Conducts March 5 and 6.

After three seasons of searching for a new music director, Tucson Symphony Orchestra is “focused on a handful of top candidates” who will make return trips to the podium this season.

“Anything can happen, but we feel that we are on a path to identify the best candidate for the job,” said TSO Executive Director Mark A. Blakeman.

Nine of the 18 guest conductors on board this season are contenders for the post, which became vacant after George Hanson left at the end of last season. Hanson, who served 19 years with the orchestra, returns for two concerts in January: “Moonstruck: Schumann & Schmidt” on Jan. 9 and 10 and “Mahler and Martial Arts” Jan. 22 and 24 that is part of the 2016 Tucson Desert Song Festival.

Hanson was named the festival’s director last April.

Since launching the search in earnest in the 2012-13 season, the orchestra has hosted 16 conductors identified as candidates.

“This should be one of the most exciting things to happen for the TSO in a long time and it doesn’t come along very often,” Blakeman said.

Blakeman offered the following primer on how the search will play out this season.

The process: A 12-member search committee — comprised of six orchestra musicians, TSO Board of Trustees members and community members, with several TSO staffers (including Blakeman) acting as advisors — have been getting feedback from audiences and others. That feedback has included email exchanges, audience surveys and one-on-one conversations.

Chemistry is king: The criteria being considered includes technical command, outstanding musicianship, excellent baton technique, engaging personality on and off stage, and effectively articulating the long-range artistic vision for the orchestra.

“Chemistry with the orchestra is paramount,” Blakeman added. “We could hire an enormously charismatic and talented conductor, but if they don’t have chemistry with the orchestra, they are not going to work. They are the boots on the ground.”

Making the final decision: The 12-member search committee makes the recommendation to the Board of Trustees.

The timetable: “If everything goes as we hope that it will, we believe that we will be able to make an announcement in the spring of ’16,” Blakeman explained. “The one caveat is that this is a process and it’s also a two-way street. We’re evaluating conductors and they are evaluating us. But I believe that we have a good process and the committee is doing a good job.”

Start time for new conductor: The new conductor will come on as music director designate for the 2016-17 season, which will be largely mapped out before he or she arrives. Guest conductors will fill the roster for most of that season while the new music director will take over the administrative duties including planning the 2017-18 season — that new conductor’s first at the podium full-time.

Will the new conductor live in Tucson full-time?: Not likely, Blakeman said. Hanson spent his first few seasons here commuting between Tucson and his orchestra in Germany. Most conductors juggle several ensembles often in different states and sometimes in different countries — several of the candidates for the TSO post have orchestras abroad — so it is not expected that they live full-time in any one city. “It’s not practical, although it is preferred,” Blakeman said.

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at cburch@tucson.com or 573-4642. On Twitter @Starburch.

I cover music for the Arizona Daily Star.