By, Dan Perttu

For this "Muse in Music" blog post, I have a truly inspiring conversation with David Fisk, the Executive Director of the Richmond Symphony Orchestra in Virginia. David and I talk about the wonderful things currently happening at the Richmond Symphony, including their hosting of the Menuhin International Violin Competition, as well as their "Big Tent" outdoor concerts in the warm weather that engage audiences across the Richmond vicinity. Enjoy!

Dan: My first question is just a simple way in to the conversation: so, what is inspiring about what's happening at the Richmond Symphony right now with respect to your programming and with the orchestra in general?

David: It’s an interesting, pivotal year. We are searching for a new Music Director, having had a great experience with Steven Smith for almost 10 years. One of our signature projects to appreciate his tenure was to commission, premiere and record a new choral work, Children of Adam, by Mason Bates. It was issued by Reference Recordings, just nominated for a Grammy under the best producer award. We’re delighted our CD was included for that nomination.

Dan: Congratulations!

David: Thank you. It reflects our commitment to supporting living composers, and commissioning and recording new music. So, this season we have five very exciting Music Director candidates who will bring new ideas, new perspectives, new vision. And, the biggest project we've ever undertaken, to host the Menuhin International Violin Competition, the Olympics of the Violin. That’s something normally beyond our capacity, but we created a consortium with the local public broadcasting company, the City of Richmond, and two big universities, University of Richmond, and Virginia Commonwealth University. Together we are pulling off this extraordinary adventure, which will welcome forty-four of the best young violinists in the world here in May. The Richmond Symphony is giving the opening gala concert, and playing for the senior finals. One really cool part of the project is that we're welcoming the Sphinx Virtuosi here to be the other orchestra playing with us, for the junior finals. We'll be playing together in the closing gala concert, literally side by side. That will look like a clear vision of our commitment to increase the diversity on our stage.

We have nine jury members, we have artists-in-residence that include a representation of violinists from classical through jazz and folk. Regina Carter’s quartet will be in residence for the 11 days, and Mark and Maggie O’Connor. We’ve commissioned from Mark O’Connor a theme and variations on an Appalachian folk tune that the senior competitors will learn. We have also commissioned from Mason Bates a piece for the junior competitors. Again, this showcases our commitment to involve living composers where we can in our work. The Sphinx Virtuosi will be here for eleven days, breaking down into small ensembles and going out into Richmond Public Schools. The competitors who do not continue in the competition do that as well. All the competitors are here for the duration so we find ways to keep them engaged by having them give performances and master classes with the students that we serve.

One of the unique aspects of the Menuhin competition is its very nurturing environment. All members of the jury perform, the artists-in-residence perform, as well as all of the competitors. There is a great deal of engagement with the host city, and with the people we are hoping to inspire. We work with public school systems every week, complementing what the music teachers are doing. It's one thing to buy instruments and to support after-school programming, but there's nothing quite like blowing them away with inspiration, which is what the Menuhin Competition is going to do. We're quite convinced that many of the children exposed to this competition are going to have their lives changed permanently and be driven to want to pursue a life of music.

Dan: That is really exciting, especially from my perspective as a professor and School of Music Chair. These are the kinds of formative experiences for young people that are amazing, especially working with a symphony. That's wonderful.

The "Big Tent"

David: The Menuhin Competition brings it all back to what we're trying to do here. Since 2015, when we bought our "Big Tent" portable stage, we have been moving around the city from public park to public park, building community festivals, at which the Symphony performs, but so do many other performers, both adult and child. As we've gone to these places, we have raised money to buy instruments for that district’s public schools. Since 2015, we've raised over $400,000 to populate 25 of the 32 elementary and middle schools of the city with enough string instruments to teach orchestra at elementary school level. We are moving through the pipeline buying band instruments for middle and high school students. By next September we will have finished the circuit of all nine city districts and every one of those thirty-two schools will have string instruments. That's how we connect with the population that we are trying to serve. Bringing in things like the Menuhin Competition really drives this home. Music can change lives and blow people's minds.

Dan: So, is your approach unique to the Richmond Symphony? I know that other orchestras have outreach initiatives, but I’m not aware of such comprehensive activity. This really seems like a unique, flagship approach.

