New wave, old hand: Could maestro Mester’s return signal a renaissance for the Louisville Orchestra?

Jorge Mester in 1973, left,

Jorge Mester in 1973, left,

If there is one Louisville organization way overdue for a run of good luck, it’s the Louisville Orchestra. Beaten up and bogged down by financial woes and dwindling attendance — and virtually leaderless for the past two seasons — the orchestra has to be first in line to finally find a four-leaf clover.
And maybe it has.

This week’s announcement that maestro Jorge Mester will rejoin the Louisville Orchestra to help guide the symphony into a new era is about the best news the orchestra could have gotten. That’s what everyone — players, administrators, donors and concert fans — seems to be saying. And they could be right.

Mester, who succeeded Louisville Orchestra founder Robert Whitney in 1967, twirled up some of the finest notes in the orchestra’s 69-year history. In 14 seasons under his baton, the orchestra lifted its level of professionalism and produced a sound that fired the imagination of its fans. Following Whitney’s lead, the orchestra under Mester made 72 world premier recordings on its First Edition record label. When playing live, the orchestra not only filled Macauley Theatre and Spalding Univeristy’s Columbia Auditorium with sound, it filled those seats with fans.

Now the orchestra hopes Mester can recreate his magic and bring the excitement — and the seat-buyers — back to the concert life of the orchestra. Mester, himself, thinks the magic has already begun — in the very act of reconnecting with the Louisville Orchestra.

“I just loved Louisville, and was touched — mystically touched — when the chance came to lead the orchestra again,” Mester said last week by phone from his home in Montrose, Calif. “It’s like ‘Back to the Future,’ the chance to go back and do it right. A chance for me to bring my gray hairs to the table.”

At 71, Jorge Mester has a few gray hairs. But gray hairs are good in the longhair music game — kind of like craggy racehorse trainers and aged bourbon whiskey.

Mester will continue conducting the Pasadena Symphony Orchestra, where he took on the role of music director in 1984 and is so well liked that he was recently named “Conductor for Life” — kind of like a musical Caesar. Mester also will continue as music director of the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra in Florida, where he also has worked since 2004.

Gradually, however, he will increase his presence in Louisville as the orchestra fixes its future schedules. While Mester will continue his work with the orchestras in Naples and Pasadena, he doesn’t see any problems in making time for Louisville, saying it’s just a matter of working out logistics.

Jorge Mester today.: He calls his return to Louisville “a chance to go back and do it right. A chance for me to bring my gray hairs to the table.”

Jorge Mester today.: He calls his return to Louisville “a chance to go back and do it right. A chance for me to bring my gray hairs to the table.”

“I don’t see that as anything but an exciting opportunity to use my brain even more,” he said.
For the current season, he is slated to conduct just one Classics Series concert here this season (works by Glass, Wagner and Tchaikovsky on Sept. 28 and 29). During the 2007-08 season, Mester’s presence on the podium in Louisville will increase — as will his public role as leader of the orchestra.

“What we really need,” said longtime Louisville Orchestra board member Carol Hebel, “is a ‘face’ for this orchestra, and he is the perfect choice. Jorge has deep roots in the classical music community here. And he’s the best conductor the orchestra has ever had, bar none.”

Hebel is a member of a new conductor search committee, headed by Humana executive Tom Noland, which has been working for two years to select, and woo to town, a new music director. But in the classical music business, that’s a long process that can stretch over years. (Other noted orchestras are also on searches for new music directors, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.) But two years is too long for an orchestra that needs a leader now.

At Monday’s announcement of Mester’s return, Noland and other leaders in the organization said having Mester on board will give them the proper amount of time to review current conductor candidates to choose Mester’s successor.

Orchestra Board President Joe Pusateri, also speaking Monday, said Mester had contacted the orchestra in the spring when it was facing bankruptcy, and asked how he could help. Then last month, when the committee considered the idea of asking him to return, members sang out an emphatic, “Yes!”

