Classical Music

Dallas Symphony Orchestra Is so Tight-Lipped, We're Gonna Have to Predict Its Next Music Director

Left: Courtesy Karina Canellakis; Right: Courtesy Pablo Heras-Casado
Karina Canellakis and Pablo Heras-Casado: But who will be the next Dallas Symphony Orchestra music director?

On Friday, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra announced its 2018-19 season schedule, one loaded with prominent guest stars. Indeed, the schedule is nothing but guest stars, because music director Jaap van Zweden leaves this May and the symphony is still looking for his replacement.

Who will take the top job? Nobody knows. The orchestra’s search committee is so tight-lipped that even their colleagues are unsure when an announcement might arrive and who it might involve. One DSO employee told us that the conductor search is as secretive as the Vatican electing a pope.

But there are clues. Reading over the 2018-19 schedule, we can see that the Dallas Symphony has invited a few finalists for the conductor equivalent of one last job interview. Here are the four most likely replacements for van Zweden, plus a few long shots, with our analysis of the odds.

Honorable Mentions
Ruth Reinhardt. The DSO’s current assistant conductor has led the orchestra ably before and returns in October 2018, but still has much to learn before taking the top job.

John Storgards. A talented conductor with a keen ear for good contemporary music, Storgards has a voluminous catalog of CDs to his name, but 2019 will mark his Dallas debut. That’s likely too late to make an impression.

Donald Runnicles. A favorite of Dallas Morning News columnist Scott Cantrell, Runnicles is the oldest candidate at 63 — noteworthy since Cantrell also thinks the DSO is “too stuck in the Old White Guys rut.”

Simone Young. This internationally acclaimed Australian conductor has led almost every major orchestra in the world, and she doesn’t have a full-time gig. But she has performed in Dallas just once, in 2015, and was not invited to return.

Peter Oundjian. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s chief conductor becomes available at the same time van Zweden leaves Dallas, but he last played with the DSO in 2012, and his most notable feature is that his cousin is Monty Python member Eric Idle.

We’ll give these honorable mentions a combined 10 percent chance of snagging the top job.

The Likely Finalists
4. Jakub Hrusa. Youngish at 36 and an acknowledged rising international star, Hrusa’s visits with the Dallas Symphony have always been electrifying. He brings both invigorating performances of the standards and advocacy for overlooked classics he believes audiences need to hear. Gramophone magazine says Hrusa is “on the verge of greatness.”

But the gifted conductor is not returning in 2018–19. The DSO could be negotiating with him behind the scenes, but he is a busy man with ongoing commitments to orchestras in Germany, the Czech Republic, England and Japan. His primary job, music director of the Bamberg Symphony, lasts through 2021, and London’s Philharmonia quite clearly wants him next. Odds of joining the Dallas Symphony: 15 percent

3. James Gaffigan. This 38-year-old American trained at Texas’ own Rice University but has mostly worked in Europe, where he presides over Switzerland’s Lucerne Symphony until 2022. Gaffigan is another favorite of Morning News' Cantrell and is indeed respected by orchestras the world over for his skills and physical style on the podium. He’s big on new music by living composers, although he favors a more spartan, melody-averse style that might alienate a certain kind of DSO subscriber. The DSO is proudly promoting his return in April 2019.

There is a “but” with Gaffigan, and it is a big one. On CD, in concert broadcasts and in reports, the evidence suggests that he does not have an affinity for the beloved, ticket-selling composers of centuries past. We've heard that he prefers his Beethoven slow and stodgy. His Tchaikovsky album is passionless and his Dvorak lacks a basic sense of rhythm. If Gaffigan’s heart is with avant-garde music, the DSO board might balk. Odds of joining the Dallas Symphony: 30 percent

2. Karina Canellakis. If the DSO wants to take a risk on a younger conductor, the best candidate might just be a former symphony employee: Canellakis, who was the assistant conductor for two years earlier in the 2010s. Unforgettably, she filled in for an ill van Zweden in 2014 and delivered a truly spectacular performance of Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony. Her star is rising around the world, and she’s performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Vienna Symphony, BBC Symphony and Orchestre de Paris.

Canellakis has never been the full-time conductor anywhere. But everybody starts somewhere, and Dallas audiences have already heard her excel. They’ll get to hear her again in May 2019. Odds of joining the Dallas Symphony: 10 percent, but should be higher

1. Pablo Heras-Casado. Here we are: the dream candidate. Heras-Casado is just 40 years old. He is a native Spanish speaker, a valuable trait for orchestra outreach these days. (Houston, Fort Worth and Los Angeles all employ Spanish-speaking conductors.) His recordings have almost all been thrilling. The New York Times calls him “the thinking person’s idea of a hotshot young conductor.”

Better yet, he’s looking for a full-time gig. And best of all, Heras-Casado’s 2017 Dallas debut, an all-French program, showed the kind of insight, attention to detail and good old fun-loving excitement which has made him a favorite elsewhere. That weekend the DSO was at its very best.

Heras-Casado will be back in May 2019 with a crowd-pleasing program of the Brahms violin concerto and Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique. Let’s hope that date lands him a new job. Odds of joining the Dallas Symphony: 35 percent