David: It has been recognized as such by the League of American Orchestras through the Futures Fund. The Director of the NEA at the last League conference gave a shout-out to us for doing this. I can't say we are unique, but I haven't heard of any other orchestras building community festivals and using a mobile stage in this way. Certainly the manufacturer of our tent had not come across it. They were fascinated to hear about it because normally these things go up and stay up: people go to that location. We do it the other way around; we find the people where they are and bring our music to them. In 2018-19 we gave six major festivals on top of our regular season.

We did not imagine when we bought the Big Tent that it would be transformational for us. We generate proceeds from free festivals. It's a very interesting business model. When folks learned that we were trying to leave lasting good behind, it became easier to raise $200,000 in order to leave $100,000 behind than it would have been to raise $100,000 for a three-day festival. We spent six to 10 months introducing ourselves where the Tent is intended to go. That community then sets up a steering committee and smaller committees around logistics, programming, participation, neighborhood relations, and publicity, and they decide what they want the festival to be. The Tent goes up, and the festival lasts a day to three days. The community participates with us. We put it all together, and raise the money together. Whatever is left over at the end of the day from sponsorships, gifts, sales of beer and wine, and food, goes to the schools to buy instruments.

Dan: What a great way to turn those sales into something really, really useful. That's incredible. This flows really well into my next question. What does the future of the Richmond Symphony look like?

David: Success for us, in sustainability and in flourishing, lies in our strategic planning. We have five areas in which we're focused (not listed in any particular order): artistic excellence; financial health; public relevance; diversity, equity, and inclusion; and audience building. We see those five goals as being interdependent, and are focused on progressing in each of those areas. One feeds into the other. The Big Tent has been critical in changing public perceptions and demonstrating our relevance. There are other parts of our work that are associated with artistic excellence. I think the secret to sustainability lies in three areas: what you're doing on the stage; how you're perceived by the public; and how you continue to generate new revenues that will enable you to build, and in some cases, replace what you might be losing through the natural decline of revenue streams that may have run their course.

Dan: As you are saying, the Big Tent is changing public perceptions, which is really remarkable. Can you elaborate on that; how have public perceptions been changing?

David: I was giving a talk recently to a downtown club, and the chairman introduced me saying that the Richmond Symphony has changed the perception that going to hear classical music means you have to sit in a ‘stuffy’ concert hall. There you have the problem, because the people who aren’t coming think that what we do is designed only for a very narrow type of listener who wants to hear only classical music in a very serious (= off-putting) way. If they would pay more attention, they would see that what we do is very different. We perform pops series; we do movie music; we go and play in breweries. Certainly, we present “great works,” large and small. That's not all we do, but you have to get their attention first; after getting their attention you then have to change their perception; and that's what the Big Tent has done. People see us playing in their neighborhood in the open air, in the most accessible way possible. There are families out there in the hundreds. You can have a beer, stand in the sunshine, and listen to the symphony. They then start to pay more attention to what you're doing. Then they say: “oh, I didn’t know you did that,” and they come and see you do Harry Potter or Star Wars, or whatever. We don’t seriously think that from a park 25 or 30 miles away from Richmond, people hearing us on the Fourth of July are suddenly going to want to buy a Masterworks subscription. That’s not the point. But, it is certainly changing perceptions about who we are and what we do. And it is not coincidental, I think, that since we've been ‘meeting people where they are,’ ticket sales have been going up in a straight line, from one year to the next.

Dan: So, actually I'm going to jump to my fifth question, which is about sustaining and growing audiences and enrichment. Do you think the Big Tent is one of the most significant factors that will do that for you, or are there other factors as well?

David: There have been other factors too. I can't point to a direct correlation, since our ticket sales were going up before we bought the Big Tent. But whether they would have continued to go up – maybe not. It is attributable to other factors too, including the end of the recession. Also, the kind of programming we've been doing in our main series. And we added things like movie concerts, which we weren’t doing before then. We face enormous competition here for leisure time and for the leisure dollar, and our sales early this season were not as great as I would have liked, in part because Hamilton came through and sold $11M worth of tickets. That money has to come from somewhere.

Dan: When you mentioned that programming might also have contributed to growth and sustainability of audiences, could you elaborate on what aspects of programming might be doing that?

