VanBesien is president of the New York Philharmonic, but that concert he’s recalling in a recent email wasn’t at Lincoln Center–it was at Michigan Stadium. The 2015 homecoming game featured the orchestra’s brass sections performing The Star-Spangled Banner and The Victors with the University Musical Society’s Choral Union and the Michigan Marching Band.
“It was not only one of the most memorable performance opportunities, but an incredible chance to let 110,000 people know that we came to Ann Arbor for UMS audiences, but also for them,” VanBesien writes.
The Big House appearance was part of a five-year residency partnership between the orchestra and the UMS. It proved to be such a good fit that VanBesien, forty-seven, will take the helm at UMS in July when Ken Fischer retires after thirty years as its president and chief cheerleader.
Over the past few years Fischer made no secret of his plans to retire. Even so, the search for his replacement was competitive and challenging. Prestigious leadership positions in the world of arts and music don’t open up every day, and Fischer’s combination of skills in programming, marketing, and energetic fundraising had rejuvenated the UMS, a 136-year-old powerhouse among academic arts presenters.
The twelve-member search committee aided by Spencer Harris, an executive search firm, spent eighteen months narrowing the field from more than seventy candidates to about a dozen who were interviewed. Relying on program director Michael Kondziolka to maintain UMS’s innovative concert schedule, they looked for a strong administrator and were ultimately won over by VanBesien’s experience in managing complex, high-functioning organizations that have included the Houston Symphony and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in Australia. “At UMS, we are on time and on budget,” says Steve Forrest, chair of the UMS board and head of the search committee. “The artists know this is a highly functional place, and they all want to come back.”
VanBesien, who has been with the Philharmonic since 2012 and its president since 2014, is leaving a year before his contract expires at a time when the orchestra and other major New York cultural institutions are facing financial and artistic pressures. Conductor and musical director Alan Gilbert will be retiring at the end of the current season, and a new artistic director is not scheduled to take over until 2018. The orchestra’s performance venue at Lincoln Center, recently renamed David Geffen Hall after a $100 million gift from the entertainment magnate, is scheduled to undergo a long, complicated $500 million renovation targeted for completion in 2022. Both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Carnegie Hall are also competing for substantial donations for major projects and financial shortfalls.
“I think Matthew was managing the challenges of the NY Philharmonic very well,” Fischer says in an email. “His decision to seek and accept the UMS presidency was mainly related to the fact that the leadership of what he viewed as the best university presenting organization in the U.S. and a celebrated and internationally admired and respected presenting organization had become open for the first time in thirty years.”
VanBesien is equally complimentary. “One of the great joys of my tenure here in New York has been to work with Ken and UMS to develop the Philharmonic’s multi-year residency project,” he writes. “UMS simply is best in class in terms of its vibrant and diverse programming, and I have heard from so many great artists in the past weeks about how much they LOVE coming to Ann Arbor and to UMS.
“NYC’s arts scene is amazing, of course, but I feel UMS creates the same kind of sophisticated environment, but also a welcoming and personal atmosphere for its artists and the audiences who experience their performances.”