Eleven years ago, Saint Joseph Symphony music director Rico McNeela knew that his time with the group would have a limit.
When he was interviewed for the position, he said he wanted to direct for 10 years.
“Music directors are at their best for about 10 years ... I’m in my 11th year, so I guess I outstayed my plan,” he said.
On Tuesday, McNeela announced that the symphony’s upcoming 2019-20 season would be his last.
“It’s a different kind of job. It requires a tremendous amount of energy and imagination, and it requires a fresh viewpoint now and then,” he said.
McNeela came to the symphony in 2009 with decades of experience teaching, performing and conducting with groups including the Arkansas Ballet, the Toledo Symphony, the Tulsa Philharmonic and the New York City Opera touring company. Prior to coming to St. Joseph, he taught at the University of Toledo in Ohio.
McNeela made his first appearance with the symphony in 2009 during its Russian-themed concert “Bring Your Own Vodka.”
McNeela’s spirit and ability to balance musicianship with entertainment showed in the symphony’s lineups. He combined more mainstream concerts, like the popular cinema-centric “Meet Me At The Movies” series, with themes about foreign lands, space and sea.
“One of the things I’ve always tried to do with every concert is have a piece that everyone will recognize. But there’s so many wonderful classical pieces. I take great pleasure in picking pieces people have never heard or haven’t heard in a long, long while,” he said.
The biggest compliment to McNeela’s choices were when people would say they would seek out those obscure pieces after they left a performance.
“People would say ‘Wow. I’m going to have a find a recording of that.’ I heard that a lot throughout my time here,” he said, laughing.
Coming from an academic background, McNeela said he appreciated the stability of the symphony’s lineup, allowing him to mature with the lineup, rather than cycling through students.
“It was mostly the same personnel the entire time, which allowed us to grow together,” he said.
In announcing his departure prior to the beginning of the symphony’s new season, McNeela said he wanted to give the group ample time to prepare a search for his replacement.
Whoever they choose, McNeela said he feels he’s leaving the symphony at the right time.
“It was important that the orchestra would be very strong and playing everything well for someone coming. I think that’s where the orchestra is now where they’re playing especially well. It should attract a very fine conductor,” he said.
In the meantime, McNeela said his mind is on showing off that talent during this season, starting with the appropriately titled “Meet Me at the Movies — The Final Cut” at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 28, at the Missouri Theater.
“The Sept. 28th show is perhaps one of the best I’ve put together. It’s a great combination of classical music and movie music,” he said.
Tickets are available at saintjosephsymphony.org or by calling 816-233-7701.
— Andrew Gaug | St. Joe Live