David: We do eight “Masterworks” concerts, each one twice, but not always in the same hall. And we have a chamber orchestra series, which is a different venue again. So, part of it is around where we play, and part of it is what we're playing. Each of our series is focused on a different potential audience, from the ages of three to ninety-three; we provide something for everyone. I would say that it's obviously programming that people are responding to, but we are careful about pricing and flexibility on our subscription packages. Our increases in sales have been both through subscriptions and single tickets. And by the addition of special concerts, like the Menuhin Competition. We will sell a bunch of extra tickets because we're doing additional activity around Menuhin.

Dan: So then, since we're talking about programming, let me jump back to the music of living composers. How does that play into your programming decisions? I know you had mentioned Mason Bates. Can you talk about commissions in general?

David: We blend music by living composers within the main series. We are premiering a trumpet concerto as a part of our pops series next year. What we've been doing is thinking about ways in which we can present music by living composers on all of the series that we do. We did Exploring America as our summer series last year, and the summer series is just one instrument and piano – six recitals in the summer. So we go all the way down to two people with some of these presentations with living composers. We do maybe two or three commissions a year. Much of our series is broadcast, so there is a chance for archived recordings to be captured to benefit the composers. Very rarely will we create a CD or digital recording for permanent issue. While we don't limit ourselves only to Virginia composers, we do focus on them, even down to sometimes doing composition workshops. And then sometimes there is a special project. There was a residency that we did at the University of Richmond last year that had four concerts, focusing on Beyond Orientalism, beyond ‘exoticism’, and the influence of Eastern traditions in Western music. That also involved commissioning music from Asian composers. That was presented in that series because we got a special grant through the University of Richmond to be able to do that.

Unfortunately, our ability to be as supportive as we'd like is often constrained by the need for special funding for the purpose, whether it is for commissioning or for performing music. We have had grants from NewMusic USA. We actually have two commissioning funds. One is within our own endowment, and one is through the local Community Foundation, for this particular purpose.

Dan: And not everyone has that for sure. That’s wonderful! That actually leads well into the next question, which is: what are the most exciting aspects of the classical music scene to you nowadays and how are you involved with them? I recognize that commissioning would be a factor in that. But, are there other things too?

David: Yeah. We look at our work as being more about the presentation of orchestral music without using the label “classical” too often. Obviously, we are deeply committed to cherishing the classical music tradition, but we want to be careful with labels and not to put labels on things that could confine about how we think about music, or how we present it. So, you'll find us rarely saying that we present “classical” music. We present music of all kinds. And our goal is to present great orchestral music.

Having said that, where we contribute to the vibrancy of classical music in Richmond and beyond is by our relationships with others, by the very healthy culture that exists that has our musicians being ambassadors for the symphony because of what they do too when they're not working for the symphony. Many of them teach. Many of them have connections because of their role outside of the symphony that benefit the symphony too. There’s a chapter of Classical Revolution in Richmond that was started by our Principal Second Violin. That's a good example of the street-level culture of classical music that we are connected to.

Dan: What's really amazing and inspiring is how your orchestra is so deeply engaged in the community in so many different facets.

David: For a very long time it has been part of our contract with our musicians that they are committed to doing education work. We have contracts with all of the surrounding county school systems as well as a deep commitment to the city’s school system. We go into every Elementary School in the region, every year. It's a huge number of mini recitals that are going on as our musicians break out into small ensembles. We know the music supervisors of all the counties, and we have great relationships with them.

Also, for an orchestra of our size to have six youth orchestra ensembles is really quite remarkable. We walk the walk that education is central to our mission. We do as much teaching as we do performing, by virtue of all of this educational activity. Championing music is our third pillar. We are out there in civic leadership, promoting the importance of music education and access to the arts for all the communities that we seek to serve.

Dan: This leads well into my final question. What does the future of orchestral music look like to you both in Richmond and more generally?

