THE KIDS UNLOAD from school buses outside Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis like thirty-second notes, tiny bundles of energy tripping over themselves in excitement. As they stream into the hall for a concert, some stop to marvel at the several-story likeness of Minnesota Orchestra music director Osmo Vänskä pasted to the side of the building, his silver hair, wire glasses, and twinkly eyes resembling, in their minds perhaps, the Wizard of Oz. But they will not be seeing the Wizard today.
Inside the hall, the conductor striding to the podium is well over six feet tall, with shaggy brown hair and a youthful half-smile that could be mistaken for a smirk. The music begins with a jolt, and as the children bounce in their seats, the man with the baton bops along with them. This is Mischa Santora, associate conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra, and perhaps the most talented local conductor you’ve never heard of. He has been hailed by the New York Times for his “spacious, resonant, and accomplished” performances. But to these kids, he might as well be a babysitter.
If it appears that Santora gets the conducting gigs that Vänskä, one of the most celebrated conductors working today, is too busy preparing marquee Mozart performances to lead himself, well, it’s true. In addition to helping rehearse the orchestra, Santora leads some of the children’s concerts, Pops performances, and Casual Classics (in which the musicians trade their tuxedos for sweaters). The most important duty of an associate conductor is to step in, as the so-called cover conductor, should the music director fall off the stage or otherwise become unavailable. Which almost never happens.
But Santora is no simple shadow. Here in Minneapolis he works in the glare of Vänskä’s celebrity, but put him in front of the Louisville Orchestra, or the Houston Symphony, or even the National Symphony in Washington, D.C.—all of which he has recently guest-conducted—and he becomes the star. In fact, he has led the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra as its music director for six seasons now—that is, since he was 28 years old. Even today, as he performs for children, he is making an impression on the future of classical music; at any given time during the concert, dozens of kids are waving their arms in imitation of him.
THERE ARE APPROXIMATELY 350 professional symphony orchestras in the United States, with, in general, two main conductors on staff: a music director and an associate conductor. (Large ensembles, including the Minnesota Orchestra, sometimes also employ assistant conductors, who play smaller roles.) Many orchestras get by with fewer staff conductors, and many conductors serve more than one orchestra at a time, traveling the world to tend their musical flocks like itinerant preachers. NASA currently employs about a hundred astronauts; your odds of becoming Osmo Vänskä, a music director with a major American orchestra, are only slightly better than your chances of becoming a space cadet.
Santora didn’t grow up dreaming of podiums. Born in the Netherlands to Hungarian parents, Santora moved with his family to Switzerland at age 2. He was a quick study on the violin (his father, a violinist with the Lucerne Symphony, was his first teacher) and eventually came to Philadelphia to further his training at one of the world’s most exclusive conservatories, the Curtis Institute of Music. At 21, however, he turned to conducting. Why? Do conductors, like bassists in rock bands, get all the girls? “Shh, don’t tell anyone,” he jokes. But the truth is less sexy. An injury to Santora’s hand left him unable to play the violin; conducting was a way to stay involved in classical music. He’s happy with the way things have turned out, but still: “You don’t set out to be a conductor.”
The career path of a conductor is rarely linear, more “Flight of the Bumblebee” than Bach toccata. There have been several instances, well-known within baton-wielding circles, of staff conductors succeeding their bosses—Leonard Slatkin, considered one of the finest contemporary conductors, became assistant, then associate, and finally music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in the 1970s. But this is uncommon. Rarer still is a story like that of Zubin Mehta, perhaps the most famous living conductor, who had only a few years of conducting experience when he guest-conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1962 and made such an impression that he was named co-director of the celebrated orchestra within the year. The lead conductor, apparently not consulted about the appointment, resigned in fury. Mehta, at 26, became the youngest director of a major American orchestra.
