What does Princiotti’s leaving mean for the VSO?

Jim Lowe / Staff file photo

Jim Lowe / Staff file photo

Jim Lowe

Anthony Princiotti conducted his last concerts as principal guest conductor of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra last weekend. For 16 years, the New Hampshire musician has been an integral part of the Vermont musical life, and certainly has left his mark on the state’s professional symphony orchestra.

Princiotti’s tenure with the VSO coincided with Jaime Laredo’s as music director. Despite their difference in styles, the VSO grew and thrived, becoming one of the finest regional orchestras in the United States.

Why, then, did the VSO board of directors choose not to renew Princiotti’s contract after this season? As the VSO has made no public statement, I can only speculate. But with investigation, a likely reason appears.

When Princiotti began his tenure with the VSO in 2000 — he was then called assistant conductor — he was a competent conductor but often getting mediocre results. Some musicians told me micro-management by the conductor took away from the whole of the result. As a critic, I found overall cohesion missing from many of his performances.

But Princiotti is a hard worker with a brilliant mind. His knowledge of music is not only encyclopedic, but deep. He gave me some of the most insightful interviews I ever published. Still, several years ago, Princiotti ceased giving me interviews.

Princiotti’s conducting got better and better. His performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 some years ago was a revelation. More recently, a deeply affecting performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 and an amazingly powerful Stravinsky “Rite of Spring” left no doubt as to Princiotti’s conducting and musical capabilities.

But, he has proven a controversial leader. Many VSO musicians loved him, and felt that he was much easier to play for and follow than Laredo. (In New York, Laredo has been called “fuzzy Jaime” for his imprecise conducting technique.) Princiotti made it clear what he wanted and when, and mostly it worked.

But not always. Princiotti’s Dec. 3 Masterworks concert at Burlington’s Flynn Center was exciting but lacked the warmth and depth to touch the heart. And that was Tchaikovsky!

In response to my review of the concert, a veteran VSO musician wrote to tell me Princiotti had taken precision to the point of beating any joy out of the music making. And, of course, that took much of the joy out of the music itself.

Still, Princiotti was certainly not let go for musical reasons. He is an excellent musician who compares well with the competition. Musically.

The problem is that Princiotti has a reputation for thorny interpersonal relations. He was let go as music director of the Dartmouth (College) Symphony last year after 23 years in the position. Inside information suggested that although the musicians liked him and petitioned for his return, his dealings with others could be hostile.

Princiotti’s relationship with some VSO musicians could be difficult. One prominent VSO musician refused to play with him for a while. When I asked VSO staff about the interview refusals, they were reluctant to confront Princiotti about it. In fact, they didn’t.

Which brings us to the crux of the matter. Laredo, the VSO’s music director since 2000, turned 76 this year. Although he has shown no signs of retiring soon, he won’t go on forever.

So, it’s time to look to the future, exploring possibilities for the next music director. The only way to do that is to invite guest conductors, and the only possible conducting slots are Princiotti’s. (No one wants to give up any Laredo performances.)

Since it’s impossible to imagine Princiotti working constructively with a board, or worse, schmoozing potential donors (all part of a music director’s role), he would be eliminated from consideration. That doesn’t detract from his musical abilities.

Princiotti leaves the VSO a better orchestra, and the VSO leaves Princiotti a better conductor. That’s success for everyone.

Jim Lowe is music critic and arts editor of The Times Argus and Rutland Herald, and can be reached at jim.lowe@rutlandherald.com or jim.lowe@timesargus.com.