David: A successful future looks like us succeeding in what we're currently trying to do as a field, as well as locally: which is to be more representative of the communities that we're seeking to serve. We can’t possibly succeed unless we accomplish that. We are making progress in that area. We have to always be focused on being deeply engaged in the city and the surrounding region, depending on how far a net you want to cast as your service area. It doesn't make sense to try to cover too much ground if, in doing so, all you're making are momentary touches. There need to be deep relationships with the communities you're seeking to serve; each locality will have a different set of ingredients for what a successful relationship looks like. These depend upon the nature of the population. We have the advantage of having been around for now 62 years. We are viewed as a civic institution, but that can work against you as well as for you. But I think if you can connect the idea that the symphony is a civic institution with a very present sense that we are relevant to the public, then you have a solid platform from which to work.

Dan: Wonderful. Well, I have to say, listening to this I truly am inspired by the work that you're doing. Thank you so much for the conversation!

David: Thank you!

By, Dan Perttu

Photo by Dan Rest

For this post of the "Muse in Music" blog, I am most happy to be interviewing the President and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, Jesse Rosen. Mr. Rosen has been the President and CEO of the League since 2008 and "has been a leading voice for the League’s more than 2,000 member organizations and individuals, empowering them with knowledge and perspective to navigate a rapidly changing environment" (LAO website). Jesse has been known for leading advocacy for orchestras to engage more deeply with their communities, to address diversity and equity issues both in concert programming and in workplace culture, to use data to inform decision-making, and to enhance their engagement with the work of living composers. In this blog post, Jesse and I talk about his perspectives on American orchestras -- past, present and future. True to the blog's identity, we discuss what is inspiring about what is happening with orchestras today. We also talk about issues pertaining to diversity and equity, new music, audience age, among other engaging topics.

Dan: Thank you for agreeing to talk with me! My blog is about what inspires musicians to do what they do, and it’s a pleasure for me to talk with you about what is inspiring about the current and future state of orchestras in America. So, let’s get started: what is inspiring to you about the future of orchestras?

Jesse: There are many things. The variety, volume, and quality of new compositions nowadays is at an all-time high. I ran the American Composers’ Orchestra for ten years, and when I started there, in the 1980s, there were two camps: the “uptown composers” and the “downtown composers.” You had to declare which side you were on. Since that time, not only has that wall crumbled, the idea that there are only two camps has also dissolved, and we’ve had such an explosion of genres. Part of it is from immigrant composers, from Asia and parts of Europe, as well as our home- grown composers with the influences from various idioms throughout America. Just a great, great wealth and variety of music today. I think that has contributed to the closing of the chasm that separated audiences from the new orchestral concert music. I think that gap is not closed, but it has been closing very significantly, and it’s a great cause for optimism.

In addition, musicians today bring a broad array of interests and skills that are really enriching music making. Some of that has to do with an interest in many different genres, a heightened attention to audience engagement, and creating experiences where there is genuine back-and-forth with the audience. There is a desire to do good with music and to contribute to our society, and also a sense of agency, of taking responsibility for creating your own musical experiences, working with the people you want to work with and creating music you want to play. These have all been features of the generation coming up that really adds to the way we think about and “do” orchestra.

Dan: Thanks for sharing this. This leads nicely into my next question. What about the ways in which orchestras are being managed now as opposed to in the past? Is there anything that is particularly inspiring about the future of orchestras from the perspective of management?

Jesse: I think that the understanding of leadership in orchestras today is increasingly infused with new, very relevant attributes. In recent years, people in leadership roles and organizations are prioritizing their organizational cultures more than in the past, so the quality of experience in the workplace really matters. People are paying attention to that, and it is manifested in many dimensions. It's partly in attention to creating equitable, inclusive, and diverse workplaces, and it's also creating collaborative workplaces in many sectors. We've seen workplace cultures move from the command and control/organizational model to the servant/leadership model, and I think that's been playing out also in orchestras. So, the leader is not necessarily the person who knows more than everybody else and tells everybody what to do, but it's the person who surrounds himself or herself with gifted and talented people and creates the conditions for them to flourish and be part of the strategic and generative work of an organization. When the organization moves forward, it does so with good alignment and collaboration across the organization. Also, in terms of administrative leadership, we are seeing increasingly more women in leadership roles, particularly in our larger budget orchestras, and I think that's been a welcome change. We do have a long way to go in terms of greater representations of other underrepresented groups, but we’ve made progress.

Dan: Besides what you have just outlined, are there other essential trends in orchestras that you have observed over the course of your career?

