Sean Paul Mills, the founder and longtime music director of the Willamette Valley Symphony, is gone as the orchestra begins its new season and launches a search for a new conductor.
But the organization remains in the experienced hands of its executive director, Jaclyn LaRue, for what amounts to a season of transition. And LaRue, who has played the oboe in the orchestra for years, will be a steady hand in the midst of that transition.
The orchestra opens its season this weekend with a pair of concerts at the Ashbrook Independent School in Corvallis. (See the information box with this story for details.)
"I see it as an opportunity for tremendous growth," said LaRue of the orchestra's first season without Mills, who left the mid-valley for a job at Ball State University in Indiana at the end of the last season.
The orchestra has named four finalists for the music director's position, and each finalist will get a chance this season to conduct the orchestra. (They will be performing works selected by Mills, who programmed the entire season before he left.) The applicants also will continue a tradition Mills started, of offering thoughts and reflections about the program before each performance.
The conductor for the weekend concerts is Andres Rodriguez, the associate conductor of the Eugene Symphony.
He has drawn a program that features a relatively well-known work (Dvorak's Symphony No. 1) but which also includes a pair of works that likely will not be as familiar to concertgoers: Enescu's Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 and Galliano's Opale for accordion and orchestra, featuring soloist Sergei Teleshev.
Mills, who conducted Dvorak's "New World" symphony during his final performances with the orchestra in June, wanted to expose audiences to an earlier side of Dvorak with his first symphony, LaRue said.
But LaRue said she was the one who lobbied to include the Romanian Rhapsody, which she called "absolutely a wonderfully fiery opener to the concert. ... It's energetic and easy to listen to. It makes people want to stand up and dance."
As for Galliano's Opale, it features hard-driving tangos in its first and third movements and what the composer called a "smoky midnight waltz" in the second. Teleshev will be performing the piece on a Bayan, a Russian button accordion and LaRue promised that concertgoers will be impressed with his performance. And, without giving too much away, fans of Bach's music will want to stay for Teleshev's encore.
This season also marks the first in which the orchestra will not perform one of the weekend concerts in Albany; First United Methodist Church in Albany had been the locale for the group's Saturday night concerts, but the orchestra simply outgrew the space. This season, both concerts will be held at the Ashbrook Independent School in Corvallis.
LaRue said the orchestra would love to return to Albany, if a suitable venue can be found. The orchestra's board is keeping a close eye on the renovation work at West Albany High School to see if the finished project offers a suitable site.
LaRue said the orchestra is doing well financially, with an annual budget of around $50,000 — and she noted that the budget has doubled over the past four years. And audiences have been steadily growing as well.
She noted that she won't have the final say on who gets hired as the orchestra's next music director — a search committee will make the final selection, but only after collecting plenty of input from the group's musicians and others. "The important thing to us is that the process is fair and equitable," she said.
But LaRue, who loves community orchestras in part because of the spirit they foster — the sense of many disparate parts coming together to create a unifying sound — has a pretty good idea of what she'll be looking for.
"I'm looking for someone who really understands that orchestra is a collaborative effort," she said.