Kenneth Jean, who’s 38, is facing a dilemma that other conductors of his age can only envy. He holds down the number-two artistic post at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, heads the Florida Symphony Orchestra in Orlando, and guest conducts all over the world. But now that he’s the recipient of an unexpected and generous prize, the Seaver Institute’s coveted biannual $75,000 grant for young American conductors, he has to make room in his already hectic schedule–the grant stipulates that he take time off for further development as a musician. “I have been so busy that I haven’t even had time to ponder what to do with the money,” he says, slightly exasperated.

Born in New York City, Jean grew up in Hong Kong in a family of physicians that expected its offspring to practice medicine. In 1967, afraid that the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution might spread from the Chinese mainland to the island colony, Jean’s parents dispatched him to Berkeley, where he was enrolled as a pre-med student at the University of California. But Jean didn’t spend a single day there. Defying his parents’ wishes, he went across the bay to study violin and music at San Francisco State. A couple of years later he transferred to the Juilliard School in New York and switched to conducting. As a pupil of Jean Morel, he was soon leading the Youth Symphony Orchestra of New York in concert at Carnegie Hall. He obtained his master’s degree from the Juilliard in 1976, spent two years as an apprentice to Lorin Maazel in Cleveland, and then was appointed second-in-command at the Detroit Symphony.

“It was the most miserable time in my life,” says Jean, indignantly recalling his Detroit years. “The management there was outrageously incompetent, the biggest disaster one could imagine. It took them a long period searching for a replacement to [Antal] Dorati. In the meantime, they didn’t utilize me at all. I didn’t conduct a concert wearing tails until my fourth year there. I was stuck in Detroit for seven years!” Finally fed up, Jean took the risky and unusual step of quitting with no other prospect in sight. But then the associate conductor job in Chicago became available. After auditioning more than a dozen candidates, Georg Solti gave Jean the nod.

His time in Detroit wasn’t a total waste. Jean says he learned a great deal from Dorati, and he did win the prestigious Leopold Stokowski Conducting Award in 1984. And in the late 70s he was introduced by a friend to the fledgling Hong Kong Philharmonic. “The first time I conducted them was in a recording studio, and the record, Colorful Clouds, became the hottest classical seller in Asia.” The Cantonese-speaking Jean still guest conducts the orchestra. Though once offered its music directorship, he decided to climb the orchestral ladder in the West. His CSO debut was in May 1987.

An orchestra’s associate or resident conductor has ill-defined duties, explains Jean in his carefully enunciated, vaguely accented English. “It’s unique to North America. The position is part understudy, part whatever you want to make of it. In any European city there are many good conductors, so it’s easy to find a last-minute substitute. But here you might have to get someone from the west coast, and that could take several days. So I and Michael Morgan [the CSO’s assistant conductor] take turns covering the subscription concerts. One of us is always around for emergencies.”

As a conductor, Jean does not believe in perfecting a narrow specialty. “I have a duty to take everything in. To play only certain types of music is to be self-indulgent. I might not do too much Baroque music, for instance, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t love it. I do. It’s just that I haven’t studied it enough.” He also defends Solti, who he feels has been much maligned for having limited tastes. “Solti makes choices. He adds to his repertoire slowly–only after studying new works very carefully. Yet he offered at least two premieres every season he was here. That’s more than you can say for [Klaus] Tennstedt or Karajan. A good orchestra leader must take all kinds of music and mix and match.”

Unlike his predecessor, Henry Mazer, a considerably older man who had a long-term contract and was heavily involved in a variety of community-outreach and children’s programs, Jean keeps a rather low profile, though he’s keen on the CSO’s proposed conductors’ institute, a top priority on the agenda of Solti’s successor, Daniel Barenboim. “It will give young conductors from around the world a chance to work with our great orchestra. They will be seen and criticized and get lots of media exposure. I wish there was something like this 15 years ago when I started out.”

For all his enthusiasm about the CSO, Jean sounds very much like a man whose future lies elsewhere. “During the current transitional era I’m very much a stabilizing force–because of the credibility I have with the public, the orchestra, and the management. Mind you, there’s nothing like this job. But down the road, no conductor can ever build a reputation without being a music director.”

For several seasons Jean has served as music director of the Florida Symphony Orchestra. Though based in one of the Sunbelt’s boomtowns, the upstart outfit has had a series of financial difficulties. Jean sees its predicaments as symptomatic. “Right now most American symphony orchestras are going through a hard time. Look at Detroit and Buffalo. They’re in danger of going bankrupt. Musically they are attractive, but administratively they are in terrible shape. A young conductor will have to look twice before making a commitment.” He recently resigned from the Florida post, effective at the end of the ’92 season, even though the orchestra is now back on its feet.

“I’d love to hang loose for a while,” Jean says. “I might use the Seaver grant on language studies in Europe for a couple of summers. At the end of next season I’ll see where I am in my career, then decide whether to stay in Chicago. One has to be flexible with one’s career-making choices as they come. I’ve relied on instincts all my life. I am sure I’ll make the right choices–even though things in the classical-music industry are more difficult than ever.”

Tonight Jean will lead the CSO in a concert cosponsored by the American Symphony Orchestra League, a consortium that’s holding its annual convention here this week. Joining him in the American Conductors Program are David Loebel, associate conductor of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, and Carl St. Clair, another Seaver grant recipient and director of three ensembles. To honor the memory of Leonard Bernstein, Jean picked the late conductor’s Fancy Free; other works are Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony and Debussy’s La mer. The concert begins at 8 PM at Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan; admission is $15. Call 435-6666 for tickets.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.