Jesse: This will be a bit of an oversimplification, but for purposes of answering your question, I would say that orchestras have moved from a more transactional way of doing their work to a more relational one. In the past, orchestras believed their job simply was to produce concerts and sell tickets to the people who wanted to buy them. When we did that work well, we put on really great concerts, people came, and donors made contributions. But, the environment changed. When there were threats to the income streams, changes in audience behavior and preferences, and changes in civic priorities, the transactional model was really not really up to the task. Doing more concerts at higher levels of quality, marketing harder, and fundraising harder were really not adequate to meet the challenges and opportunities in the environment. So, I think in adapting to some of these changes, orchestras become much more focused on the relational aspects of their work by investing a lot more in understanding how audiences are changing in what they're looking for, what they're valuing in the performing arts experience, and what their preferences are. And similarly with donors, donor relationships have become far more nuanced; there is much more give and take. The days in which the donor gave you a gift because you were the orchestra are largely in the past. Donors are interested in impact and results, and they want to be a part of the process. They want a relationship; whether it's donors or audience members, those people desire a relationship. Similarly, internally I think orchestras are focused on the quality of relationships within the organization, as I said earlier. It was said in the old days that the musicians play; the managers manage; and the board governs, but now I think that orchestras have shifted their approaches. In order to be strong and sustainable, internal constituents have to have a healthy, constructive relationships to do the hard work of adapting to the very changed environment. That's how I would characterize, in a very generalized sense, how the orchestra environment has changed over the last 25 years or so.

Dan: Then following on that, what do you see as being the most significant challenges for orchestras in the near future? And are these challenges different from the difficulties that you have observed in the previous 25 years? How might orchestras position themselves to address these challenges?

Jesse: You know, in some ways, there is the continual challenge of how do we support a very expensive proposition. Orchestras cost a lot of money. Sustaining the musician workforce with the wages, benefits, and challenges surrounding pension plans today, as well as the cost of health care is difficult; it costs a lot to keep these things going. The facilities and venues are extremely costly. I think there always is the continuing struggle to identify sufficient resources to keep the organizations going. I think the long-term strategy that's been emerging has been to create more value for more members of the community, partly because it's the right thing to do, and also because it's a way of opening up more sources of support, and more people who care about the organizations are prepared to support it. That's a long-game strategy, and what's always needed is the good short-game strategy, and every year the orchestra must make it work. Every contract cycle they have to figure out how they're going to manage the next three to five years of their costs, and so on the one hand, playing the long game, but being able to navigate the immediate circumstances, is a big challenge. Now, you kind of have to be in both places at the same time.

This circles back to my earlier comments about the internal work of orchestras, dealing with the lives of musicians, staff and everyone associated with the organization. This often occurs in a constrained environment for having adequate resources. You need people to be aligned and to be able to function together successfully.

I also think that issues around equity are very much in the forefront of most orchestra leaders today. Whether it's gender pay equity or creating more inclusive environments for unrepresented peoples, particularly African Americans and Latinos (given where our country’s populations are heading), these are huge challenges for orchestras. Given the relative lack of change over a long period of time, there is a degree of impatience among orchestra stakeholders and a real urgency for creating change.

Dan: This topic actually touches on my fourth question. Since we are now seeing more programming of more music by people other than white males, can you comment on the current state of this issue now from your perspective, where it has been recently, and also what you hope to see for the future?

Jesse: I think we are in a much better place now than in the past, and I think we have a really long way to go. The positive change that I've seen is that orchestras are moving beyond a surface kind of approach to dealing with equity, diversity, and inclusion. Orchestras are moving toward more holistic, organization-wide conversations and strategies, including at the core artistic level. In some ways, I think some of the most promising change is when music directors embrace these ideals and see them as an operative driver, and how they think about their core comes from programming. In the past, these were issues that were relegated to the community engagement department or fellowship program, and so when music directors are saying that these issues matter, and they’re going to address this in their core work of concert programming, the changes on these fronts are much more significant. So I think that's all been a really, really positive change. And having said that, I acknowledge that these changes don’t come easily or quickly, and there are barriers and push-back. So there is a lot of work to do. Overall, though, I'm encouraged by the shift from a rather cosmetic response to a move toward a more holistic and core artistic change.

Dan: How long do you think this shift from a cosmetic response to a more central artistic change has been going on?

