Leif Bjaland is leaving. The announcement that the Sarasota Orchestra’s artistic director and conductor was departing sent shockwaves around the city, but when you think about it for a bit, it really doesn’t come as that much of a surprise.
Bjaland came in 1997 to Sarasota and took over an orchestra that had been under the leadership of Paul Wolf for decades. Wanting to make his mark on the ensemble, the newcomer slowly etched away at the ranks of musicians, molding them to the sound he wanted and replacing those ready for retirement with a retinue of young, eager, facile instrumentalists.
The repertoire began to change, too. Commissions were made for new composers to write works specially created for the Sarasota sound. Music that hadn’t made an appearance on a program for many years, if ever, began popping up on Masterworks concerts. Multi-media presentations crept in, illustrating, enlightening and entertaining audiences. And the “showman” side of Bjaland came out in its full glory, speaking, explaining, illumining and cajoling listeners to open their ears, sit up straighter and experience the new along with the enduring.
The orchestra members were sitting up straighter, too. They were taking tremendous pride in their work because they were being given the opportunity to play, not only as a well-oiled ensemble, but also as soloists and chamber musicians.
Bjaland became an innovator. His “Journeys to Genius” programs illuminating the life of a particular composer or style through music, commentary and videos are nothing short of genius in themselves.
Innovator, orchestra-builder, clear, concise, emotional and inspirational conductor, Bjaland has brought a lot to Sarasota in more than 15 years. But, whether it was his idea to leave or whether it was a mutual decision or, perhaps, a misguided judgment from a well-intentioned board, it probably is time for a change — for all parties. Moving from here can only stimulate growth: for Bjaland, the orchestra and us.
The next two seasons should be fascinating. Let’s hope those making the choice are wise enough to look for someone who will build on the road Bjaland’s paved.
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