“It was kind of like — is the word ‘epiphany?’” said Brad Broecker, the orchestra’s interim executive director. “We suddenly realized we have someone who is well-respected, loves this orchestra, from afar, who wants to see it be successful, who is willing to do most anything he can to help it, and is the head of two other well-respected orchestras — and is scheduled to be here this year to conduct one of our concerts. It was kind of like the sun coming up.”

“When he left here,” Hebel said, “he left with no bad feeling — it was more under tears at going-away parties. But he left for new challenges, as talented people do. He went with the Mexico City orchestra

Jorge Mester today.: He calls his return to Louisville “a chance to go back and do it right. A chance for me to bring my gray hairs to the table.”

Jorge Mester today.: He calls his return to Louisville “a chance to go back and do it right. A chance for me to bring my gray hairs to the table.”

, and then on to Pasadena, and now the Naples symphony. And he’s a big hit down there. They’re sold out every concert. You can’t even buy a ticket.”

Which is something they’d like more of in Louisville.

And the band played on

While things didn’t fall apart when Mester left in 1979, an era ended. The orchestra went through good times, and bad times. It had some strong conductors, and others who were not. Some who made their mark, and some you couldn’t name with 20 guesses. Eventually, however, the sizzle began to fizzle. Audiences began to dwindle, revenues declined, donors found other arts organizations to back, and, worst of all, perhaps, the work of the orchestra went largely unnoticed. A symphony that had the best personnel it had ever had — players who can really play — simply faded from the artistic limelight and fell into a dark period dominated by headlines about a missed payroll, a musicians’ strike, front-office turnover and the very real threat that bankruptcy could spell the end of Louisville’s longest-running classical music institution.

The Louisville Orchestra: recently performed at Iroquois Amphitheater, closing with a lively movement from a Brahms symphony.

The Louisville Orchestra: recently performed at Iroquois Amphitheater, closing with a lively movement from a Brahms symphony.

Hard times have been very hard, indeed. But the band played on.
Pusateri stepped up — not once, but twice — to raise cash to stave off the orchestra’s financial crisis. And he spearheaded a tough negotiation with the players that, in April, resulted in a new five-year work agreement that all hope will stabilize the orchestra’s finances. The new contract pays less, like so many new contracts these days. But the musicians agreed to terms. (They tell you when you go to music school that you’re a lot more likely to get poor than get rich, sawing on a fiddle.)

The orchestra also made other moves. The board drafted live-wire impresario Broecker, who built the Broadway Series into a roaring success, to serve on an interim basis and to see what he could do with the Louisville Orchestra. Broecker’s job is to stir up the coals and see if he can rekindle the community’s interest in the orchestra. And sell some tickets.

Which he thinks he can do.
“We wouldn’t have any problem raising money to cover expenses if we had full houses — but we don’t have full houses,” Broecker said. “I think all art forms are finding that you have to look beyond what is presented on the stage from curtain up to curtain down. It’s the entire experience people are looking for. It’s the ease of getting tickets and the comfort of the seats. They’re looking for presentation times that are convenient and added visual stimulations that they may not have previously gotten at orchestra concerts.”

But the big thing is the orchestra of today must leave its audiences thrilled.
Some pundits, who’ve been heralding the death of classical music, see this as a tall order. Mester doesn’t agree that either the genre is dying or that that the audiences aren’t there.
“It’s not that classical music is in danger,” said Mester, “but that orchestras serving different communities have to learn, and they are learning, how to be more flexible in how they present the music and what music to present.”

Brad Broecker: Louisville Orchestra's interim director, has been asked to stir the coals and rekindle the community's interest in the orchestra.

Brad Broecker: Louisville Orchestra’s interim director, has been asked to stir the coals and rekindle the community’s interest in the orchestra.