Jesse: In the last five years, I've seen this shift to a deeper, more authentic engagement with these ideals of equity, diversity and inclusion.

Dan: And what do you see with respect to the future?

Jesse: It's hard to predict, and it's going to take a while. Doing this requires years of work; a quick turnaround does not happen. However, I do think the prioritization of this work has occurred in a relatively short amount of time, from this being a more of a back-burner item to becoming a front-and-center item for many orchestras.

Dan: I’m now going back to just another one of the other follow-ups from one of the earlier questions. We had talked a little bit about the future of orchestras. As we're talking about shifting demographics, and responses to those shifting demographics, I also think about the issue of audiences aging. People come down on multiple sides on this, because on the one hand, we see aging audiences, but on the other hand, I've heard the argument been made that audiences were old in the 80s, and they were old in the 90s, and they were old in the 2000s. So given these two sides, where do you fall on the issue of aging audiences?

Jesse: The data on this is pretty conclusive. The audience was not always old. It’s a lot older now than it used to be. This was captured first in an NEA Survey of Public Participation in the Arts in 2008 and demonstrated the increase of the audience age for classical music over a 25 year period. The median age went from 42 to 48. I don't think anybody disputes the data, but I think the myths and mythology still prevail that the audience is always old, and if it is mostly about old people we have no problems. And I think there's other data that further dispels that; there's research we commissioned from McKinsey that shows that every successive generation participates in attending orchestra concerts at a lower rate than the generation before it. There’s also data that indicates that, at a time when the largest proportion of our population is going to college, we have fewer college-educated people going to concerts than we ever had before. Having a college education was always the biggest predictor of becoming a symphony subscriber, so you know the data is not very encouraging. Things used to be different, but that’s not that way they are now. In the 1960s, some orchestras’ subscription campaigns might consist of a one-page letter with dates, artists, and repertoire, and they were then sold out on subscription. That was a time when there was a great alignment of the product with what the market wanted. Those days are long gone, and there's no reason to think they're going to come back in the normal course of things. So, the challenge now is that the current core audience subscriber skews older and is more traditional in his/her tastes and buying habits than the coming generations. The question becomes: how do you retain your core audience while investing in the cultivation of a new one, whose behavior is different from the older ones. Orchestras are doing a lot of experimentation, and a lot of innovation is happening in the development of new audiences. The good news is that more people are going to concerts than ever before, and we don't have any issues around people liking the orchestra experience. The music is as strong and healthy as it has ever been. But people's buying patterns are different, so that poses a challenge, but there's nothing existentially wrong with the experience or with the repertoire. The challenge is, how do we develop the loyalty, frequency, and volume that is sufficient to meet our needs.

Dan: So are you saying that people are going but they may not be returning or they may not be subscribing?

Jesse: They're coming, but instead of buying multiple tickets every year they're buying one ticket or two tickets, and they may be coming back year after year, but it is not what it used to be. And there is in fact a shift now. We've turned the corner a couple of years ago where there's more revenue coming in from single ticket sales than from subscriptions.

Dan: So, going back to the initial question about what is maybe inspiring or optimistic about this: orchestras are adapting to this and are trying to find creative solutions to engaging these younger generations. Is that fair to say?

Jesse: Yes, absolutely.

Dan: And do you think that financially speaking, with these adaptations, we are seeing evidence that they are yielding positive results, or is it hard to know?

Jesse: There is a high degree of experimentation taking place in the field. What's hard to tell is what's going to stick. What works in one place may not work someplace else. There is a lot of interest in the membership model, which is being tested in a variety of places. It's a really different way to think about how you achieve loyalty and frequency that's quite different from the subscription model, but is more aligned with how people think about being affiliated with an organization these days. In the membership model, people a flat amount of money and go as often as they want. It’s being experimented with.

Dan: In some senses, linking back to what you said earlier, the membership model is in line with this notion of a relationship, built between the consumer and the orchestra as an organization.

Jesse: Right.

Dan: Well, there’s some potentially exciting experimentation going on. I try to remain optimistic about the future of orchestras, since I love them so dearly, and this shows some promise. Well, thank you for your time! I really appreciate hearing your perspectives on these issues.

Jesse: Thank you so much!

