Wednesday, May 01 2013 10:59 PM

A seismic shift at the symphony: Farrer leaving

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    By Shelby Mack / The Bakersfield Californian

    John Farrer leads the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra in a concert at Bright House Networks Ampitheatre in 2012.

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BY SUSAN SCAFFIDI Contributing writer

John Farrer, who has served the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra as conductor for nearly half the life of the venerable arts organization, will leave the podium after the 2013-14 season.

"I am not retiring," Farrer stressed in an interview with The Californian. "I will continue my professional life full bore."

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"First Look" Thursday

Join Californian contributor Susan Scaffidi for an interview with Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra conductor John Farrer Thursday at 9 a.m. and stick around throughout the hour for your complete rundown of entertainment/ arts events, brought to you by the Eye Street team. Go to bakersfield.com to watch the live stream.

Farrer -- who has received a financial package whose terms were not disclosed -- was careful in discussing his departure.

"You can say I'm stepping down."

It's unclear who ultimately made the decision about Farrer's future, but BSO board president Jim Bell said the issue of the conductor's departure wasn't a "new discussion," adding that the BSO board of directors had been negotiating with Farrer since June of last year.

But the scope of Farrer's job had already changed this season: In early March, Bryan Burrow assumed the title and duties of CEO and executive director, which had been part of Farrer's role for much of his 38-year tenure. Bell said Farrer's departure has nothing to do with performance issues or the state of the BSO organization, whose budget this year was in the neighborhood of $800,000, down from the organization's high of $1.2 million in 2006-07.

"It was about this time last year at an executive board meeting that one of the past presidents of the board -- I think it was Jon Stuebbe -- made a comment and said, 'You know, when I was president of the board, John said he had about another five years left or so,'" said Bell, who estimated that Farrer made that statement in 2008 or 2009.

The statement galvanized the board, according to Bell, who said the directors didn't want to be caught unprepared when Farrer decided to leave. Bell said negotiations with Farrer on the subject of his departure began in June and continued until September before an agreement was reached. The board left the timing of the announcement up to Farrer, who ultimately decided to make his departure date public in late April or early May.

"The first meeting was clearly different from the eighth and the ninth and the 10th meeting we had," Bell said. "We were that patient and that willing to make sure John was comfortable and we had it right."

"We just called it an employment agreement and it goes until 2017. So even though he won't be conducting after 2014-15, (Farrer) will still be conductor laureate."

Farrer also will hold the title of music director emeritus with the symphony and continue to hold his posts as conductor of the Santa Maria and Roswell symphonies while working to expand his conducting workshops in various cities around the world.

Board member Joe Drew praised Farrer during an interview Tuesday, saying the Bakersfield conductor enjoyed an international reputation.

"He's been the champion of keeping the symphony alive, and it's not been easy to have a business model that allows for a relaxed approach to him just doing music. He's always been involved in every aspect of the symphony, in all the fundraising activities."

The search is on

A search committee of 10 people, including board members, orchestra musicians and "at-large" community members, will sift through an anticipated 200 to 300 applications in their search for a new conductor, which has had only five in its 80-year history, Bell said.

"We are going to narrow it down to three people," he added.

The finalists will each conduct one concert in the first half of the 2014-15 season, with no decision yet as to what will happen during the rest of that season. Farrer said he will not have a role in the hiring process. What will this mean for the orchestra musicians?

Farrer and Bell both acknowledged that after nearly 40 years, Farrer has left his imprint on the BSO. It is not uncommon for a new conductor to want to clean house and recruit new musicians with whom to build his or her own ensemble.

"One of the major concerns with the current members of the symphony is the propensity of some conductors to go outside the community and bring people in they've worked with in the past, to hire people outside the community," Bell said.

"We really don't want to go there any more than we have to."

Operations manager and principal clarinetist Mary Moore, who has been with the symphony more than 50 years, said there are 134 musicians on the roster, though only 75 are active. Of those, 54 live in the Bakersfield area and many of the others who reside elsewhere are former residents.

"John always uses local players first," Moore said. "And we fill in with out-of-town players for instruments we don't have or to fill in a section."

A key requirement of the new conductor, Burrow said, is to generate enthusiasm for orchestral music and the BSO while expanding the orchestra's audience and reaching out to a younger demographic, including school-aged children.

Could that mean there will be a requirement for the next music director to alter the orchestra's repertoire to meet those growth goals?

"That's hard to tell at this point," Bell said. "My guess is it could, based on that person's background and the skill sets he or she brings to the table."

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