform pieces by women composers. In fact, I’d love to have a national symposium in Santa Fe on the subject of women in classical music.”
For board president Bernard van der Hoeven, McDermott’s appointment “epitomizes Pro Musica’s Women of Distinction Leadership Initiative. She’s an incredibly dynamic person and the orchestra loves her and respects her. We had several extraordinarily strong candidates but, at the end of the day, it also had to be someone whom we loved and who loved us. As much as everything else, that was why we chose Anne-Marie. And Tom will still conduct if he wants to.”
It’s clear that Pro Musica’s future rests on the continued harmony between O’Connor and McDermott. Replacing the founding artistic leader is often an arts group’s most challenging transition, especially when he or she has had a long tenure and will continue to have a role with the company going forward, both of which are the case here.
Dissonance down the road isn’t inevitable, but this change does represent a seismic shift for Pro Musica, which is very much a homegrown, grassroots organization. O’Connor grew up in Los Alamos and Redman in Las Cruces. Both studied music at the University of New Mexico and were part of Pro Musica’s progenitor — a nine-member troupe that barnstormed across New Mexico between 1978 and 1980 playing concerts in small towns, schools, pueblos, senior centers, parks, and the state prison, among other venues.
McDermott and Madigan are both products of the more rarified classical music world of the East Coast and New York City. The former was born in Queens and grew up on Long Island, commuted into the city on Saturdays to study piano at the Manhattan School of Music’s preparatory division, and made her Carnegie Hall debut at age 12. The latter graduated from Maine’s Colby College before a career with New York-based organizations Composers Now, music publisher Boosey & Hawkes, and The New School, among others.
Issues of organizational culture and communication are very much in the forefront for both women. “In going through this kind of transition at Bravo! Vail, I learned how important it was for the person coming in to really respect and understand the culture of the organization,” McDermott says. “I’m very blessed in this situation because of the relationship that I have with Tom.” Madigan sees her top priorities as maintaining clear and consistent communication with the organization’s stakeholders, planning, and navigating through the current challenges.
While Pro Musica isn’t a deep-pockets organization, it has a lot to work with, including substantial community goodwill, a growing board of directors, a debt-free balance sheet, and a charismatic new leader who seems genuinely enthusiastic about the fundraising responsibility her position entails.
There should also be a little uptick for the real estate market. “My husband Mike and I have been looking to buy a house in Santa Fe and almost did so a couple of years ago, but it fell through,” McDermott reports. “We’ve wanted to spend more time there regardless of my work situation. You know, I can’t recall ever having had a boring conversation in Santa Fe.” ◀