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Philling Franz's Shoes: Philharmonic Searches for New Music Director

'The next director has to be constantly reaching out to the community'


In January, Robert Franz announced the 2015-16 season would be his last as music director of the Boise Philharmonic. For the eight years he headed up the orchestra, Franz did more than direct. He beefed up the group's repertoire, forged partnerships with local schools and other nonprofit arts organizations, and became the approachable face of the Phil. He said balancing the organization's mission with being a leader in Boise's fine arts scene will be an important part of the job for whomever the Phil chooses to replace him.

"This city has a lot of the arts, but it has to be careful to make sure they thrive," Franz said. "What do you need to do to maintain the integrity of the arts?"

The Phil's now-former music director left in style the weekend of April 17, conducting Brahms' Violin Concerto in D Major with Grammy Award-winning violinist Jennifer Frautschi and her 1722 Stradivarius violin, "ex-Cadiz." For Franz, it marked a chance to refocus his attention on other engagements: a 10-week contract working with a handful of orchestras, including the Phoenix symphony and the Corpus Christi symphony in Texas; permanent gigs with the Houston symphony; the Windsor, Ontario, symphony; and the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival orchestra. For the Boise Philharmonic, it signaled the start of a race to find someone to fill Franz's shoes.

"I don't want this to drag out for two years. We needed to not miss a step," said Boise Philharmonic Board Chair Julie Kilgrow.

A search committee began accepting applications in January—receiving more than 200 from all over the world—and interviewing candidates who each brought something special to the table, Kilgrow said. Some of them have backgrounds in education while others are technologically savvy. The search committee members were struck by the diversity and skill sets of the people applying be the new face of the organization.

"Anything's open during this process," said Boise Philharmonic Executive Director Sandra Culhane.

From the imposing number of qualified candidates, the committee whittled down its choices to a shortlist of seven: Aram Demirjian (Kansas City, Mo.); Andres Franco (Tulsa, Okla.); Eric Garcia (Oklahoma City); Keitaro Harada (Cincinnati); Michelle Merrill (Detroit); Brett Mitchell (Cleveland); and Alastair Willis (Springfield, Ill.). Each candidate will guest conduct a concert during the 2016-17 season and there will be two parts to the selection process. Concert attendees will have a chance to tell Boise Phil what they think about each conductor and season ticket subscribers will be polled on their experience.

"Anybody who comes to this is going to be part of the process," Kilgrow said.

It's designed to be audience-inclusive but, behind the scenes, the organization is looking for someone it thinks can be a leader not only of the orchestra but also Boise's wider fine arts community, possessing qualities such as skill at working with other organizations like Opera Idaho and Idaho Shakespeare Festival, and a willingness to take music education and professional musicians into schools. Boise Philharmonic has one of the broadest arts footprints in Idaho; its new music director, Franz said, must build on that.

"The next director has to be constantly reaching out to the community," he said.

Under Franz's direction, Boise Philharmonic musicians flooded the fine arts scene. In 2015, they made appearances in every second-grade classroom in the Treasure Valley and played at the Sapphire Room at the Riverside Hotel, at screenings of silent movies and at dance performances. And that's only a fraction of the orchestra's presence in the community.

"If you take us away, you would have no music," said Kilgrow, but both she and Culhane said they wouldn't know the right applicant until they see him or her interact with the public and perform with the orchestra during the Phil's concerts at the Morrison Center in Boise and the Brandt Center in Nampa.

"Our concerts are our base," Kilgrow said. "You can't ever forget your base."

Since beginning the search for a new music director, the Phil has continued—and expanded—its community outreach. On May 9, the string quartet performed live at RadioBoise in preparation for a pub crawl it will host Thursday, May 12. The orchestra is also looking forward to a collaboration with Treefort Music Fest that could materialize as early as spring 2017—which is about the same time Boise Philharmonic leadership will decide who will be offered the job of music director.

While Boise Phil musicians branch out into the community, Franz said if he could change one thing about the Phil, it would be to integrate its musicians into its administration, saying they're already the organization's eyes and ears in the community. Giving musicians "more voice and power" has yielded positive results at other orchestras, Franz said, adding that he trusts his colleagues "tremendously" to be good stewards for the fine arts and their organization.

"Blurring those lines can be scary," he said. "But not to me."