Musical Chairs

After 17 years, the Tucson Chamber Orchestra finds itself without the only leader it has ever known

Last April, just days before a high-profile concert at the Fox Tucson Theatre, Enrique Lasansky unexpectedly announced that the upcoming performance would be his last with the Tucson Chamber Orchestra, which he had founded 17 years before. His e-mail surprised his musicians and board.

"Enrique's leaving left a real void for me as a new board member," says Madeline Bosma. "Now I don't have the same kind of enthusiasm about promoting the orchestra that I had formerly, but I really love classical music, so because of that, I will do what I can to help it."

Lasansky didn't exactly leave the orchestra in an artistic void. A guest conductor had already been engaged for the season finale in June, and concertmaster Ellen Chamberlain is serving as interim music director for the coming season, during which four local conductors will audition to replace Lasansky.

"Artistically, we're in a very good place," Chamberlain says. "The players have really stepped up, taking control of a lot of things so everything runs smoothly. A lot of my colleagues from the Tucson Symphony and chamber opportunities I've had have renewed interest in the orchestra, so we're getting more fully professional talent into the group. We're getting stronger players, and because of that, we'll be able to do a more challenging repertoire."

Board president Patrick Gibbons says, "We're looking forward to having more of a player-driven organization. That can either kill an orchestra or make it better, but we're pretty hopeful."

The roughly 35-member group, founded as the Catalina Chamber Orchestra (and subsequently renamed because too many people wrongly associated it with Catalina High School), has always placed professionals like Chamberlain in key positions, and filled the ranks with amateur players. As a result, performances over the years have varied from confident to quavery, but all along, Lasansky kept the group playing a healthy balance of old favorites, by the likes of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, and new works, by such prominent names as John Adams and Tan Dun, as well as Arizona composers.

Lasansky's departure was precipitated by health concerns (heart trouble for which he says he is now undergoing successful treatment) and general burnout.

Lasansky says that last season, he stopped his public-school music teaching to devote himself full-time to the orchestra. "My goal was to increase fundraising and create some long-term artistic and financial relationships for the TCO. Specifically, I was hoping to increase the number of sponsored concerts for every season and also to increase the number and amounts of private contributions. We had very good success with sponsorships last season. However, these events were not renewable for the following season.

"Unfortunately, most of my time was taken up by managerial tasks, and therefore, I was not able to secure the kind of funding that I felt was needed to pay all the players competitive wages in the future. When I got to the end of the season, I realized that the experiment had not worked out in the way that I had hoped for."

Lasansky was tired and disappointed, but he didn't want to leave the group in the lurch. He lined up some grants for the coming season, and worked on the 2008-2009 programming. Even so, he figured he was hardly irreplaceable.

"There are many more qualified conductors around than there are orchestras for them, so finding someone should not be a problem," he says. "Whether that person will be willing and able to find a way to increase the orchestra's finances is the factor that will perhaps determine the orchestra's future. I think the TCO presents a wonderful opportunity for someone with fresh ideas (and lots of energy) in these areas."

Administrative tasks need not fall to the music director; the orchestra has employed a general manager in the past, and may find a new one in the year ahead. And much fundraising and administrative oversight is often taken on by an organization's board of directors. But the Tucson Chamber Orchestra's board is small and needs to prepare for some hard work ahead, acknowledges Gibbons.

"We do have a publicist, and we do have treasurer, so much of it is in place," says Gibbons, "but for much of the nitty-gritty, day-to-day stuff, we need to get more people in here." Gibbons says that the orchestra had to cover a small deficit at the end of this past season; it increased its revenues from $41,000 to $71,000 over the previous season, but at the same time, it expanded its programming and faced other rising costs. Gibbons says the budget for the coming season will be around $60,000, thanks to fewer concerts and programs that don't require so many extra players.

Chamberlain promises that the group will stick to true chamber-orchestra material quite unlike what's played by the larger, professional Tucson Symphony and the city's full-sized community groups, the Civic Orchestra of Tucson and the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra. The October season opener, for example, will be devoted to modestly scaled works by Bach and Stravinsky.

Chamberlain vetted the applications for the music-director job, and selected four finalists. One is her father, Bruce Chamberlain, but this is not a case of naked nepotism; he's the highly experienced director of choral activities at the UA. Another candidate with a strong choral background is Eric Holtan, director of the Tucson Chamber Artists. Martin Majkut recently completed his doctoral conducting studies at the UA and served a season as resident conductor of the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra. Alexander Tentser is a very active pianist who also leads the Pima Community College Orchestra. Each candidate currently lives in Tucson.

"That was very deliberate," says Ellen Chamberlain. "We don't have the resources to bring somebody in for every concert, and we need a face for the orchestra in the community, someone who is in the community all the time. All these candidates already have local credibility and can bring their loyal audience members in to us, and it allows us to collaborate with other ensembles."

Board member and choral singer Bosma is disappointed that the coming season has no room to work with the chorus that Lasansky assembled for performances of Handel's Messiah; this was Bosma's introduction to the group. She also wants to make sure that the orchestra renews its commitment to promoting school-music programs, and promoting Hispanic artists and composers, much of which will probably be de-emphasized during the music-director search, she says.

Bosma wants the orchestra to succeed, but she feels Lasansky's resignation could be devastating. "Enrique wore every hat and glove and shoe," she says. "He was the orchestra. He was the brain, the brawn and everything else."

Says Gibbons, "For 17 years, this was his baby. Now it's a little fledgling on its own. Financially, we're not in a great position, but if we can add some more board members and a general manager, and get somebody as committed as Enrique as music director, then the orchestra can prosper."

That person, says Chamberlain, should be not only a very strong musician, but also "somebody who'll really step up and move us forward financially, artistically and in terms of our integrity and standing in the community. It's a scary transition, but hopefully, this will turn around and head in a positive direction for everybody."

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