ITHACA, N.Y.—The Cayuga Chamber Orchestra (CCO) is in the final stages of its search for a new music director.

The CCO was founded in 1976 with Karel Husa, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and conductor, serving as the orchestra’s first music director. Since then, the orchestra has been led by five music directors in its 47-year history. 

In spring 2022, Cornelia Laemmli Orth, the last conductor, resigned due to personal reasons, according to Sarah Chandler, managing director of the CCO. The orchestra had to find a replacement and wanted to avoid having to hire guest conductors to fill in while they searched for a replacement. 

The organization opted to secure an interim music director, Grant Cooper, to lead the orchestra during the transition period. Given his expertise, Cooper led the charge in designing the programming for the finalists.

Cooper has lived a life full of extensive musical experience, and at four years old, he performed his first opera. He studied piano and music theory before he earned his degree in pure mathematics from the University of Auckland in New Zealand. 

He served as director of orchestras at the Ithaca College School of Music from 1993-2003, and left to work as the music director of the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra, a position he held until he retired in 2017. Cooper served as acting director of orchestras at the Ithaca College School of Music from 2020-2023. 

“One of my main goals in designing the appearance of the finalists with the orchestra was creating a sense of equity — something I find is often not the case,” Cooper said. “Often there are significant programmatic differences and it can be difficult for the search committee to figure out [if challenges were] due to the relative difficulty of the music [versus the skill of the candidate].”

The Selection Process 

To ensure equity, each candidate was given a similar style program format, featuring a short standard orchestral work, Beethoven symphony and work featuring a soloist. 

The candidates did not know which pieces they would be directing until scheduling was completed. During the season, at each of the candidates’ respective performances, members of the orchestra and the audience will be given a form to fill out to assess the quality of the candidates and their performance. 

Once all the candidates perform, the search committee will convene to make its recommendation to the board. The selected candidate will be announced at the final performance of the season, “Passing the Baton,” on May 14, 2024. 

Cooper did not serve on the search committee and was not involved in the search in any way, other than choosing the repertoire for the finalists. 

The four finalists are Guillame Pirard, a visiting professor of violin at Ithaca College; Jeffery Meyer, professor of music at Indiana University; Michelle Di Russo, associate conductor of the North Carolina Symphony; and Octavio Mas-Acrocas, director of Orchestras and professor of orchestral conducting at Michigan State University. 

The four finalists for conductor of the Cayuga Chamber Orchestra.

All the candidates are connected to Ithaca in some way, either serving as faculty at either Ithaca College or Cornell University, something Chandler emphasized in an interview was not intentional.The biographies to the candidates are listed on the CCO website

The committee did not initially focus their search on selecting candidates who have previously worked in the Ithaca area, but musicians in the orchestra were able to nominate up to two candidates they thought would be successful in the role. 

“It’s such a privilege to get to be inside the process and get to know all these amazing people,” Chandler said. “There were certainly many more that were amazing. It was so hard to decide, but they’re all creative, thoughtful, talented people and they all happen to have connections to Ithaca.”

Responsibilities of the music director exceed conducting the orchestra. The candidate will also be responsible for evaluating auditions, engaging the community and leading fundraising efforts, among other responsibilities. 

The responsibility of community engagement is especially relevant today, according to Cooper. He said that in order to be successful, orchestras must adapt to their audience’s programming, a responsibility held by the music director. 

“The public is not clamoring for the latest thing [in classical music] as they were in Mozart’s day,” Cooper said. 

In recent years, orchestras across the country have shut their doors, including legendary orchestras like the San Antonio Symphony, which before they closed in 2022, had performed for nearly a century. 

Those closings were accelerated due to the COVID-19 pandemic and these effects extended to higher education institutions, like in the case of  the former Ithaca College School of Music, which is now the Center for Music at the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance. 

The school discontinued its graduate programs in music after receiving feedback that it was not contributing significantly to the college’s financial margin. The decision made by a school initially founded as a music conservatory, led to controversy and highlighted the significant challenges classical music organizations and associated academic programs face in 2023. 

The CCO, however, has been able to survive, something Margot Schoeps, vice president on the board of directors of the CCO, said they owe to community support helping them navigate the difficult circumstances.

“We danced with all the closed environments, all the regulations and we were able to keep [performing] alive, so that when we went back to performing with a live audience, unlike many orchestras, our audience wasn’t decimated,” Schoeps said. “We were able to have a really financially successful year [coming back from COVID].”

The CCO made adjustments during COVID that contributed to their ability to survive, such as streaming socially distanced performances and implementing other pandemic-safe protocols. The downside to the adjustments is the high and unanticipated costs associated with implementing them to keep patrons safe.  

Midway through last season, the orchestra stopped live-streaming performances — a decision that Cooper said emphasizes the difficulties orchestras and arts organizations face in terms of reaching their audience in a financially sustainable manner.

“[In terms of streaming], you’re finding yourself as a musical organization asking one of those bottom-line business questions,” Cooper said. “If it’s not turning a profit, it’s a loss. Is the loss something we can either sustain, or even care to sustain?”

The new music director will also allow the orchestra to continue its recovery from the struggles of the pandemic. Without a permanent music director, the orchestra hasn’t been able to hold auditions for principal players, an increasingly pressing need since nearly half the positions in the orchestra are currently held via substitute or interim performers, which has created issues for continuity. 

Cooper said he believes if the orchestra stays true to its mission of music: speaking through sounds, often without any words, it’ll see great success. 

“The great joy of being a musician is that you get to see, in some ways, the very best of people by appealing to their musical instincts,” Cooper said. 

Correction: Sarah Chandler is the managing director of the CCO. She was initially identified as Sarah Chaney. Also, Cornelia Laemmli Orth left in the spring of 2022, not the spring of 2023. This article has been updated to reflect these corrections.