After the Funeral

From tragedy, two ensembles contemplate a new future.

The Seattle Symphony isn't the only local orchestra experiencing a change of leadership. For Orchestra Seattle and the Seattle Chamber Singers, though, the change was tragic and unexpected: the July 31 death, at age 59, of founding conductor George Shangrow in an auto wreck. This weekend the ensembles are regathering to perform for the first time since the accident—the first step in a hazy but re-energized future. The day after Shangrow's August memorial service, the OS/SCS board met to discuss the joint organization's new path. Shangrow had already finalized plans for a 2010–11 season of 10 concerts, with a press release nearly ready to go. From the organization's 120 musicians—"all of whom were emotionally so raw, but all of whom had an opinion about what we should do," says board member and violinist Stephen Hegg—an advisory committee of a dozen was appointed to determine how to proceed. Whether to proceed was never really in question, says Hegg. "I think it was almost a simultaneous thought for most people [upon hearing the news]: 'How do we go on after this,' but 'We must go on.' I don't know anybody who thought 'We're going to disband.' To disband now would be such an offense to George." The committee decided on an abbreviated season of six concerts—almost entirely of music chosen by Shangrow—opening with this Sunday's program of Handel and Bach at Queen Anne's First Free Methodist Church, led by Roupen Shakarian. This season thus carries on Shangrow's legacy, primarily in two areas he and OS/SCS had become particularly associated with: large choral/orchestral works, especially from the baroque era, and music by local composers. Plans for premieres of pieces by Robert Kechley (in February) and Kia Sams (in May) were left intact: "There was no stepping away from these new works," reports board member and singer Paula Rimmer. An ambitious program of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and Faure's Requiem was postponed for 2011–12, but music by Liszt, Wagner, and Verdi was retained. Shakarian, a longtime friend of Shangrow's, was approached to conduct the first concert, with conductors Zon Eastes, Alastair Willis, Hans-Jürgen Schnoor, and Darko Butorac continuing the season. (It's a game of musical chairs: Shakarian himself recently stepped down from the directorship of Philharmonia Northwest, and that orchestra is also being led by a tag team of guest conductors this season.) For now, though, the question of launching a search for a permanent music director is being tabled. "There will be conversations throughout the year," says Rimmer; "as we pull together next season, we'll definitely be inviting conductors with that in mind, but we may not go at this quickly." It's not only the suddenness of Shangrow's death that makes this a difficult transition for OS/SCS, but the fact that for decades the ensembles had been entirely identified with him, their only music director—he founded the Chamber Singers in 1969 and the orchestra 10 years later. The organization must now forge its own identity. "I think we need to find out who we are again, beyond being George's orchestra," says Hegg. "Our task is certainly not as simple as 'moving on.' Our challenge as musicians is to approach music making and our guest conductors with a really open mind and an open heart . . . at some point we will stop saying 'Well, George would have done it this way.' We won't grow unless we have an open mind." The orchestra's first rehearsal on September 8 was naturally a challenge— a matter of "realizing that we had a new dance partner," says Hegg. "We had been used to using a language with George that was so efficient, and we had been doing it for so many years. People almost felt like they were, in some ways, playing for the first time." It's a dance the players will need to relearn for each concert and each new guest conductor. Yet Hegg reports that the ensembles are eager to pay tribute to Shangrow in the best way they can—by continuing to make music. "It's a new chapter," says Hegg. "It's tough, but the renewed passion is really palpable." gborchert @seattleweekly.com

 
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