The executive director of any symphony must cater to the needs of a long list of people: the donors, board of trustees, musicians, community at large and musical director (aka conductor). This means working fluidly between art and commerce during a time when many orchestras are struggling financially.
After a six-month search, the Spokane Symphony has named Jeff vom Saal as its new executive director, a position held for a decade by Brenda Nienhouse, who left last summer to take a job in Newport, Rhode Island. The symphony chose to take their time looking for the right candidate, conducting a nationwide hunt and even bringing in an executive search agency.
Coming from the Marin Symphony, a regional orchestra in the Bay Area, vom Saal has also held executive director positions with symphonies in Iowa and North Dakota. In May, vom Saal and his wife will move to Spokane.
With a degree in trumpet performance from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, vom Saal is experienced in the performing and administrative sides of a symphony organization. He says that keeping the balance between what makes money and what the artists want to play isn't always easy.
"Even if the musicians are not fond of performing a certain type of concert, they understand that a certain concert is important if it sells out," vom Saal says over the phone last week. "We have to make decisions in the interest of the community, and that's not always the same as what the musicians or donors want."
The most important thing is to keep an open line of communication between all voices, he says.
Growing up in upstate New York, vom Saal never saw himself as an orchestra executive director, but after falling into the position for a Massachusetts-based youth symphony, he realized it was a natural fit, combining business, people and classical music.
During the last few months without an executive director, the symphony has brought in popular lineups and concerts to the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox — including the recent sold-out "Music of Star Wars" show — and vom Saal says that next year's (unannounced) lineup is just as exciting. He says his challenge is to maximize the endowment that the Spokane Symphony already has.
"I want to bring in as many interesting other types of acts and make the most of that theater. I look forward to that," he says. "Of course, continuing to honor the tradition that's already in place is of the utmost importance." ♦