TSO's new chief executive hails from Music City

2014-08-22T00:00:00Z TSO's new chief executive hails from Music CityBy Cathalena E. Burch Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

After a five-month nationwide search, the Tucson Symphony Orchestra announced Thursday that it has found its new CEO and president.

The orchestra hired Mark Blakeman, chief operating officer of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. Blakeman will introduce himself at the Tucson orchestra’s 86th season opener Sept. 26.

He is expected to wind down his tenure in Tennessee this fall before joining the TSO full time by Dec. 1, said Bonnie Kampa, newly named chairwoman of the TSO Board of Trustees. Blakeman said he is hoping to start in early November.

“I’m very excited,” he said from Nashville. “At any arts organization, any nonprofit, there are challenges anywhere you go, but I think there are opportunities in Tucson.”

Blakeman, 45, replaces Andrew Birgensmith, who abruptly resigned last March after less than three years on the job.

At Nashville, Blakeman oversees the Grammy-winning orchestra, which has grown to 80-plus musicians from the 50 that were on the roster when he joined the symphony in 1999. The ensemble performs 160 concerts a year.

“Mark has been through some really challenging situations and he really understands how to think quickly and make decisions,” said his boss, Nashville Symphony CEO and President Alan Valentine. “You guys hired a rock star. He’s been my right arm, my left arm and both legs the last 15 years.”

Blakeman supervises all aspects of the Nashville Symphony, taking a large role in the construction of the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in 2003. After devastating floods in spring 2010, Blakeman led the hall’s $40 million restoration project and coordinated plans to host a free concert with pop singer Christopher Cross on the courthouse steps days after the flood. Many viewed the event as a significant morale boost for the orchestra as well as the Nashville community at large.

Blakeman said his first priority in Tucson will be to develop a comprehensive strategic plan.

Kampa said the TSO selected Blakeman from a list of five finalists narrowed down by a consultant working with the Board of Trustees.

“He met with the musicians and music committee … and they were real clear that they could see Mark taking the leadership here,” she said.

Kampa said that among Blakeman’s most pressing priorities in his first season is to hire a replacement for Conductor/Music Director George Hanson, who will leave the orchestra after this season, his 20th in Tucson. The orchestra has several guest conductors coming in who are candidates for that job.

“A 20-year tenure is very unique and to be able to have led that orchestra for so long it is really a testament to his ability to really be creative in his programming and the high level of artistry that he has brought to that organization,” Blakeman said.

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

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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