Paladin of Purgatory
Semanitzky turns over his hat of musical tricks


by Judith Reynolds

The man in the black, 10-gallon hat never carries a gun. Instead, Mischa Semanitzky, with his shock of white hair, white pants, white shirt and bolo tie, waves a white stick.

Semanitzky knows a weapon when he sees one. He’s been waving that white stick for most of his seven decades, the last 21 years as founder, artistic director and conductor of Music in the Mountains. Semanitzky will conduct the first and final concerts in this season’s festival. Then he will transition into emeritus status as conductor laureate.

“My contract actually goes to 2010,” Semanitzky said in an interview last week. “That was the original intent. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to make the transition this year.”

Greg Hustis will take over as artistic director. Hustis has been chamber music director and festival artistic advisor for the last 11 years. Principal French hornist with the Dallas Symphony, Hustis has an impressive list of associations with a number of professional groups and is a long-standing member of the Festival Orchestra.

“Actually,” Semanitzky said, “Greg has been doing 75 percent of my job already. He’s in close touch with the musicians and with Arkady (Fomin, director of the Conservatory), so I know the festival is in good hands.”

Oddly enough, Semanitzky said he won’t participate in the selection of the new principal conductor. The Festival Board, a selection committee headed by Florence (“Foxie”) Mason, the musicians, and presumably the public will have input. But Semanitzky said he’s chosen not to be part in finding his conductorial successor.

“I’m purposefully not going to be involved at all,” he said. “It all depends on the Board and the Search Committee. Greg and I picked the people to come in as guest conductors, but the rest is up to someone else.”

That doesn’t mean Semanitzky lacks an opinion. When asked what qualities he hopes his successor will have, Semanitzky didn’t hesitate: “A builder, a proven builder. Thousands of musicians have conducting skills, but we need someone who also has the ability to build an organization in a community.”

Four of the seven conductors under consideration will be here this summer: Peter Bay, music director and conductor of the Austin Symphony and music director of Oregon’s Britt Music Festival (July 22); Guillermo Figueroa, music director and conductor of the New Mexico Symphony and the Puerto Rico Symphony (July 27); Arthur Post, music director and conductor of the San Juan Symphony (July 29); and Leif Bjaland, artistic director and conductor of the Florida West Coast Symphony and the Waterbury Symphony Orchestra (Aug. 3). Three other candidates have been guest conductors and are also under consideration: Boris Brott, music director and conductor of several Canadian orchestras; Bruce Hangen, music director and conductor of the Indian Hill Symphony in Massachusetts; and Joel Revzen, general and artistic director of Arizona Opera.

“Everyone who is coming this summer or has been here previously has that double mantle,” Semanitzky said, “an experienced conductor and builder. And they are all good guys, too. Personable. Greg deals most closely with the musicians, and they will fill in their own forms. By September, the Selection Committee will make an announcement. It’s a lot like herding cats, but it will get done.”

Semanitzky began conducting at age 10, he said, when his father put him in front of a church choir.

“My father was a Russian Orthodox priest,” he said. “We moved a lot during my upbringing, and my father fixed a lot of parishes. I learned about the importance of community building from him. I also started violin when I was 5 years old, and at 10 he put me in front of the choir with a tuning fork and told me to conduct. In a way, my father started me on all the phases of my musical career.”

Since 2007 will be his last season as festival chief, Semanitzky said he chose the repertoire for his two concerts with an eye to summing up his career here.

“In the first (Sat., July 21), I’ll open with Weber’s ‘Euryanthe Overture,’ then we’ll play Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony. People don’t expect Beethoven to be fun or ‘ha-ha’ music. He had a tough life, but on his even-numbered symphonies, two, four, six and eight, he lightened up. The Eighth in particular had fun from beginning to end. I’m hoping to show that to the audience.”

Semanitzky’s final conducting gig will take place Sun., Aug. 5, the last concert of the season – an all-Tchaikovsky program reflecting his Russian heritage, he said, and his legacy for Music in the Mountains.

“It’s unusual, but we’ll open with the ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ from ‘The Nutcracker.’ It represents a great part of my professional life. I’ve conducted ballet all over the world, so it’s fitting. Then we’ll welcome Jesus Castro-Balbi, a wonderful cellist, to play Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations. From the beginning I’ve wanted to identify and present young talent to our audience, and Castro-Balbi is a good representative of this effort.

“Finally, we’ll play Tchaikovsky’s Sixth. In the last two seasons I’ve done the Fourth and the Fifth, so this is the last of a trio. The Sixth, that’s my baby. That’s for me.”

And the hat? Semanitzky said he wears it about town as his signature. For a time, he enjoyed the nickname “Sundance Semanitzky.” Somehow, Paladin, the troubleshooter, suits him better. •