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Scott Terrellgets the baton

When Scott Terrell auditioned for music director of the Lexington Philharmonic in October, Keeneland was in session.

"I lost," he said with a smile. "I contributed to the local economy."

Terrell's going to be contributing a lot more, because regardless of how the 38-year-old conductor does at the track this weekend, he's the big winner in the Philharmonic's conductor search.

After a two-year, 10-candidate audition process, the orchestra announced at its season-closing concert Friday night that Terrell will succeed George Zack, who is retiring after 37 years as the Philharmonic's music director.

Terrell eagerly peered through the window in the stage door at the Singletary Center for the Arts as the Philharmonic and Lexington Singers performed Gabriel Fauré's Requiem, right before intermission. As members of the orchestra who were not in that piece filed on stage for the announcement, Terrell smiled and shook hands with the players, saying things like, "Good to see you," and "See you out there," like they were old friends.

And they could be.

"He's who the orchestra wanted," said Margie Karp, a violinist who was also a member of the search committee that waded through applications from 278 conductors.

"He is smart and talented. He's going to be very demanding, but for the right reasons, because the music demands it. It's really exciting for the orchestra."

The new director is also excited.

"The potential of the orchestra is pretty infinite, in terms of where it could actually go, both musically, artistically and within the community," Terrell said Friday morning. "Also, I was thoroughly impressed with the work the search committee did. That spoke volumes to me to have board members and community people engaged on the level to which they were engaged."

Likewise, the more the board looked at Terrell, the more its members liked him.

"As I did some of the vetting and called his references, I became more and more excited about the possibility of him coming here," said lawyer Greg Jenkins, co-chairman of the search committee. "In a few years, I think we will look back and say we were really lucky to get him."

Terrell is finishing his fourth season as the resident conductor of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra in South Carolina.

"I'm thrilled for him, not for us," said Janet Newcomb, executive director of the Charleston Symphony. "You meet people like Scott, and you know it's only a matter of time" before they are offered a bigger job.

Terrell will finish the final year of his contract with the Charleston orchestra next season, but he is relocating to Lexington this summer and will conduct all of the concerts on the orchestra's MasterClassics schedule except for a Dec. 11 performance of Handel's Messiah.

"It's going to be a nutty year of transition," Terrell said with a laugh. "But by divine intervention, there weren't many conflicts," between the Philharmonic's schedule and dates he was already slated to conduct in the Palmetto State.

Some members of the audience admitted that after two years, they had lost track of the candidates or had not seen all of the audition concerts. But they were enthusiastic about moving forward with a new director.

"He seems like he has impeccable credentials," said Dwight Mathias of Lexington, who had seen Terrell conduct at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado. "It was a long search, and they did a good job trying to find the right person."

At Aspen, Terrell was awarded the Aspen Conducting Prize by acclaimed conductor David Zinman, with whom Terrell had first worked in Minnesota.

Before Charleston, Terrell was assistant conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra. Lexington will be his first music directorship.

"It's an awesome responsibility, when you step back and think about it," Terrell said. "Really, you're shaping the musical life of the community.

"In terms of my own career, I've been at it for 16 or 17 years, and I feel like I've learned a lot, and I feel now that I'm much more ready to come here than I was three or four years ago."

The new conductor received a ringing endorsement from his predecessor, George Zack, who has been the Philharmonic's music director for 37 years.

"I think he is going to do very well," said Zack, who worked with all of the candidates on their concerts. "Of the 10 candidates, he was at the top of my list."

Asked if he had any advice for his successor, Zack said, "He just needs to keep the audience utmost in his mind. If he does that, he'll be fine."

Terrell has been thinking about the audience and programming since accepting the job last week. Along with announcing his appointment, the orchestra also released the programs for the 2009-10 MasterClassics season Friday night.

Because some planning had to be done before the search ended with the March 27 concert, Terrell said, "I came in when they were already along the road a bit. So what you do is try to find a good balance between what I would call putting in sprinkles of me in the season but then also adhering to things that had already been planned."

Addressing "sprinkles" of himself on the program, Terrell said he is a proponent of American music, new music by living composers and "young-emerging artists. The sooner you can get someone before they become the next so-and-so, then you've ingratiated this community to that person. Then, four or five years from now, when I am fighting with another bigger orchestra to get them, they'll remember we helped get them started.

"I want to advance the idea that classical music starts here."

Terrell said it is impressive that the Philharmonic's MasterClassics series of major orchestral works is the centerpiece of its season. But he also hopes to build new programming, including reviving pops concerts, initiating collaborations with other area artists and arts groups, and working closely with educational initiatives.

Charleston colleagues gave Terrell a lot of credit for helping build the orchestra's audience through pops programming and shorter, earlier concerts on a series called Backstage Pass, which helped introduce new music to a younger audience.

"He'll bring a new energetic, contemporary twist to an orchestra," said Laura Deaton, who was the interim chief operating officer of the orchestra Terrell's second year there. "He was brought in to an orchestra that had the same music director for 25 years, and he partnered with him to really bring a different perspective to the orchestra."

Philharmonic concertmaster Daniel Mason said that when he met with Terrell, as he did with every candidate, "Scott was the one who really impressed me talking over ideas and possibilities for the future, unhampered by custom and tradition."

Terrell said he aims to balance programming to serve all audiences.

"I think what I'm particularly proud of in Charleston is I've built an eclectic audience, which is what I want," Terrell said. "I want a 20-something sitting next to an empty nester, sitting next to a longtime season subscriber, and all feeling like this is a great experience."

Deaton and Newcomb said that after Terrell visited Lexington last fall, he was very enthusiastic about the job.

"I could just tell that he could see himself there," Newcomb said.

And if he was looking for omens, there was one more, in addition to Keeneland being in session when he auditioned and was announced. When he guest-conducted in Charleston years ago on the gig that won him the resident director job there, he conducted a regular concert and a Halloween concert. And when he came to Lexington, he conducted MasterClassics and — wait for it — a Halloween concert.

Terrell said, with a laugh, "Halloween concerts seem to be a good sign for me."

The Philharmonic may start to think of them as good omens, too.

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