Auburn Symphony Orchestra enters final stages of its search for a new conductor

Auburn Symphony Orchestra board members expect they are in the closing weeks of their search for a new conductor.

“I think we might have a decision by the end of the year,” Lee Valenta, general manager of the ASO, recently told City leaders during its annual presentation to the city, which contributes $70,000 a year to help keep it going.

Whichever of the three finalists it turns out to be, he’ll have big shoes to fill – Stewart Kershaw, ASO’s founder, former music director and conductor retired in 2015.

As part of the competitive process, each of the three candidates got to guest conduct the ASO for one of its recent programs.

Valenta said there had been four candidates, but one removed himself from competition two months ago because of a conflict with another orchestra to which he had previously committed. He was to conduct his show in February 2018.

The last task for those three finalists – create a program for the whole of 2018.

After that comes the evaluations from all of the musicians who played for the candidates’ guest auditions, the audience members who attended the performances, and separate evaluations of the 8-member search committee and the board, each of which interviewed the candidates.

The new conductor takes up his baton in early 2018. For the balance of this season, however, the orchestra will employ guest conductors.

“People ask us, ‘Why does it take so long?’ ” ASO board member Nancy Colson said of the search. “We’ve used a very intentional and deliberate process. … We have three excellent candidates.”

Those candidates are:

• Leif Bjaland, music director of the Waterbury Symphony in Connecticut, and an active guest conductor appearing with numerous orchestras.

• Wesley Shulz, associate conductor of the North Carolina Symphony, and previously music director and conductor of the Bainbridge Symphony Orchestra and the Seattle Festival Orchestra

• Nikolas Caoile, music director and conductor of the Wenatchee Valley Symphony Orchestra and director of orchestras at Central Washington University in Ellensburg.

Kershaw began the Auburn Symphony in 1997 while he was music director and conductor of the orchestra at Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle to fulfill his dream of finding a venue for those talented professional musicians to play from the symphonic repertoire on stage at the Auburn Performing Arts Center.

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