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July 30, 2009

Mario Venzago out as music director of Indianapolis Symphony

Mario Venzago, remembered fondly in our town for his dynamic performances with the Baltimore Symphony over the years, is departing, rather suddenly, from his post as music director of the Indianapolis Symphony. Not sure what the back-story is, but here's the release, hot off the e-mail:

The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra announced today that it will not be renewing its contract with Music Director Mario Venzago. The contract ends on Aug. 31, 2009. The search for a new Music Director will begin immediately and Venzago’s concerts in the Lilly Classical Series for the 2009-2010 season will be filled by other conductors.

Since joining the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in 2002, Mario Venzago has expanded the orchestra’s repertoire and broadened the range of styles to include large romantic works and contemporary pieces. In his seven seasons, he has received critical acclaim for his interpretations of Schumann, Brahms and Beethoven symphonies; collaborations with local performance groups such as the Indianapolis Opera and Indianapolis Symphonic Choir; and presentations of world premiere commissions such as composer Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto in February of this year.

“Mario has brought tremendous artistic success to the ISO during the past seven years,” said Simon Crookall, President and CEO of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. “His partnership with the orchestra and his enthusiasm on the podium has delighted and entertained audiences. We are thankful to Mario for giving us many great memories, especially this season’s extraordinary production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold with the Indianapolis Opera.”

Maestro Venzago has been invited to return to Indianapolis to conduct a final concert in the 2009-2010 season. When details are confirmed, an announcement will be made.


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:08 PM | | Comments (8)


Needless to say, I'm grateful that you posted this, because I would have been _shocked_ to hear it from an ISO mailing -- I can only guess that the reason is either financial or artistic (perhaps his own dissatisfaction with some of the players and/or programming, maybe? -- though that sucks, because their concertmaster is young and _fantastic_!). Additionally, I would rate Mario as a true "Maestro," and he is _very_ deserving of a _high_ salary level -- possibly too high for a still-second-tier American orchestra.

(On a hunch, I checked the Göteborgs Symfoniker website -- no answer, but go here and take a look:

What _are_ those crazy Swedes smoking now?)

Personally, I also feel that Crookall (what an unfortunate name!) is not the best man for his job -- at the concerts I attended, he struck me as more of a used-car salesman than an orchestra president. I have a bad feeling about him...

It will interesting to see what info starts leaking out. TIM

Jay Harvey has a full article from the Indianapolis Star here. From reading it, even just by knowing that Venzago got word via e-mail, the break was obviously nasty. Some of the comments to the article can be a bit harsh too from readers, but at least it's getting attention in Indy.

I've never seen Venzago conduct, so I'm not able to comment on his quality as a conductor. However, since Gothenburg was mentioned, it's curious that he only lasted in that post 3 years, compared to 22 for his predecessor, Neeme Jarvi. Of course, Gothenburg now has Gustavo Dudamel as principal conductor (though for how long, who knows).

Thanks for this. I've been distracted all morning and forgot to snoop around. TIM

The ISO is a tier one orchestra as defined by the way all american symphonies are ranked in the business sense. Venzago is one of the lowest paid music directors of orchestras that size.

And I wouldn't be surprised if money were the major bone of contention. I don't buy that 'he's not in the community enough' argument, which has been raised in this case, as it so often is in other places. Music directors are supposed to make music, not make friends in the local grocery stores. Seems like Mario made some very impressive music in Ind. (as he did as a guest in Baltimore).TIM

Go to and check out the 8/1 article where Mario's North American agent says Crookall & Co. wanted Mario to take a 50% pay cut this coming season, and then pay him on a per-performance basis the following season. No wonder he bolted! (His salary from '06/'07 was just short of $400K -- I'm presuming _before_ taxes, which would whittle that figure greatly, correct? Even still, for an orchestra's music director, that's a paltry sum when the likes of Maazel and Levine are making millions with more talented orchestras in well-established institutions.)

