Sunday, September 17, 2000

CCO's young maestro faces daunting mission

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        In an ideal world, says conductor Mischa Santora, music director of the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, people would have time and quiet surroundings each day to reflect on a poem, an artwork or a piece of music.

        They would crowd concert halls to hear the latest music by living composers.

        Their eyes would be onstage, not on their watches.

        “Either the cell phone is ringing, or you've got to check the e-mail,” says Mr. Santora, who begins his first season as CCO music director today in Corbett Auditorium. “Somehow this incredible tradition, which requires a great amount of schooling, concentration and time, is getting lost because it's not compatible with today's lifestyle.”

        As he takes the baton, the 28-year-old maestro, who belongs to the very generation orchestras are dying to lure to their concerts, faces the growing challenge of building an audience for classical music.

        While some orchestras plan seasons that are dressed down and easy for the uninitiated to digest — he believes in the opposite approach.

        “Orchestras, museums and theater companies should be making it more challenging,” he says. “My concern is, what will happen (with classical music) is what has happened with television. Everything is on a low level, so that everyone understands it. What I'd like to do is to keep it on a high level.”

Education a priority

               Mr. Santora, named the CCO's fourth music director in May, is just getting to know Cincinnati and his new orchestra. After spending the summer at the Aspen (Colo.) Music Festival as assistant conductor to David Zinman, he was unpacking boxes in his New York apartment. He packed others for his second address in Hyde Park.

        His podium experiences have been mainly with youth orchestras: the New York Youth Symphony and Juilliard's precollege orchestra, positions he will continue.

        Not surprisingly, his first ideas for the CCO lean toward education. He'd like to start a new series of thematic programs for kids and promote them to schools. He'd like to have concerts in collaboration with local arts organizations, such as ballet, theater or visual artists.

        As an example, he mentions a production of Stravinsky's ballet Petrushka that he conducted as part of Carnegie Hall's Family Concert Series last season.

        “We had a host, a theater company of five people, fantastic costumes, choreographers, a stage director and script writer,” he says. “It was a big production and very hard to put together, but the final product was quite good.”

Meet the audience


        But first, he hopes to meet his new audience at his preconcert lectures and at free receptions after concerts.

        “That gives me a chance to explain what my intention is with a particular program; or, if it's difficult, to try to make it accessible,” he says. “If there is a new piece, I'll ask the audience to please share their opinion with me afterwards, because I'm interested.”

        For now, he is anticipating the challenges of being a music director.

        “Ultimately, the most important thing is to make sure the concert's good and inspiring and fresh and exciting,” he says. “Hopefully, that's going to happen.”

        Mischa Santora conducts the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra in an all-Mozart program, 3 p.m. today in Corbett Auditorium; 7:30 p.m. Monday at Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy. Pianist Vladimir Feltsman is soloist. Tickets: 723-1182.


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