Why doesn’t the Seattle Symphony have a new music director yet? 

More than two years after the dramatic departure of music director Thomas Dausgaard in early 2022, the Seattle Symphony has yet to name his successor. And the process, at least to outside observers, has seemed opaque.

While it may seem to some like the Symphony is taking a long time to announce a new music director, according to some Symphony musicians, administrators and industry experts, it’s actually not.

Hiring a music director for a major symphony is not as simple as posting a job description on LinkedIn, conducting a few interviews and making an offer. In a complex, competitive industry with a limited number of desirable candidates whose schedules are locked down years in advance, the process can be slow. 

A music director’s job today is about more than just making music.

“We ask a lot of our music directors, there’s no question,” said Simon Woods, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, and from 2011 until early 2018, president and CEO of the Seattle Symphony. In addition to that ineffable connection between maestro and musicians that generates electricity on stage, music directors must bring unique vision to artistic planning, cultivate board members and potential board members, build a relationship with their city and community, and, ideally, create a culture of respect, inclusion and excellence within the organization. 

Common wisdom in the industry suggests an orchestra should begin its search for the next music director the moment it’s hired its current one. Dausgaard’s four-year appointment, which was announced in 2017, began in 2019. But in 2020 and 2021 the world was facing COVID lockdowns and restrictions; guest conductors were hard to come by. Dausgaard himself was hardly in Seattle during his tenure, due to travel restrictions, a problem that exacerbated tensions between Dausgaard and the Symphony board and administration, which ultimately led to Dausgaard’s email resignation in January 2022, saying he felt “not safe” (an allegation the Symphony categorically rejected)

Krishna Thiagarajan, president and CEO of Seattle Symphony, said the Symphony’s search for Dausgaard’s successor began in earnest between one-and-a-half and two years ago, and today, it’s “really close [to] announcing somebody.” 

Beyond that, Thiagarajan is tight-lipped, declining to even say how many names are on either the Symphony’s longlist or shortlist of candidates. He said he wants to give every candidate the chance to make their music to the best of their ability, without any external pressure or prying eyes. 

“I want all of the artists that come to the Seattle Symphony to be able to entirely focus on making the music in the way that they wish to share it with our audiences … and get a chance to show who they are before any kind of prejudgment takes place,” Thiagarajan said. 

That kind of secrecy can be understandable, said a Symphony player who asked to remain anonymous as they’re not authorized to speak on behalf of the organization. According to the player, any public discussion seems viewed by administration as inappropriate and unprofessional and something that could have negative ramifications for candidates who are not selected. But it’s also artificial since any guest conductor working with the Symphony this season is likely under some sort of consideration. 

Recent guest conductors include, for example, Kahchun Wong, who has taken the podium in Seattle many times (most recently to lead Mahler’s Third Symphony last month) and is currently the chief conductor of the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra; and Dalia Stasevska, currently principal guest conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and chief conductor of Sinfonia Lahti in Finland, who conducted here in both 2022 and 2023 and is slated to return in April next year.  

Nor, perhaps, does the Symphony want to show its hand to fellow orchestras. 

“There are always multiple orchestras doing music director searches at the same time,” said Woods. “And yes, of course, there’s some competition for the most interesting names out there.”

Los Angeles is currently on the hunt to replace Gustavo Dudamel, the charismatic maestro who will become New York Philharmonic’s music and artistic director in 2026. Cleveland is also looking, as is San Francisco, where Esa-Pekka Salonen announced in March that he will leave when his contract expires in 2025. 

In an industry still recovering from COVID-era setbacks, generating excitement matters, as when Christian Mӑcelaru was just announced, with much pomp and circumstance, as Cincinnati Symphony’s incoming music director (after a search that, Thiagarajan pointed out, took three years). The Chicago Symphony just made a splashy announcement about incoming music director Klaus Mäkelä, though he won’t even begin his official tenure until 2027. 

In Seattle, Thiagarajan said, they’re looking for candidates who not only have an inspiring vision for the Symphony and excellent chemistry with the orchestra and the audience, but also a rapport with the diverse humanity of Seattle itself. “There’s a desire that this person really becomes a fabric of the greater King County and Seattle area,” Thiagarajan said. “We’re seeking the person that really wants to be here.” 

Said Woods, “I think of [a music director] as a sort of civic community leadership role in this country … and like it or not, American orchestras rely heavily on ticket sales, and having somebody who is going to take part in building a relationship with the audience is absolutely vital. It’s difficult to balance all the things we ask of them alongside the fundamental point, which is the magic and the chemistry of the music making.”

Here’s how that complicated decision is being made: An orchestra search committee, composed of board members, staff and players, considers a longlist of candidates they’d like to see for music director. Those candidates are then scheduled to conduct with the Symphony (which, Thiagarajan said, can take between 18 and 24 months to book). 

Out of those candidates, the search committee creates a shortlist. Then, in order for those shortlisted candidates to move forward, Seattle Symphony musicians must hold a vote at which 80% of the players are present. Those candidates who receive at least 60% of the vote move on. From those candidates approved by the players, a final hiring vote will be made by the search committee, with each member getting one vote. Then the board formally hires the new music director.

In the meantime, another player said they’re perfectly happy working without a music director for the time being, and sees little impact on the orchestra’s cohesion — artistic leaders only conduct part of a symphony’s season anyway, they said, so it’s not like things fall apart in their absence.

And it’s hard to say whether the lack of a music director hurt the Seattle Symphony by any quantifiable metric, since Dausgaard quit while COVID was still impacting many arts organizations, so any changes in finances or subscriber numbers couldn’t be attributed to one factor alone. But today, the Symphony said, its sales numbers are good: For the current fiscal year, ticket sales are up 37% from the previous year, and revenue from ticket sales is up 54%.

Whenever the hiring decision is made, a new artistic vision, guiding the Symphony into its next chapter, is going to be exciting.

“I’ll just say this,” Thiagarajan said. “It’s really important to me that we get to finish doing this job calmly and quietly, because we’re really close … and people are going to have a great time with this for many years to come. If that’s the only thing I can help make happen here, then that’s good enough.”

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