By STEWART SMITH
The search for the next East Texas Symphony Orchestra conductor has ended. The organization announced at a Thursday morning press conference that Richard Lee will step up to the podium.
The selection process lasted nearly a year-and-a-half as the field was narrowed from an initial 170 applicants to five. Input from a range of sources was considered during the selection, including from ETSO musicians and audience members. East Texas Symphony Orchestra Association President Greg Smith said the decision was across-the-board in favor of Lee.
“In polling of every constituency we had, the search committee, board of directors, patrons, audiences, one candidate won out over all others making him truly a collective and unifying choice,” Smith said. “I think it’s wonderful and exceedingly rare when that happens.”
ETSO Executive Director Nancy Wrenn said Lee was a perfect fit due to his natural ability to “be a bridge builder.”
“He not only is well-credentialed and well-educated in classical music, but he knows how to be a people person, and there are very few out there like that,” she said. “To me he is the perfect (medium) between the older generation and the younger generation of conductors that he sees it as it should be in a new era.”
Lee, a Canada native who resides in Winnipeg, said he looks forward to engaging the community and taking the orchestra’s sound to new heights.
“I’m really looking forward to getting down and dirty with the business of making this orchestra a good cultural ambassador for the city and this region. I’m looking forward to involving more elements of the community, the various schools and universities and community centers around town, and getting them partnered so that we can make this something that belongs to the community as well,” Lee said. “I’m really looking forward to making the orchestra sound better. It’s a good orchestra, but it’s every music director’s responsibility and job to make sure that … by the time my tenure is done I can, and all can say, that this orchestra has progressed to a level that we hadn’t attained at some point before.”
Engaging the community is an essential part of a music director’s job, Lee said.
“I really want to get to know you all. Or should I say ‘y’all’? I really want to get to know y’all, go cowboy boot shopping, visit Stanley’s for the first time. I don’t know why you’re laughing, that wasn’t a joke. That’s serious. That is a serious statement, ladies and gentlemen,” he said.
Lee sees the role of conductor and music director as something of an ambassadorship.
“I think it is a sham when a music director doesn’t know the city (he is representing),” he said. “I should be an ambassador for the community and I should get to know the establishments that are here.”
His biggest challenge, Lee said, is to be patient, as the changes he has in mind for the orchestra will take time to properly implement.
“I’ve got ideas, I’ve got goals, I’ve got visions. … I’ve got places I’d like the orchestra to be both artistically and financially. But none of those things are going to happen overnight,” he said. “My biggest role is to observe a lot, at first, and just sort of steer things. The first year is turning the steering wheel, and the next is actually changing direction.”
As for content, Lee wants to draw a bigger focus on a broader range of community involvement, including an emphasis on education for kids, as well as a variety of programming.
“Pops shows, in a limited way, are important to me. Concerts in schools are important to me. Going to schools and doing shows in the library or the gym or whatever, are all very, very important to me,” he said. “I think part of the reason why the ETSO is not sort of in the minds of (people in the region) is because we don’t play enough. We play a show then we disappear for two months. That sort of frequency makes it difficult to always somehow in be in some part of everyone’s brain. We can’t do a show every week, but we can broaden our offerings and make them more frequent as well.”
Lee will perform his first concert as conductor when the ETSO season begins this fall.