At Gisele Becker’s final concert as music director of Cantate Chamber Singers, she celebrated the end of her 25-year tenure in a unique way: conducting a piece side by side with music director-designate Victoria Gau. “I had requested a piece be written for my last concert that would be in part for two conductors,” said Becker. “Andrew Simpson, a very dear friend and our accompanist, wrote the piece to my husband Bert's poetry. Vicki and were doing it as a team, which I thought gave just the right impression that I'm completely in support of the future.” Added Gau, “It was a symbolic thing. And it let me start to become a familiar face in rehearsal and get to know the singers.”
The moment marked an artistic director transition two years in the making, where Gau took on a music director designate role for the entirety of Becker’s final season. Becker, Gau, and Cantate board chair Thad Garrett shared some thoughts behind their approach, and takeaways from the process.
How did the plan to overlap the transition by a year come about? Who was involved in the decision?
Gisele Becker (GB): I really didn't want to be over-involved. I thought that was important for me not to have any input. I gave Cantate two years notice—at the time, it seemed ridiculous, because it’s a very part-time job for a very small organization. But I thought in terms of where the organization was in their strategic planning, I wanted to make sure that there was room for the new director to have input on the next number of years.
Thad Garrett (TG): The first step was deciding what we as an organization wanted to do. To many people, Cantate was Gisele, and we spent the first year alone holding focus groups with singers, our advisory board, and donors on whether to continue. At the end of that year, the board felt we had enough singers and donors committed to stay on board that we voted to find a new music director.
Initially, we planned to start the search process so that we would be auditioning candidates during Gisele's final year, but we soon realized that was a big risk. We were going to be stretched very thin planning and preparing for Gisele's final concert and send-off celebration, and—the much more significant reason—we were afraid that if our search failed, we wouldn't have time for a second search. We wanted to give ourselves a cushion, in case we needed to do a second search or reconsider our decision to continue on.
What were the benefits of having a full year with the incoming and outgoing artistic director?
Victoria Gau: For me, it was fantastic. When I was in graduate school, one thing that I’ll never forget my professor saying is “We build our careers on the bones of our predecessors.” What usually happens is you step into a situation where the organization has basically no relationship with you and is very sad that this person that they love has left. And you have to kind of step in and make your mark.
With this setup, I was able to build a relationship with the Cantate organization, starting with major donors who I was introduced to by Gisele herself, who said, "This is the person who has been chosen, and I feel wonderful about this choice." We were able to present a sense of continuity and confidence from the outgoing music director. That's unique. I had access to board members and the chair, and I had access to Gisele! I started to do things like go to development committee meetings, and I was able to plan my own season, which was huge.
Over the course of the spring, Gisele began her gentle process of enabling people to let go of her. She would say things like, “Well, I don't think you really need me at this board meeting,” and she started to step back as I stepped in. It felt like a long build to my first rehearsal. I feel like we are starting already in relationship.
TG: It was after we made that decision to have an overlap year that we started realizing the potential benefits. Of course, one of the biggest ones is that it helped us communicate to our audiences and our donors that we weren't going anywhere. To stress that point, we held donor events with both Gisele and Victoria present as a warm transition. That was hugely successful.
It was also wonderful to give Vicki a year to ease into the group. We had a casual social event for the singers to meet her in August 2018 before we started rehearsals for Gisele's final season. We needed some ideas about her first season for grant applications—those are always due a year or more before the season begins. We did not have her start attending board meetings until January 2019 (about halfway through the transition year). It really allowed her to hit the ground running. I just can't imagine what this would have been like without that overlap—I think we would have lost many more singers and donors. We had our first rehearsal with Vicki, and it still feels like the choir I fell in love with! Challenging music and a strong sense of community.
What–if any–were the challenges of handling the process in this unique way? Anything you would do differently?
GB: The main challenges were personal ones in that you still have to be very involved, but you can't be too involved. Because the next season doesn't involve me. After 25 years, everybody turns to you for particular things. So there are times when my response was, “Well, don't ask me—I won’t be here.”
TG: Potentially, the biggest challenge for me would have been if Gisele and Vicki did not hit it off. One thing we did have to be mindful about was that the publicity for Vicki's selection never overshadow honoring Gisele's legacy, and vice versa. We came up with a timeline for the announcements and paid attention to the language we used. It all went very smoothly. Gisele's final concert and retirement party were a huge success, and it was wonderful to have Vicki be a part of it. It was a celebration of Gisele, but it was also a celebration of Cantate—all that we've accomplished and the exciting future that lies ahead.
We had also briefly considered inviting the finalists to conduct pieces in our concerts. We decided against that. I am very glad we made that choice. We held audition rehearsals with the finalists that were brief, but we definitely got what we needed. It also let Gisele achieve her wish which was to be completely removed from that process. She didn't want to influence our decision—intentionally or unintentionally—and I very much respected that.
Mike Rowan is associate director of communications at Chorus America.