The search is on for the next musical director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Graeme Brown talks to chief executive Stephen Maddock about the search.

The next principal conductor of the CBSO could be male or female, between 21 and 80 and from any one of dozens of countries.

Hopefully that narrows it down.

What is certain is it is not a decision being taken lightly by CBSO chief executive Stephen Maddock – he is under no illusion that this decision will be one that defines it.

Rarely does so much agonising go into a decision – and much is riding on it. The choice will say everything about the future direction of one of the city’s greatest institutions.

The next musical director is likely to take the CBSO up to its centenary celebrations in 2020 and Mr Maddock said the eight-strong search committee was looking far and wide.

He said: “It is a very international market now. We have got suggestions from South America, Israel, China, Korea, Japan, South Africa, North America and Europe.

“Some of those suggested are as young as 21 and some are in their 80s. It is a really wide field.

“Getting to know about them is a lot easier in some ways, because most will have a decent amount of material on the internet.

“It is not the same as seeing them in the flesh, but it is enough to rule them out.”

Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons took up the role of music director in 2008, following in the footsteps of Louis Fremaux and Sir Simon Rattle but will leave next year to take up a post at the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Mr Maddock said a big part of the challenge was conducting the search “without any visibility”. He was spotted by a London journalist during the last search six years ago, which resulted in a story being published.

He said it was important to see prospective candidates in a rehearsal as only up close can you see the influence a conductor has.

“You sometimes get conductors who throw themselves about but you can’t hear that it benefits the orchestra,” he said.

“With Andris every time you see a gesture you can hear it. That is the difference between a magician and a charlatan.”

He added: “Most of the difference a conductor makes is in the rehearsal. The most basic thing they do is speed – and you can tell when that doesn’t work.

“They also set the dynamics – how smooth or choppy it is being played.

“Then there is the ensemble. A good conductor will be able to make sure that the musicians play together, which is quite a technical skill.

“Mostly it is wizardry and dark magic, but a good conductor will be a motivator, an engineer and a mystical leader.”

A music director is far more than just an employee, which is another reason that time has to be taken over the selection.

The search committee is made up of eight people – four of whom are members of the orchestra, as well as associate conductor Simon Halsey.

While musicianship is the key factor there is more to the role – the music director will be the public face of the CBSO and their dealings with the media stand to impact on the brand.

As a case in point, the principal conductor of the National Youth Orchestra and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic provoked outrage last year by claiming that orchestras “react better when they have a man in front of them” and that “a cute girl on a podium means that musicians think about other things”.

Mr Maddock said, while the role was freelance, the candidate would have to sign up to a level of behaviour that reflects the operation.

He added: “The most important thing, above all else, is musicianship – somebody who will give great concerts.

“But rehearsals are also very important. They have also got to have a repertoire that they can do. A conductor who has only got a very small range might be great at one thing but we need someone who is great at 12 to 15 different things a year. So the primary considerations are musical, but, secondary, is they have to be marketable, they have to be good at talking to the audience and the media, and willing to do some fundraising.”

Of the 12 people to have been music director at the CBSO thus far it is notable that all are men.

However, the marketplace is changing – 40 per cent of the orchestra are now women, up from about 30 per cent 15 years ago, and females are in the majority in youth orchestra.

Mr Maddock said: “It is a very long list at the moment but that is a massive issue, particularly in the last few years as there have been more female conductors.

“This is a gradual change over time but from a position where it was categorically hopeless, they are still massively under-represented but there are signs that at long last progress is being made.”

Meanwhile, the CBSO is having to plan to play in a post-Nelsons era.

The orchestra had its busiest touring year on record in 2013, and continued to operate in the black, but Nelsons is a major draw across Europe and it will be a challenge once he leaves.

Mr Maddock said: “Our business isn’t immune to economic cycles but it seems to have a much less exaggerated version.

“Our box office income has stayed pretty much level over the last five years. When we did have a little bit of a squeeze it was two or three years after the recession, which is probably because a lot of our audience are public sector workers.

“Now we are seeing the private sector picking up again and we are seeing business sponsorship picking up again.”

One thing that is not currently on the agenda for the CBSO is China.

Mr Maddock has mapped out most of the 2014/15 season and is already well into 2015/16, but thus far there is no trip to the Far East. He said the market for orchestras in China has been distorted by French orchestras being heavily subsidised to travel over many years.

He said as a result the relative income is less than other Eastern countries.

He said: “We don’t have any firm plans in China. We might have gone there on this tour. There was a couple of possibilities but it seems to be symptomatic of doing business in China to do things late and that is not easy in our world.

“But it is important, and this is part of the dialogue with the city council. They were informed that there was an option of Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou, and I think they would have probably preferred we did that, but they weren’t able to put money towards it.

“The difference for us was between £50,000 and £100,000.”

He added: “I am sure we will go to China eventually, and in fact we are talking to an agent about another possible project over there at the moment. We get enquiries regularly, but we have got to be sure that it pays its way. We aren’t into vanity projects.

“A lot of French orchestras were subsidised to go over there and that queered the pitch for the rest of us but in time that will change.

“The future for us in China is probably with commercial sponsorship.”

Appleby Matthews, First conductor of the CBSO
Appleby Matthews, First conductor of the CBSO
 

CBSO Music Directors

Appleby Matthews (1920–1924)

Adrian Boult (1924–1930)

Leslie Heward (1930–1943)

George Weldon (1944–1951)

Rudolf Schwarz (1951–1957)

Andrzej Panufnik (1957–1959)

Adrian Boult (1959–1960)

Hugo Rignold (1960–1969)

Louis Frémaux (1969–1978)

Simon Rattle (1980–1998)

Sakari Oramo (1998–2008)

Andris Nelsons (2008-2015)