Which is right up Mester’s alley, according to players who have played under him.
“It was just such an exciting time for us then,” recalled recently retired cellist Louise Harris, who was hired into the symphony by Mester during his first year in Louisville. “He’s a brilliant, charismatic conductor, and his programming — it’s so exciting. He’ll play the Romantic music with the big, rich sounds — Bruckner, Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss — the music that thrills and chills the audiences.”

And he’ll push the players. Harris recalls her first rehearsal under Mester. When it was over, she said, one player wiped his brow and said, “Man, I’m going to have to practice.”
Horn player Dennis Hallman also began under Mester.

“Mester blew into town the brash New Yorker, all fiery and ready to kick up a storm,” Hallman recalled. “He was a firebrand then — and I hope he still is. When a player screwed up in rehearsal, it wasn’t anything for Jorge to make them play their part alone, in front of all the players, until they got it right.”
Which doesn’t scare young tuba player Daryl Johnson, who only has heard the stories. He’s all for higher standards.

“We need to step it up in performance,” Johnson said. “There’s nothing more satisfying than being up on stage with that moment to show off what you can do. I want people to come to hear us play.”

Rising to the occasion
Already, the playing seems to have picked up. More than a week before the organization’s announcement about Mester, the orchestra played a concert at Iroquois Amphitheater, which the city has gloriously refurbished, crowning the place with a high redwood roof that soars above the audience.
And as the sun set behind Iroquois Hill, the orchestra soared, too. The last piece was a lively movement from a Brahms symphony — something you don’t hear every day — and the orchestra nicely fit the bright notes around each other, playing together.

That concert in the park was conducted by Louisville Orchestra Pops Director Bob Bernhardt, and the Classics Series concerts of the upcoming season will be conducted by a variety of conductors — one of whom may eventually succeed Mester.

Meanwhile, Mester has already started his job, by studying the repertoire the orchestra has presented in the past 40 years.
“I don’t have any specific plans yet because it’s too early in the continuum,” he said. “But I do have a whole bunch of ideas, which I want to run by people in order to figure out what would be the best mix. Obviously, one of my more important constituencies is the orchestra itself.”

But in the end, it’s not just the right repertoire. It is how the orchestra plays.
“Of course, every conductor has a concept of sound,” Mester said. “And then it is the job of getting the sound in synch to find the sweet spot, the place where the resonance is. It’s not a big challenge to make an orchestra play better; it happens automatically. It happens because of the vibes. And then the enthusiasm carries across the footlights.”

Vibes, indeed
Board chairman Pusateri is certainly feeling the vibes.
“I feel like we have re-tooled and reorganized, and a lot of pieces are falling into place,” he said. “Getting Brad Broecker on board, with all the new ideas he brings, and then signing Jorge was just like, gosh, filling in a missing piece of the puzzle.”

Pusateri said new patrons have recently come to the orchestra from business and social circles that have not been a part of the orchestra experience in the past. Their demographics show people who are more suburban and high-tech than the orchestra’s traditional audience. There have even been unsolicited donations.
“Then there’s this part of getting past people involved — people who have tired of all the drama and the hassle. Or their interests changed so the orchestra wasn’t so important to them. Being able to go back and get a bunch of those people back, and them talking to their friends about the orchestra. I feel really good about everything that’s happened.”
So does Broecker.
“Jorge practically dropped everything to talk with us,” Broecker said. “Now he’s going to be our music director. We don’t want to modify that title with any other words. So he’s not going to be ‘interim’ or ‘laureate.’  Music director is what he’s going to be.”

That’s a specific job title. It’s not just the conductor of the orchestra, but also its musical leader — the person who shapes the programming content, hires and fires the players and represents the orchestra as its face for the public.

Broecker says Mester could be music director for five years, maybe seven.
“We’ve already discovered how long the search for a new music director would be,” he said. “And we do want somebody who ultimately is going to live here. So we need to continue to search for the future. But recognizing Jorge’s flexibility in being here with us as long as is necessary, we’re in the best of all possible worlds.”

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Additional reporting by Elizabeth Kramer, who may be contacted at [email protected]