Arts

Boston Ballet names Mischa Santora its new music director

Mischa Santora
Leslie Plesser
Mischa Santora

Boston Ballet has named conductor Mischa Santora, 46, its new music director. Santora, who conducted performances of Boston Ballet’s “Romeo and Juliet” this past spring, comes to the company from Minnesota, where he has served as artistic director of the interdisciplinary Minneapolis Music Company and artistic director of the Spotlight Series at the MacPhail Center for Music. He was associate conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra between 2003 and 2009, and has appeared with numerous other orchestras in North America, Europe, and the Middle East.

“Boston Ballet really does extremely innovative programs and choreographies, and unusual combinations of ballet and different pieces,” said Santora, who spoke with the Globe by phone from Hungary. “I know Mahler’s Third Symphony pretty well, and they told me the Boston Ballet choreographed it, and I said, ‘That can’t really work.’ Then I saw the archival tape, and it was amazing. It’s unusual projects like that I find extremely appealing.”

Santora will lead the Boston Ballet Orchestra for the first time as music director with “The Nutcracker,” which opens on Nov 29.

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Born in the Netherlands to Hungarian musician parents and educated at Curtis Institute of Music, Santora has conducted a slew of symphonies, chamber ensembles, and operas. This will be his first post as music director of a dance company, but he has led collaborations with dance companies, theater troupes, and puppeteers. “I’ve always been very intrigued by the combination of movement and music,” said Santora. “I think it’s a different kind of way of connecting with the stage.”

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Finding the right conductor for the post was vitally important, said Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen. “At Boston Ballet, the music is really first,” explained Nissinen, who praised Santora’s musicianship and broad musical proclivities in a phone interview. “He’s into contemporary music and classical music, and he’s a musician of a very high caliber.”

A high-caliber conductor has been a necessity for many of Boston Ballet’s past scores, which have in recent years included music by Gustav Mahler, Jean Sibelius, Igor Stravinsky, Philip Glass, and the Finnish composer Esa-Pekka Salonen. 

Boston Ballet’s previous music director, Jonathan McPhee, became music director emeritus following the 2015-16 season, after an acclaimed tenure of 27 years. The search for the new music director took a while, Nissinen acknowledged. “I had some of my own confidants from the music world. There was an orchestra committee, and the orchestra members through the committee gave me feedback,” he said.

Because Santora conducted only the last half of the run of “Romeo and Juliet,” he had scant rehearsal time with the Boston Ballet Orchestra, he said. “It’s a stressful situation for everybody involved, and at that point everybody has to make a real effort to make the most of it,” said Santora. “One of the things that was so amazing to me was the stunning flexibility of this group.”

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Santora said he will remain in both of his artistic director roles in Minnesota for the upcoming season, but plans to relocate to Boston for the Boston Ballet position.

Nissinen said Santora’s willingness to push boundaries in his repertoire was an attractive point. And in turn, the potential for collaboration was appealing to Santora. “Mikko has emphasized that he wants an artistic partner in a music director, not just somebody who goes down to the pit and does the job,” said Santora. “We can toss ideas back and forth, we can do long-term planning, and come up with some really interesting ideas and concepts.”

One such concept that Santora might bring to the planning table is improvisation. Recently, he directed an evening with the Minneapolis Music Company that included improvisations on the music of Bach by a jazz pianist, a folk-classical string duo, and a beat boxer.

“One thing that I feel very strongly about is that the act of improvisation has been really quite lost in classical music for quite some time now. It used to be absolutely commonplace,” said Santora. “I’m not quite sure how that might work with choreography because then you’re adding yet another level of complexity. . . . It’d be certainly interesting to explore.”

Zoë Madonna can be reached at zoe.madonna@globe.com. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.