Most conductors audition wherever opportunities become available, and it was just such an opening that brought Santora to Minnesota in 2003. After graduating from Curtis, he led the New York Youth Symphony for five years, a respectable gig that led to his assumption of the reins in Cincinnati. But the associate position in Minneapolis has already brought him greater notice. And any young conductor would jump at the chance to study Vänskä in person. “I couldn’t think of a more ideal situation,” Santora says. In Europe, where Vänskä made his reputation, cover conductors are rare; only American orchestras, the Finn says, are so concerned about losing a night’s box-office income that they hire the equivalent of understudies. But Vänskä has come to prefer the American system. He has a backup, yes, but he also has an extra pair of ears at performances, listening for ways in which the orchestra could improve. “It’s some kind of old style,” he says in his strong Finnish accent, “like master and—how is it in English?—apprentice.”
Indeed, Santora’s predecessors in Minnesota now lead their own acclaimed orchestras. Bill Eddins, an associate conductor during the mid-1990s, is music director of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and principal guest conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland. Giancarlo Guerrero, whose departure made room for Santora to step in, directs the Eugene Symphony in Oregon. “The Minnesota Orchestra will always have a very special place in my heart…. I owe them my career,” says Guerrero, who was conducting in Venezuela when he saw an ad for an assistant conductor position in Minnesota. He sent in a videotape of himself conducting, was tapped for the job, and was promoted in short order. As associate conductor, he says, he learned more not only about music, but also about administration—the marketing and development that ensure a conductor has both a podium and an audience. After five years in Minnesota, Guerrero had the tools to run his own show. “In a sense,” he says, “I had earned enough credits to graduate.”
Santora, too, seems positioned to matriculate to stardom. He has the musical chops, certainly, but he also has something increasingly important to the marketing of arts organizations: charisma. Media accounts of his concerts often mention his striking 6-foot-5-inch stature and thick mane of hair, and the Cincinnati Post, in cheeky reference to his employability, called him “one of the world’s most eligible young conductors.” Recently, Santora and his brother purchased a vineyard and wine press in Hungary, thus embarking on the kind of refined hobby that makes orchestra patrons swoon in their seats. Santora wishes music reviewers would focus on his conducting, but he understands the importance of personality in building strong audience relations. “I’m a spokesperson for classical music,” he says.
So far, Santora has kept a low profile in Minnesota. Earlier this year, he signed some 20 autographs for patrons crowded around the orchestra’s stage door. But as it turns out, most were actually waiting for the orchestra’s musical guest that night, Eartha Kitt, the famously saucy singer who played Catwoman in the 1960s Batman TV series. Still, Santora’s appeal is such that Kitt herself flirted outrageously with him throughout her performance. She may be about five decades older than Santora, but he didn’t mind the attention. “How many times do I get purred at onstage?” he asks.
AT A CASUAL CLASSICS concert in late winter, Santora is dressed in a tan turtleneck sweater and black slacks, in keeping with the evening’s relaxed vibe. But his conducting of the all-Brahms performance is hardly nonchalant; he lays into the music with such gusto that his hair becomes disheveled and his undershirt sticks out beneath his sweater. Before leading each selection, he addresses the audience, illuminating the composer’s methods and not letting a little mispronunciation of “potpourri” get in the way of his enthusiasm for the music. He sings a few notes, explains “Brahmsian syntax” in a Transylvania-tinged accent, and, in short, demonstrates how all those “non-musical things,” as he puts it—congeniality, character, and yes, even sex appeal—enrich the concert experience.
After the final Brahms selection of the night, Santora pulls a chair to the edge of the stage, crosses his legs, and settles in for a question-and-answer session with the audience. Cordless mike in hand, he banters with the finesse of a standup comic, holding court with some 50 patrons. Clearly, he is in his element; where he will be five years from now, though, is far less certain.
Santora is contracted with the Minnesota Orchestra through next season. He is also in the running, along with Guerrero and five other conductors, for the post of music director with the Louisville Orchestra. He may not be rock-star famous yet, but he is leading a jet-set lifestyle—his guest conducting schedule this season has taken him to Miami, Boston, and Australia, among other locales. And someday soon, there may even be an image of his face, many times larger than life, pasted on the side of a performance hall.
Tim Gihring is senior writer for Minnesota Monthly.