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ST. PETERSBURG - Stefan Sanderling has been in charge of the Florida Orchestra less than a year. So when he was listed as a candidate to lead the Omaha, Neb., symphony, he knew it was time for damage control.
During a rehearsal Wednesday, he told his Florida musicians "that being a candidate or not being a candidate doesn't change anything in my commitment to the Florida Orchestra."
"Being a candidate doesn't mean that I will be offered a job or that I am willing to take a job," he said.
Sanderling, in the first year of a five-year contract as music director, also reassured board members of his loyalty. But he acknowledged that the issue could come up again. The Kansas City Star recently mentioned him as a candidate for the vacant music directorship of the Kansas City Symphony, where he is booked as a guest conductor this season and next.
"If you guest (conduct) somewhere and they're looking for a music director, you're automatically a candidate," he said.
Sanderling was a guest conductor in Omaha in February, and the program went well. "They liked it, maybe a bit more than average," he said. "Their interpretation of a candidate and my interpretation might not be necessarily the same thing. But am I in the running for music director? Everyone who guest conducts there is, so how can I not be?"
The Florida Orchestra's shaky financial situation is fueling the speculation. Even though the orchestra slashed musicians' pay at the beginning of the season to make a balanced budget, it still could face a deficit. A promised endowment campaign has yet to be announced.
Sanderling put an optimistic spin on the problems Wednesday, saying that season ticket renewals for next season were almost $100,000 ahead of where they were at the same time a year ago.
"I know that this thing, the Florida Orchestra, can work," he said. "There is enough money in the community. I'm absolutely convinced about it. If I did not believe that, I would probably go to someplace like Omaha. But I believe there are possibilities here."
The Florida Orchestra's financial predicament is part of the reason principal flutist Demarre McGill is choosing to leave next season, having won the audition for principal flute of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra. Sanderling has scheduled auditions to find his replacement.
"It will be difficult to replace Demarre. He's a great player," he said.
On the positive side, Sanderling said principal trumpet Robert Smith has been persuaded to stay on for next season. "Rob Smith was very serious about maybe doing other things. But he decided to stay," Sanderling said. "Sometimes it's not only about money; it's about hope."
Sanderling put the responsibility for stabilizing the orchestra on the board. "I think the musicians are doing their part. They play beautifully, and ticket sales are up," he said. "They just want to know where do we go from here? How is the board going to solve this problem? The musicians are waiting for an answer."
Halfway through his first season in Florida, the music director seemed pleased with his decision to buy a house in St. Petersburg. He said he and his wife, Isabelle, a cellist with the Florida West Coast Symphony in Sarasota, plan to spend a lot of the summer there, rather than in his native Germany. He has ended his longtime music directorship of the orchestra in Rennes, France.
Sanderling expressed some impatience with the orchestra's management style.
"Sometimes I have the feeling we need to be faster in decisionmaking," he said. "We need to come up with an idea and do it."
He cited Michael Tilson Thomas, or "MTT," music director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, widely regarded as the most innovative U.S. orchestra these days.
"The secret of MTT is not that all his ideas are working; by far, not everything is working. But they do it right away, and sometimes it's a big success," Sanderling said.
However, the Florida Orchestra operates on too tight a margin to be spontaneous. "What I'm happy about is that we're slowly moving to a little more adventurous programming," Sanderling said. "But we cannot afford experiments, cannot afford an unsold concert. We need every single dollar."