John Driscoll will step down as the executive director of the Missoula Symphony Association, a post he was hired for in 1999 when he was a 27-year-old trumpet player.
Over the past 19 years, he's said he's emphasized steady growth along with community outreach.
"The drumbeat of my tenure has been 'stay relevant,' 'stay relevant,'" he said on Tuesday. They tried to push the envelope without sacrificing quality or "the core of our mission, which is to perform the greatest music ever written."
He's leaving to join a recruiting and team-building consultancy and will be based out of Missoula. It's a side project he's worked on with a friend over the past several years that has become a full-time opportunity.
"I don't think it would be healthy for the organization, let alone for me, if I stayed here until I was 60," he said.
Board President Jim Valeo said that Driscoll has been a "dedicated, intelligent, conscientious" leader who's leaving a "much bigger, sounder organization" than it was when he started.
The budget has more than tripled to $650,000. Driscoll spearheaded three new annual concerts: Symphony in the Park, the Family Concert, and Holiday Pops. The regular-season attendance has grown to two nights per concert instead of one.
Driscoll's departure will make the next two years a period of significant change for the symphony. In June, music director/conductor Darko Butorac announced that he will leave after 12 years. Following the 2018-19 season, he'll assume the same job at the Asheville Symphony Orchestra in North Carolina.
Driscoll's tenure ends at the end of September, but he will continue to work part-time on the search for Butorac's successor. After a national posting, the finalists will visit Missoula to conduct one concert each during the 2019-20 season.
Driscoll said that in some ways, the timing is beneficial: The new executive director will have a hand in selecting the new music director, their partner in leading the symphony into its next phase.
The MSA will hire an interim executive director during the transition. Valeo said there's a pool of professionals who specialize as part-time interim leaders and can take a fresh look at the organization and give feedback to the board.
Driscoll, a native of Butte, was living in Tennessee and performing with the symphony in Knoxville when his wife got a job back in Missoula.
In 1999, he was hired as executive director. At the time, the Missoula symphony had only one other employee, a part-time administrative assistant.
The music director, Joseph Henry, was open to his ideas and suggestions. Together, they spun the orchestra out of its partnership with the University of Montana into a nonprofit entity of its own. Driscoll was also charged with fundraising to pay a music director a full-time salary in preparation for Henry's eventual retirement.
After his time in Knoxville, Driscoll said the Missoula symphony seemed reluctant to market itself aggressively.
"Put simply, the symphony needed to stay relevant [and] re-establish itself as a relevant organization for the community. We didn't change much of the art of what we were doing. We just changed the way we presented our personality in the community," he said.
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He thought they could counter stereotypes about classical music ("old people playing old music for old people") by bringing their work out into the community. After all, the orchestra itself comprised a cross-section of all ages and backgrounds.
The annual Holiday Pops concert, which they started in 2000, has proven to be one of the symphony's most popular. Last year, they added a third concert.
Symphony in the Park, the free summer performance held in Caras downtown, was started in 2005 and remains "the biggest concert of the year for this organization by far," Driscoll said.
Recently, the association took over the Montana Suzuki Institute, which trains young local musicians.
Overall, he said these initiatives are focused on the need to "stay relevant and be a part of people's lives in a way that's meaningful."
He credited the board members over the years for working with him on all of these projects.
Valeo said the symphony now has more sponsors for concerts, the season overall, guest artists and even sponsors for specific chairs for specific instruments.
Driscoll said it's only a coincidence that he and Butorac are leaving in the same period.
In the symphony world, conductors have to move to bigger organizations to advance their careers.
Butorac has been credited for raising the artistic and technical caliber of the symphony since his arrival. He's also maintained a busy career outside Montana: He conducts the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra in Florida and travels around the world to guest conduct.
"There would never have been a question that sooner or later, Darko would leave the organization," Valeo said.
The symphony expects more than a hundred applicants for music director — there are a limited number of orchestras in the U.S., Missoula is a desirable place to live, and the organization isn't struggling with steeply declining audiences like some are.
Driscoll's post doesn't require a background in music and will draw hopefuls from outside the industry.
They'd like a candidate to follow Driscoll's lead by establishing themself as a leader in the community, Valeo said. Driscoll introduced each concert himself and made himself a public face, which helps in the competitive world of nonprofit fundraising.
It's "really important to find somebody who is able to develop those kinds of relationships, that kind of visibility" he said.