When best, brightest come home, good things happen

Nobody has to tell Zak Vassar the challenges he signed up for

Published Monday, January 23, 2017


NOBODY HAS to tell Zak Vassar the challenges he signed up for.

First, there’s that age thing. Just 37, and even younger looking in person, he knows there are folks who quietly wonder if he’s seasoned enough to be the president and CEO of the Toledo Symphony Orchestra. Silent and subtle age discrimination in reverse, you might say.

Second, there’s the “big shoes to fill” thing. Most Toledoans and fans of the symphony know only two past professional directors of the TSO, Robert Bell and Kathy Carroll.

Mr. Bell is still venerated around this town as the somewhat shy but visionary leader of TSO for decades, a man who always deflected praise away from himself and toward his orchestra.

When we sat down for an archival video interview with Mr. Bell a few years ago for the Toledo-Lucas County Library, he thought our intent was to discuss the history of the orchestra. When he realized we were chronicling his own life and achievements, he asked us to cease and desist. He was uncomfortable with the attention.

But the TSO grew to a nationally respected regional orchestra under his steady hand. Six years ago he handed off the job to Ms. Carroll, who had been preparing for it for years, even if unknowingly, and the transition was seamless.

It’s possible those two have forgotten more about running a regional orchestra than a lot of others in the business will ever learn.

Their double-barreled legacy has been thrust upon a St. John’s Jesuit graduate who landed his perfect job. His favorite composer is Mahler, although he remembers an eclectic mix of music in his Old Orchard household growing up with several siblings — from Springsteen and Van Halen to Chopin and Sinatra.

Just as importantly, he recognizes that money makes the world go around.

One of Ms. Carroll’s strengths was development work, and Mr. Vassar knows that fund-raising is a monster that constantly needs to be fed. Orchestras like Toledo’s can’t match the wealth or endowments of the big boys and girls. The generosity of the community, including individual concert-goers, is critical to the symphony’s mission.

He hopes that Toledoans who are not yet fans will become concert-goers first and eventually donors. In his view, the $25 give is as important as the $5,000 give if it expands the symphony’s audience.

The business side drives the artistic side of running a symphony, and Mr. Vassar is hard at work on the latter, too, already planning, constructing, and nearly finishing the lineup for the 2017-2018 season.

While a repeat of TSO’s triumphant 2011 appearance at Carnegie Hall probably won’t happen, Mr. Vassar would like to see the orchestra perform in Cleveland, or Ann Arbor, or other major concert halls.

Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, The Blade, on these Pages of Opinion, lamented the “brain drain” from Toledo and expressed the hope our best and brightest would stay or one day come back if they left. Mr. Vassar is one who came back.

He went away to college, earning his degree at Boston College, and after 10 years in Boston, came home in 2008.

Despite his age, Mr. Vassar’s association with the symphony goes back a long way. Smitten with a love of orchestral music at a TSO performance as a 10-year-old, he later served as a volunteer on the office staff.

Much more recently, when Ms. Carroll’s retirement loomed, he was enlisted to help the search committee find her successor. Turns out the committee didn’t have to search very far. He eventually applied, at Ms. Carroll’s urging, and got the gig. From search committee to the chosen one. “Living the dream,” he says.

You could make the case that “Zak Vassar” is one of those names that commands respect. With a name like that a guy could be a football coach. A psychologist maybe. Perhaps a military man or a mediator of disputes. A student of finance. A leader of men and women.

Mr. Vassar is going to have to be a little of all of them. He harbors no illusions it will be easy.

Grow the endowment. Book the superstars of classical and popular music to perform here and keep raising the money to pay them. Continue community outreach programs and musical instruction. Oversee a $6 million budget, 16 full-time and 10 part-time employees, and 57 talented musicians, and, oh yes, stay true to the art and have some fun along the way.

Not long ago Zak Vassar was a teenager in Old Orchard. Now he’s the leader of the band, and he’s all in.

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