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John Lamb, Published January 15 2013

Finalist for F-M Symphony conductor has grand ambitions to bring in new audiences

FARGO - David Itkin has big ideas for how the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony could attract new audiences.

And I mean B-I-G.

As one of the five finalists for the symphony’s season-long conductor search, Itkin suggested big video screens at Masterworks concerts allowing audiences to better see musicians playing as a means to reach different crowds.

“These are the things I’m interested in because they allow the great music to remain, but they bring new people in and add a level of modern presentation,” the conductor said from his home in Dallas.

Itkin is here this week to meet symphony members and performers. He’ll lead the group through the third Masterworks concert of the year this Saturday and Sunday.

This is the conductor’s fifth year as a music professor and the director of orchestral studies at the University of North Texas College of Music and his eighth season as music director and conductor of the Abilene Philharmonic. He was previously the music director and conductor of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra for 17 seasons (1993 to 2010), and held the same role with the Las Vegas Philharmonic from 2007 to 2012.

Despite his time down south, he’s not daunted by a North Dakota winter.

“Minnesota and North Dakota are both places I feel comfortable in,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t really like the heat, even though I live in it. It’s always better for me to go someplace cooler.”

“But ask me again six days in,” the Oregon native adds.

In the mid-1990s Itkin served as the musical director for a summer theater in Devils Lake, N.D. He was later asked back to lead a master class for choral teachers in the area. He’s also conducted in Duluth, Minn.

“I loved my time in North Dakota and Minnesota,” he says.

He is drawn to the FM Symphony job because the organization has a good reputation.

He’s also looking to reconnect with principal violist Tim Nelson and assistant principal cellist Elise Buffat Nelson. Itkin lead the couple with the Arkansas Symphony.

“When I realized that’s where they were, I thought that was a wonderful thing,” Itkin says about the potential to work with old friends again.

* * *

He lists orchestral development as a strength he would bring to the position. While the FM Symphony already has a strong reputation, he says, under his watch he could raise the artistic level of the musicians and strengthen the bottom line of the organization.

“I have a history of regularly taking an orchestra from one place to the next couple of levels up,” he says. “You know when that happens, finance follows. Good fortunes in fiscal matters generally follow artistic success in an organization like that.”

He did that in his 17-year run leading the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, which he considers a career highlight.

“Very few conductors get to spend 17 years with the same group,” he says.

He didn’t have the same experience in Las Vegas. In May he notified the Philharmonic’s board of directors and the players committee that he would not renew his contract when it came up after this season. In the letter he cited artistic differences and a lack of transparency in his decision.

Days later the board of trustees voted to replace the conductor, not allowing him to conduct any of the season’s concerts. The final year of his contract was bought out later that summer.

“There are a lot of hard feelings about David from the (Las Vegas Philharmonic) board, and that sentiment has not changed,” says John Katsilometes, an editor and columnist who reported on the awkward departure for the Las Vegas Sun.

Itkin says he is “legally constrained” from publically discussing the situation and declined to comment.

* * *

Itkin has high praise for the pieces he’ll be conducting this weekend.

“One of the things I love about this program is the extraordinary diversity of styles the audience is going to hear,” he says. “Three really unique and different sounds from the orchestra.”

The concerts start with Leonard Bernstein’s “Three Dances for ‘On the Town.’ ”

“This music comes from his background in musical theatre and jazz,” Itkin says, pointing out the work started as a short ballet, expanded into a Broadway musical, than a movie musical.

“To some people they may seem out of place in a classical concert, but they come from one of our greatest American musical figures,” he says.

It plays opposite the show’s finale, Johannes Brahms’ “Symphony No. 4,” a personal favorite of the conductor.

“With Brahms’ last symphony, he’s leaving us with his last word on what’s happened to the symphony since Beethoven died. And a lot has happened,” Itkin explains.

The “Cello Concerto No. 1” by Dmitri Shostakovich “falls in the middle stylistically,” he says.

“It calls on our classical traditions of orchestral playing, but has so much modern edginess in the sound and drama of the music that it sort of falls in the middle between these two other pieces,” he says.

No matter which piece he’s conducting, Itkin says, he’s just happy making music and helping other people appreciate it.

“I feel fortunate every day to be doing what I’m doing,” he says.

If you go

What: Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Masterworks Concert with guest conductor David Itkin and cellist Inbal Segev

When: 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: Festival Concert Hall, North Dakota State University

Info: Tickets are $31-$63 for adults, $15-$18 for students at www.fmsymphony.org or at the door

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533