Small Orchestra’s Big Effort Wins Right Conductor

Serbian-born Vladimir Kulenovic,  34, associate conductor of the Utah Symphony, begins his first season as music director of the Lake Forest Symphony.
Vladimir Kulenovic, 34, emerged from a field of 150 candidates to become music director of the Lake Forest Symphony.

By Dorothy Andries

LAKE FOREST, Ill. – How does a regional orchestra find a new music director? That was the challenge facing the  57-year-old Lake Forest Symphony, located in this wealthy suburb 32 miles north of Chicago on the shore of Lake Michigan.

The search began in 2013 when then-current music director Alan Heatherington, who had held that post since 2000, announced he would resign at  the end of the 2012-13 season.

The only professional orchestra in Lake County, which runs north to the Illinois-Wisconsin border, the Lake Forest Symphony plays five pairs of subscription concerts between September and May, on Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons.

The orchestra is filled with A-list Chicago area freelance musicians. Some have subbed with the Chicago Symphony. Many play regularly with the Chicago Philharmonic, the Joffrey Ballet Orchestra, the Chicago Sinfonietta or the Grant Park Orchestra, which gives outdoor concerts during the summer at Chicago’s Millennium Park. When ads were placed with the League of American Orchestras, the Conductor’s Guild, and the Illinois Council of Orchestras, 150 conductors applied.

After a painstaking process, five young men were selected to conduct one pair of subscription concerts each in the 2013-14 season. Just days after the final concert in mid-May, Chicago’s classical radio station WFMT (98.7FM) announced that the choice was Serbian-born Vladimir Kulenovic, 34, associate conductor of the Utah Symphony and resident conductor of the Belgrade Philharmonic. [The above video shows him in action at the Verbier Festival.]

Kulenovic had come to the United States with his family when he was 12, studied at the Boston Conservatory and the Peabody Institute, and then earned his master’s degree at the Juilliard School.

The winning candidate conducted Lake Forest’s September 2013 concert, which included an incandescent performance of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. “The rule is to try not to be the first candidate in a competition because you might be forgotten,” said consultant Henry Fogel, president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1985 to 2003, “but that didn’t happen in this case.”

When Fogel retired in 2006 after three years as president of the League of American Orchestras, he traveled the country consulting with community and professional orchestras. Susan Lape, executive director of the Lake Forest Symphony, asked Fogel for some guidance.

“I was very impressed by the way the orchestra was going about its search,” Fogel said, “especially the selection committee and its seriousness of purpose.” The Lake Forest Symphony search committee had 10 members: three musicians chosen by their peers, three symphony board members, and three community leaders, plus Lape with Fogel as facilitator.

Sifting to five finalists

Russell Ger, Andres Franco, Stilian Kirov, Jacomo Rafael Bairos
Russell Ger,
Andrés Franco,
Stilian Kirov,
Jacomo Rafael Bairos

Each committee member looked at every one of the 150 applications, winnowing the number to 45. Applicants were asked to send conducting videos, and the committee divided into subgroups to watch them. The number dropped to 20, and finally to ten semi-finalists. A Skype interview was held with each one, and five finalists were chosen to conduct in the 2013-14 season.

The candidates came from many countries: Kulenovic from Serbia, Russell Ger from Australia, Andrés Franco from Colombia, Stilian Kirov from Bulgaria, and Jacomo Rafael Bairos, a Portuguese-American. They were invited to select one 15- to 20-minute work that would fit comfortably with the previously announced concert programs chosen by the artistic committee.

But they were being judged on more than their music-making. In addition to rehearsing for the upcoming concerts, the candidates had tea with the women of the Lake Forest Symphony Guild, attended dinners with donors, and went to pre-concert lectures and post-concert receptions. “The conductor is the face of the orchestra,” Fogel observed. “Social skills are important. He needs to be able to work the room.”

After each concert, musicians and audience members were asked to fill out evaluation forms. These were added to the mountain of feedback committee members were processing.

While not locked in like a papal conclave, members of the selection committee did sit down right after the final concert with the aim of choosing the winner. Fogel recalls one of the musician members remarking that because of the high quality of the candidates: “We cannot make a bad decision.”

Each was asked to write down the candidates’ names in order of preference. “Right away one was everyone’s fifth choice, so he was eliminated,” Fogel said. The process was repeated several times until two candidates remained. Finally, Kulenovic was declared the winner.

Spotlight on the process

This singular season had another highlight. For the first time in the history of the Lake Forest Symphony, a reporter with a microphone was in the lobby collecting impressions of the maestro from audience members as they left the concert hall. It was the result of a meeting between Steve Robinson, executive vice president for radio at WFMT, and Lake Forest Symphony board president Jay Owen.

