Rhode Island Philharmonic: Let the contest begin

If you’re a lover of mystery and competition, this is your season to keep an eye on the Rhode Island Philharmonic. Eight different conductors—only some of whom are candidates—will guest on the Philharmonic podium this season, auditioning for the permanent position as music director of the Phil.

Following last year’s retirement of the exceedingly popular Larry Rachleff, after 21 years, it won’t be an easy choice. But it should be lots of fun for symphony watchers and music lovers—eight different conductors, all bringing their A game.

James Sommerville will be the first. The principal horn of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and long-term (2007-15) conductor of the Hamilton (Ont.) Philharmonic Orchestra, Sommerville leads the opening night program on Sept. 16. Repertory includes Jennifer Higdon’s “blue cathedral,” Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto (Simone Porter, soloist), and Sibelius’s Second Symphony.

Sommerville’s program is representative of the entire season: in an effort to make a strong, positive impact, each of the conductors has programmed works that are unusual, virtuosic and potential crowd-pleasers. 

Eckart Preu follows suit in the Oct. 14 performance, conducting Miguel del Aguila’s “Conga-Line in Hell” (gotta love that title), Mozart’s elegant D minor piano concerto (No. 20, with Alon Goldstein as soloist), and the Saint-Saëns Organ symphony. 

On Nov. 18 conductor Bramwell Tovey returns to the Phil with soloist Inon Barnatan, performing a bracing program featuring Brahms’s first piano concerto, Berlioz’s “Le Corsaire” overture, and Elgar’s atmospheric “Enigma Variations.” 

Each of the conductors also gets a second chance to impress: Preu leads a Friday Rush Hour series repeat of the Saint-Saëns symphony (Nov. 13), and Sommerville (Sept. 15) and Tovey (Nov. 17) lead open rehearsals of their programs (www.ri-philharmonic.org; 410 248-7000). 

Ken-David Masur (Jan. 20), Michael Christie (Feb. 17), Victor Yampolsky (March 17), Jacomo Bairos (Apr. 7), and Edwin Outwater (May 5) will also guest after the first of the year. The Philharmonic’s executive director David Beauchesne notes that not all of the guests are actual candidates for the permanent job—“this is not a beauty contest,” he’s said, “we need to find the right chemistry”—but that won’t stop the speculation.