The selection of Kayoko Dan as the new music director of the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera is notable in several respects. She is the first female to serve as CSO conductor. She also is the youngest person, at 33, to hold the position. Most importantly, her arrival comes at a critical time in the venerable organization’s storied history.
The CSO, like many similar organizations, is at a crossroads. Increasing financial pressures and a changing demographic have created problems for cultural organizations across the country. The Philadelphia Orchestra, for example, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last week. Other orchestras and arts groups in communities large and small have been forced to close or to play reduced schedules. There is no longer a guarantee, it seems, that culture groups can escape the pressures of the marketplace.
There certainly is no indication that the CSO is in danger of succumbing to those pressures. Indeed, the organization seems to be in sound, even enviable, condition.
Artistically, it enjoys a respected place in the city, surrounding region and the nation’s cultural community. The just concluded 19-year tenure of Robert Bernhardt as conductor clearly contributed to that level of acceptance. Additionally, the professional staff and volunteer boards and groups that operate and support the CSO have established a positive reputation for responsible stewardship. Still, the CSO cannot ignore the changing trends in the arts world. Doing so almost certainly would put the organization in peril.
If the CSO is to enjoy continued success, it must maintain and build on its hard-won reputation for musical excellence and expand its educational outreach. Dan, by training and by temperament, seems ideally suited to do both.
In her one appearance with the CSO, she won plaudits from the CSO musicians and the audience. “I think the thing that made her stand out ... was the warmth and sincerity in combination with a very easy style of conducting,” said Gordon James, principal bassoonist, who served on the selection committee. “We feel like under our new director we are going to be able to maintain the highest [standard of] excellence.”
That vote of confidence is vital to Dan’s tenure here. So is her acknowledgment that education and outreach — especially to youngsters — are important components of her job. “The children are the future audience and patrons. ... We have to make sure they are exposed to music and they come to concerts.”
Dan is determined to make those concerts and other symphony events attractive. She’s got welcome and innovative ideas about programming and guest artists. She’s determined that the orchestra will continue to “sound good” and that the CSO’s programs always will be “educational, enthusiastic, energetic and entertaining” so patrons are “excited about coming to concerts and they’re inspired.” That’s a formula that should be a boon to the CSO and the community.
Still, philosophy has to be translated into action. Dan’s guest appearance, her enthusiastic reception from musicians and the public, and her well-honed plan for the future provide a sound foundation for growth. The real test of Dan’s skill as a conductor, as an educator and as one of the foremost ambassadors of arts and music in the community will be measured by the kind of structure that she helps build atop that foundation in coming years.