WFMT The SearchWhen Robinson learned of the symphony’s efforts to find a music director, he was immediately interested. “I was amazed at the way they were going about this,” he said. “With all the gloom and doom one hears about the state of American orchestras, here was a little orchestra going about this search in an extremely dedicated fashion, and I thought the story not only deserved to be told on WFMT, but that the rest of the country should hear about it, as well.”

WFMT produced a short radio feature about each of the five finalists. And each of the resultant five features, in addition to giving a portrait of the conductor, highlighted a different aspect of the search.

Wandering minstrels

Meanwhile, the Lake Forest Symphony is grappling with a problem that has nothing to do with conductors, musicians or audience members. Since the late 1960s, the orchestra had played in the Drake Theatre of Barat College, a four-year women’s college operated by the Society of the Sacred Heart in Lake Forest. But the college was closed in 2005 and other venues were tried.

James Lumber Center for the Performing Arts
Lake County’s James Lumber Center for the Performing Arts.

The ensemble now performs in the James Lumber Center for the Performing Arts on the Grayslake campus of the College of Lake County. The acoustics far exceed those in the Drake Theatre, but the location is about 15 miles west and north of the city of Lake Forest. For at least a decade the construction of a performance facility at one of the many educational institutions in Lake Forest has been discussed, but nothing has materialized. There is no doubt that residents of this city on Lake Michigan, with its high-income demographics, would be able to fund such a project. This distinct lack of civic support appears in high contrast to the enthusiasm that the search for a new music director engendered.

Old Lake Forest money, however, has been significantly associated with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since its earliest days. About five percent of the current Chicago Symphony board members live in Lake Forest. The Armour Stage in Chicago Symphony Center’s Orchestra Hall was named for generous donors in that meat-packing family, many of whom built estates in Lake Forest.

Seeds and flowering

The Lake Forest Symphony has a rich and varied, if sometimes bumpy,  history. It began as a chamber ensemble that attracted devoted amateurs, professional music teachers and a few paid first chairs. Its profile was raised in the fall of 1967 when Chicago Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Victor Aitay became music director of Lake Forest’s 60-member ensemble.

Violinist Victor Aitay led the ensemble in early years.
Violinist Victor Aitay lent his clout to the ensemble in its early years.

Thanks to Aitay’s years with conductor Fritz Reiner, first with the Metropolitan Opera and later with the Chicago Symphony, and also his student days at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, he was able to bring world-class soloists to play with the Lake Forest Symphony. Among them were his fellow Hungarian, world-renowned cellist János Starker, pianist Leonard Pennario, and CSO colleagues such as principal trumpet Adolph Herseth and principal French horn Dale Clevenger.

In the early 1980s an effort began to transform the Lake Forest Symphony into a fully professional orchestra, and by 1988 the transition was complete. It was a bitter change for the amateur players; in 1989 they formed the North Suburban Symphony, now called the Lake Forest Civic Orchestra.

Kulenovic’s immediate predecessor Heatherington, who had been concertmaster during some of the Aitay years, was hired in 2000 without a search. Well known in the Chicago area, he founded the professional ensemble Ars Viva, now in its 19th season, with players, current and former, from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He was and remains music director of the Chicago Master Singers, a 150-voice volunteer ensemble.

The Illinois Council of Orchestras has honored both Heatherington and the Lake Forest Symphony numerous times. It was Illinois Orchestra of the year in 2006, Heatherington was named Illinois Conductor of the Year in 2008 and 2012, and Susan Lape was honored as Executive Director of the Year in 2014.

Charisma and promise

 Vladimir Kulenovic, raring to go.
Kulenovic, raring to go, will offer Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.

With regard to the newest music director, search committee member Joanna Rolek emphasized the importance of audience engagement  for the orchestra’s long-term health. “In this day and age we can listen to all the great classical masterpieces whenever we want, wherever we want,” she said. “So the experience of seeing and hearing great music being made must be so compelling that the audience is glad to be there and wants to come back again.  I think our new music director has the ability to do that, and I am looking forward to his first season.”

Kulenovic will open the Lake Forest Symphony’s 2014­-15 season at gala concerts Sept. 6-7. The program includes Haydn’s Symphony No. 1, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Fantasy on Serbian Themes, Glazunov’s Violin Concerto with soloist Stefan Milenkovich, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. For additional information, visit

Dorothy Andries is a Chicago-area entertainment journalist and classical music critic, writing for the Sun-Times Media Group and various magazines. For several decades she was entertainment editor for Pioneer Press, a community weekly on the North Shore of Chicago.