It's always money. And, more often than not, it's the artistic side that loses out. TIM

The link to the Saturday article by Jay Harvey that DH alluded to is here. I would advise reading some of the comments, particularly the hostile ones, because to most "ordinary folks", the idea of anyone who doesn't live full time in their city (who isn't in sports) making $400K deeply offends them, especially in the context of a debilitating economy. They're not going to consider context, and they've never heard of James Levine or Lorin Maazel. They just see the money figure, and that's what sets them off. It may not be fully rational, but it's reality.

Thanks for the link -- and the observation on the responses. TIM

As an Indianapolis resident, I was offended from the beginning by Mr. Venzago's thinly disguised contempt for our city, and you should also know that along the way, he made indiscreet comments about David Zinman in NUVO, one of Indy's news publications. More recently, the departing maestro referred in print to Indy as a "boring" city. You can't induce the curious to visit your concert hall when you've already implied that you're doing them a huge favor. As for his artistry, I saw an inconsistency and parochialism, including his refusal to conduct Russian music. How can you sneer at an entire catalog? Further, the orchestra did not always play well when he was out of town, and that indicates a lack of accountability on his part, e.g., he could have delivered a critique of the tapes. In fairness to him, on the whole, many were gratified by the performances under his direction. I was not one of them.

Thanks for sharing your perspective. These situations always have multiple angles. When I heard about the "boring city" issue, I was reminded of Franz Welser-Most's unflattering and unwise remarks about Cleveland. That said, I think people in this country often get hung up on the less important aspects of a music director and forget about or downplay the art. I hope that wasn't the case here. If the reports are true about the money issue, it does seem awfully odd that a music director would be asked to take a massive pay cut when (as far as I know) the players or administrators were not being asked to do so. TIM

1- Venzago's interpretive style is quite unique, even eccentric sometimes, so I am not surprised that the take on him from audience members in Indy would be somewhat all over the map (don't know that to be the case, just sayin').

2-When orchestra managements and boards complain about a music director's lack of involvement in the community, usually that is their way of saying they have failed at their fund raising duties and have thrown in the towel until a new music director with more WOW factor can be found to do their job for them.

3-I understand that Venzago's comments about Indy=boring were in the context of letting his concertmaster out to do other projects during the year, because he could not get those experiences in Indy. He was not dissing the city at large.

4-Those paycuts would be unacceptable to any conductor, believe me, especially the slap in the face that accompanied them. Way over the top, and it tells me that management and board wanted to push Venzago out, the sooner the better.

5-On what point did Venzago diss Zinman in the Indy press, pray tell? Raymond Leppard dissed Venzago in the Indy press and, shocker, will replace him at the gala next month.

6- Marin Alsop made a big deal in several Baltimore articles when she came here, saying she was looking for a house and was going to move her family here, raise her son. She bought a condo which she only uses for the weeks she is here conducting, her full time residence remains Denver, same as Mario did in Indy. Yet she is hailed as an expert in community relations. Um, fishy.

Thanks for commenting. I think your point #2 bears particular repeating, as it has applied to so many orchestras in so many places. TIM

I live in Indy (sorry I'm NOT a Blue and White fan either!) but Venzago was bad for our orchestra. He was never here, only flew in for his occasional concerts, took no part in any local events or the city 'scene' as Leppard did. He despised Indianapolis, and his artistry was not sufficient to warrant this lack of respect for our town. I refused to attend any of his performances of any Beethoven symphony after hearing him completely botch the 9th, and I will also say that there were significant musical "idealogical" differences between him and the president of the orchestra, who is a very respectable man. His podium presence was nice, but I'm not sure why he took this position except for the money (about $350k annually for basically part-time work). They will appreciate him more in Switzerland I'm sure. We have a fine orchestra and they need better than to have to suffer through 35-minute performances of Beethoven's 9th (I'm not kidding!).

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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