Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra | Credit: Kristen Loken

One of the Bay Area’s most renowned ensembles, the 43-year-old Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale (PBO), is dealing with some major challenges. PBO General Manager Isaac Bunch told SF Classical Voice:

“Performing arts organizations everywhere continue to face some of the most challenging times we have ever seen, with Bay Area groups struggling more than most. Philharmonia has faced especially strong headwinds lately, against industrywide challenges while also navigating major transitions in our artistic and staff leadership.”

Those transitions include the unionization of the Philharmonia Chorale, the departure of PBO Executive Director Courtney Beck more than a year ago, and the resignation of Music Director Richard Egarr after four years — all compounded by industrywide problems stemming from the pandemic lockdown.

There is a coincidental, but perhaps meaningful, parallel between the music directors of PBO and the San Francisco Symphony, both leaving without extending their contracts as had initially been expected.

Richard Egarr
Richard Egarr concluded his tenure as PBO’s music director earlier this year | Credit: Marco Borggreve

For the SF Symphony, of course, it’s Esa-Pekka Salonen, following Michael Tilson Thomas’s 25-year tenure with only five seasons of his own; for PBO, it’s Egarr, only the third music director of the orchestra after founder Laurette Goldberg (1981–1985) and Nicholas McGegan (1985–2020, now music director laureate).

PBO’s current administration includes Bunch, Interim Executive Director Sharon Dolan, and Director of Artistic Planning Jeff Phillips. The upcoming season is dedicated partially to finding a new music director as four guest conductors are auditioning for the position.

A positive take on the situation came from Bunch, who said, “There is a palpable sense of excitement among our board, staff, and musicians around the four music director candidates that are coming to the Bay Area this coming season, with all three groups collaborating closely on the search and evaluation process.

“While many of our musicians are familiar with these candidates from engagements elsewhere, we find ourselves in a rare position in a music director search in that all four of the candidates are making their Philharmonia debuts.

“So we expect valuable new perspectives on our organization to emerge throughout the process as we establish working relationships with each of these conductors.”

PBO Board President Douglas Tanner said, “Philharmonia has bright, ambitious plans for our future — we are thrilled to welcome four outstanding music director candidates to the Bay Area as we continue to bring Baroque at its best to our audiences.”

Bunch also spoke of the addition of new members to the orchestra through a competitive audition process: “We recently welcomed two new cellists and a new oboist. Two of these three musicians are recent graduates of The Juilliard School’s Historical Performance program, and all three have been mentored by longtime members of the orchestra, so it is exciting for us to build a bridge for a new generation of musicians as we work to carry this art form into the future.”

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra | Credit: Frank Wing

This is the lineup of conductors and programs for the 2024–2025 season:

Grete Pedersen conducts the Oct. 17–19 opening concerts. She is artistic director and principal conductor of the Carmel Bach Festival. In her native Norway, she founded the Oslo Chamber Choir, and since 1990, she has been music director of the Norwegian Soloists’ Choir. In addition to choral work, she has led the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, the Slovenian Philharmonic, and Oslo Sinfonietta.

Her program is called “Dreams and Passions,” embracing the medieval music of Hildegard von Bingen, Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte, Felix Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Haydn’s Symphony No. 49, and Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major — with PBO clarinetist Thomas Carroll as soloist.

Ruben Valenzuela conducts the J.S. Bach Christmas concerts, Dec. 11–13. He is the founder and artistic director of Bach Collegium San Diego and has been a guest conductor with some of the top period-instrument orchestras across the country.

Featuring Valérie Sainte-Agathe’s Philharmonia Chorale and soprano Sherezade Panthaki, the Christmas program includes two of Bach’s advent cantatas and two works by his contemporary, Christoph Graupner.

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale | Credit: Frank Wing

Peter Whelan conducts PBO’s presentation of Handel’s masque Alceste, March 5–8, 2025. Whelan is artistic director of the Irish Baroque Orchestra and an artistic partner of Irish National Opera. His recent engagements have included his 2022 debut with San Francisco Opera, conducting Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice. The Alceste cast includes soprano Lauren Snouffer and tenor Aaron Sheehan.

Avi Stein conducts “Tout de Suite,” the season-closing Baroque dance program, April 10–12, 2025. Stein is organist and chorus master at Trinity Wall Street and artistic director of The Helicon Foundation; he is also on the faculties of Juilliard and Yale University. His program includes music by Bach, Handel, Jean-Féry Rebel, and Jean-Philippe Rameau.

In addition to the four programs with guest conductors, PBO’s season also offers mandolinist Avi Avital in a 400th anniversary performance of Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, part of a program that also includes Grammy Award-winning soprano Estelí Gomez performing Venetian songs, Nov. 7–9. Bunch said of these concerts:

This program offers a signature Philharmonia experience by taking a familiar Baroque masterwork and presenting it in a new light — with a mandolin soloist taking the place traditionally occupied by a violinist and by spreading the four movements out throughout the program in a manner that intersperses them with traditional Venetian gondolier songs that Vivaldi himself would have heard on his strolls throughout the city.

In addition to presenting this Vivaldi program in San Francisco, Stanford, and Berkeley, we are thrilled to have received invitations from major concert presenters in Orange County, Santa Barbara, and Los Angeles, so will be hitting the road to Southern California immediately following the Bay Area concerts.”

Avi Avital
Avi Avital | Credit: Zohar Ron

PBO’s Jews & Music series returns this season with “Bach, Bloch, and Beyond” on Nov. 17 at San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Sholom.

Subscription tickets for PBO’s 2024–2025 season are on sale now, with prices ranging from $84 to $469. Venues include Herbst Theatre in San Francisco, First Congregational Church of Berkeley, Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall, and First United Methodist Church of Palo Alto.