If there is anything harder than picking a leader, it’s picking the next.
That’s exactly what the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra is set to do over the next two years. After the tragic loss of conductor Randy Fleischer, the ASO must honor his legacy while engaging a vibrant community of musicians and listeners and welcoming the unique talents and opportunities of a new artistic director.
This is a weighty responsibility, because the orchestra is one of our state’s largest, best recognized arts organizations. Their programming and community involvement help musicians and audiences alike shape and define their aesthetic values. The ASO has clearly embraced the value of diversity in their programming, and their tireless advocacy on behalf of talented orchestral musicians has motivated younger players to develop their craft. They have opened doors for those younger musicians to engage in creative practices as they mature into adults.
These choices are how we know the ASO is up to the task of choosing a new leader, and that they take the task seriously.
The pandemic may be the most obvious reason the task is difficult. Many of the ASO’s community engagement ideas leading up to the pandemic, such as music in the lobby and events at the planetarium, became verboten during the “hunker down” mandate, and remain risky today. Therefore, they must find new ways to connect with audiences in the middle of both a pandemic and an executive search. Of course, meeting with candidates in that search and hearing them conduct performances is more complicated under the new normal as well.
But the choice is difficult for reasons beyond the pandemic. Randy Fleischer was a beloved conductor. When I met him, I simply knocked on the door of the downtown office, with no credentials to speak of, introduced myself as a composer, and asked for an appointment with the conductor. During the email exchange that followed, I referred to him as ‘Dr. Fleischer’. ASO’s long-suffering executive director Sherri Reddick responded politely that he prefers to be called Randy. When I showed up for my appointment, I thanked Randy for making time, and he replied “Well you have to make time, especially for a composer!” Of course, he didn’t have to make time for me, but that wasn’t the point. I felt special.
As often happens in organizations with strong, well-received leaders, Randy’s artistic growth contributed to the development of the ASO itself. He made friends with artists of all types, from local dance company Pulse to Broadway performer Capathia Jenkins, and he brought in musicians of all traditions, from jazz legend Chris Brubeck to progressive string composer Tracy Silverman. In doing so, Randy pioneered special traditions for the orchestra and infused the programming with his own flair for the unexpected.
Building on Randy’s unique collaborations, the ASO now has a distinct culture of its own. Finding a way to carry forward that culture without boxing in a new director is the largest difficulty they face. How will the new director continue to pursue a ‘classically unconventional’ style, focus on education, and commission new music while also finding room to be themself and to grow as an artist?
Fortunately, the ASO is well-equipped to handle the challenge. Not only is the current leadership full of bright, creative people, they’ve got music on their side. Like all creative practices, music helps prepare us to confront complex, novel challenges. It is a wellspring of community and resilience when we need it most.
Michael Dickerson is an Anchorage composer, writer, and educator. He is a board member at Northern Culture Exchange and a 2020 Rasmuson Individual Artist Award recipient.