The Sinfonietta’s new business model means musicians will be in charge, not a music director, and a rotating cast of artistic partners, including cellist and conductor Eric Jacobsen, co-founder of Brooklyn Rider, will make appearances.

Share story

For a glimpse at Northwest Sinfonietta’s next chapter, look no further than Saint Paul, Minn.

Look, that is, to the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, which eliminated its music-director position and adopted an egalitarian “artistic partner” model.

“It worked remarkably well, sending the musicians’ job satisfaction through the roof,” says Neil Birnbaum, executive director of Northwest Sinfonietta. Other well-known orchestras that use the model include St. Martin in the Fields, in London, and the Vienna Philharmonic.


Northwest Sinfonietta 25th Anniversary Season

The orchestra plans five concerts in its 2015-16 season: Oct. 16-18, a program of Copland, Mozart and Beethoven; Nov. 13-15, Rossini, Schubert, Morton Feldman; March 11-13, 2016, Kernis, Mendelssohn and Haydn (“Mass in a Time of War” with Seattle Choral Company and soloists); April 15-17, Brahms and Beethoven; and May 13-15, Ravel, Strauss and a guest appearance by ZZ Top founder Billy Gibbons, guitar/narrator of Original Art Songs. Info and tickets: 206-304-1350 or

NWS will celebrate its 25th season in 2015-16 with a renewed commitment to playing Baroque and classical works, early-20th-century pieces and contemporary works, while overhauling the way it runs itself. The orchestra will continue to perform in Seattle, Puyallup and Tacoma.

“Over the years, we inadvertently evolved into a small symphony, as opposed to a chamber orchestra,” Birnbaum says. “Patrons ask, ‘What’s the difference between you and the Seattle Symphony?’ We have to articulate anew who we are and get back to our roots.”

In pursuit of change, NWS’ artistic-partnership model will mean collaboration between the musicians and guest directors who appear on a rotating schedule. Leadership will be shared among the ensemble’s 35 players, who will have a more direct say in mission, personnel and programming.

Established in 1991 and guided since by co-founder and music director Christophe Chagnard, Northwest Sinfonietta, as with other arts groups, has been grappling with the effects of an economic downturn.

“Every year we end up with a structural deficit of $40,000 to $50,000,” Birnbaum says. “We can’t move forward. Going into our 25th season, we did a lot of soul-searching. Did we want to dissolve? Or choose a bold new initiative?”

The timing of discussions about a new path coincided with a decision to part ways with Chagnard. His farewell concerts with the orchestra, an all-Mozart program, take place Feb. 20-22.

Birnbaum, the musicians and NWS’ board of directors formed committees that hammered out a different approach and fresh programming ideas. Birnbaum turned to his counterpart at the Saint Paul organization, Bruce Coppock, to learn the advantages and risks of artistic partnership.

The result is a significant rebranding of NWS.

“We’ll have a cadre of partners who come in on a multiyear basis, giving audiences and musicians more variety,” says Birnbaum. “These are three artists we couldn’t afford as music directors, but we can afford each for a few weeks a year.”

The trio of 2015-16 directors includes cellist Eric Jacobsen, director of the adventurous chamber ensemble The Knights and co-founder of the string quartet Brooklyn Rider; violinist Joseph Swensen, conductor emeritus of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and professor of music at Indiana University; and David Lockington, music director of the Grand Rapids Symphony, Modesto Symphony and Pasadena Symphony.

“Artistic partnership is so inclusive,” says Jacobsen, who will lead NWS’ May concerts, called “The Taiwan Connection.”

“The rehearsal process for The Knights is extremely democratic, an open forum for every musician to talk about vision. I think it can be a similar mentality in Northwest Sinfonietta.”

NWS principal violist Heather Bentley, who joined the orchestra in its first year, says the rotating directors will balance innovation with chamber-music expertise.

“They are dynamic practitioners,” she says. “We watched videos of them working with other ensembles. It’s exciting.”

Bentley also praises the heightened, dignifying role of musicians in important decisions. She says that when Swensen submitted a program plan about Brahms’ violin concerto, her artistic committee countered with a different idea, which he accepted.

Bentley and Birnbaum acknowledge some uncertainties about the partnership model. A full-time music director, for example, is the public face of an orchestra, and instrumental in building donor relationships. How will that role be filled now?

“I think this will have to evolve organically,” says Birnbaum. “We are trying to get away from one individual being the ‘embodiment’ of the institution. The partners and our musicians together are our stars.”

Bentley says the Symphony Silicon Valley (formerly San Jose Symphony) has an artistic-partnership structure, and her contacts describe it as a “mixed blessing.”

“The guest conductors want to be hired back, so they might be a little reluctant to crack the whip. We need to put out there that we are primarily interested in artistic growth and they shouldn’t hold back. If they have a sound they want to hear, they should tell us.”