By, Dan Perttu

I am pleased to be interviewing conductor Martin MacDonald on the Muse in Music blog. Winner of the prestigious Heinz Unger Award for Orchestral Conducting from the Ontario Arts Council, Martin MacDonald is one of Canada's most dynamic and outstanding young conductors. Including recent posts as a Cover Conductor and Guest Conductor for the National Ballet of Canada and former Associate Conductor of Symphony Nova Scotia, Martin has conducted extensively across Canada having appeared with the orchestras of Toronto, the National Arts Centre, Edmonton, Calgary, Hamilton, London, Niagara, Windsor, Thunder Bay, Sudbury, Newfoundland, Kamloops, Prince George, and Orchestra Toronto. In this conversation, we touch not only on what inspires him and his work, but also on the interpersonal relationship between the conductor and the orchestra, on musician investment and authentic performances, and on some of his perspectives on Canadian “classical” music.

Dan: Because it’s the theme of the blog, I always start with this question: what inspires you as a conductor? And, I’ll add a twist: if the entire body of classical music were on fire, what would you save if you could only save two or three pieces?

Martin: There are a few particular pieces that have had an immense impact on me, and the first that comes to mind is the Mahler “Resurrection” Symphony. I performed it first I was fifteen years old and playing it in the Nova Scotia Youth Orchestra for the first time as a cellist. I was cello thirteen of thirteen cellos, sitting in the very back of the section, and I played every note of that symphony with every ounce of myself. It was my first big orchestral experience, and I probably listened to the symphony hundreds of times. It’s just one of those pieces that stood out to me, and then when I went to get my master’s degree in conducting, it was the first piece I assisted on. So, the Resurrection Symphony is probably my favorite. Another one is La Mer by Debussy, which I adore. It’s an astonishing piece of music. The colors, the orchestration, and the depth of that piece are incredible. It is another piece that has stood the test of time for me as a favorite. And, if I had to choose a third piece, I would just say the entire body of works of Haydn , Mozart, and Beethoven. I’ve done a couple of lectures lately; I filled in for a friend of mine teaching an orchestral literature class here in Toronto a few times a year. For this, I really dug quite deeply into the work of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. The bedrock of the classical symphony was propelled forward from their musical models and structures.

Dan: I can understand; of course they’re incredible. That’s the First Viennese School right there. That’s the wonderful thing about great art . . . great music. You never get tired of it.

Martin: That brings me to your second point. That’s what inspires me to be in I this field; that’s what motivates me. For a number of years I didn’t pursue a conducting career, and I was miserable. I knew I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to do, and then I had the opportunity to go for it, and I did, and I never looked back. It’s just something I was meant to do, and that’s why I keep doing it.

Dan: Yeah, I can see that. In music, you’re constantly being surprised, constantly being exposed to some hidden mystery in music; and especially in a great piece of music, upon multiple listenings, you can hear these things. When you are talking about inspiration, there are multiple experiences of music, including how your life experiences figure in. This leads to my next question. What motivates you as a conductor, and why do you do it? And how would you characterize your artistic vision?

Martin: For me, it’s more about the fact that this is what I’m supposed to do. I know it’s a lofty answer, but I mean it with utmost sincerity. Standing on a podium and working with musicians in that dynamic and that role just is what fits me. In terms of motivation, more than anything I just enjoy collaborating and working with musicians. I take a collaborative approach to music making; I like to make myself as approachable and open to suggestions and new ideas as possible. Depending on the level of the orchestra I’m working with, I like to extend a great deal of flexibility when it comes to an orchestral solo or something like that. Obviously direction comes from the podium but, depending on the level of the orchestra, there can be a degree of flexibility in dynamics and phrasing, while still observing the composer’s intentions. I conduct a lot of different types of programs, different types of music, and I like to stay open minded to in what I’m doing. Also, we are creating a sense of community as we are all working together; that also motivates me. That’s the twenty-first century conductor in very many respects: you have to be open and collaborative, and your working style has to complement the working style of those you are working with.

Dan: And that is different even from what I experienced as a student sometimes. A lot of the time we were terrified of the maestros.

Martin: It’s a very unique wall that you have to tear down sometimes. It’s very mysterious sometimes, why there’s a wall there, and why it has to be there. I guess it’s because of years of the maestro barking directions. Groups need leaders and you can be as collaborative as you want, but eventually the decisions have to be made on musical ideas. There has to be a level of leadership there as well. Also, it’s taking ownership for everything that happens. When I came on the podium I realized that everything that happens on stage is down to me. That’s a very important thing for young conductors to realize. So, there is a lot of responsibility that you have to accept. And I accept it and enjoy every moment of it.

Dan: I understand what you are saying. And linking that now to the artistic vision question, I appreciate that you recognize the collaborative nature of making music, a group of people who are also very much invested in it and in love with it. On the other hand, you recognize the importance of leadership and that the buck still has to stop somewhere.

Martin: I like the word you used: invested. When the musicians and the conductor are deeply invested in the performance, and they bring the positive energy from that mutual investment, the music-making is much more sincere. That’s ultimately what we are doing; we are making great art and recreating great art. We are recreating what is written on the page, and there is so much mystery involved even with a brand new score. Even with a composer sitting right there next to you, as you are rehearsing, there is still an incredible amount of mystery about what is on that page, and you have to discover it together. And, you have to be true to it.

Dan: That’s an interesting way of putting it. Frequently, when I am present at a performance of my music, I am pleasantly surprised by the performers’ interpretation of what I wrote. They picked up on something that was implied by the music, but I had not marked it.

So, what is your artistic vision for your orchestra or orchestras that you perform with?

Martin: My artistic vision is to realize the composer’s intention. It sounds basic, but when it comes down to it, that is what it is, and obviously we’re recreating art at the highest possible artistic merit. We do so together, with the best intentions in mind, and that spans any kind of music. I do classical concerts, ballets, family concerts, educational concerts, pops/crossover concerts, and this applies to every type and genre of music that’s on the stand. Whether it’s an Indie band or a Mahler symphony, the same conditions apply. I try to make everything I do on the podium as meaningful as I can possibly make it.

Dan: When you talk about realizing the composer’s intentions, this brings up the issue of authenticity in a performance. What do you think would be an inauthentic performance? What does that sound like, what does that look like?

Martin: That’s a really interesting question. For me it’s a performance where the performers are just not engaged.

Dan: Oh yeah; I’ve seen some of those.

Martin: Even when there’s one person who’s not engaged it feels like we’re all not really there. There’s a lot on the shoulders of the conductor to inspire the players to be completely engaged in what they are doing -- heart and soul, putting yourself into what you are doing.

Dan: So, what do you do to inspire the people who’ve played a piece many, many times?

Martin: Knowing what you are doing inside and out, backwards and forwards. If you are going to guest conduct an orchestra, the musicians will peg you in the first thirty seconds. It’s a very interesting phenomenon. You get upon the podium for the first time, and within a minute they’ve already made a decision about you. So your confidence level in what you are doing immediately is a huge factor in inspiring musicians to play, to be their best because you are being your best. You give mutual respect for them, and for the music. That goes a long way to inspire them to dig in, and yourself to dig in. I remember when I got my first resident job in Nova Scotia in 2008. It was my first gig after my master’s degree and my years with the National Academy Orchestra (which was really my first job although it was a hybrid training program), so Symphony Nova Scotia was my first big professional job. In the cello section, three of the four cellists were my former teachers. That’s an extremely humbling position to be in, and it is a little scary at first. Now those three people were with me for the twelve years I’ve been conducting Symphony Nova Scotia and I consider them three wonderful people who have supported me in everything I’ve done. I have extreme respect for them and their work. In essence I just think that respect for who’s in front of you is immensely important. To identify and understanding that goes a long way to inspiring musicians.

Dan: I think that’s a really interesting take on all of this. We’ve also covered an area that none of the previous conductors have talked about for one reason or another and this is really nice because it’s giving the people who read the blog a perspective on these issues that I haven’t explored yet and put in the blog, so thank you for that. I wanted to move on to the next question now because it is of interest to me; it may be a little bit of a shift. Now shifting to the audience: in what ways do you deal with the audience and programming? So in what ways do you keep the audience in your mind as you program your concerts?

Martin: Well, you know we always have to remember that aside from the immense task of creating high art, we have this stakeholder that’s sitting on the other side of the stage, and that’s the audience. We have to remember that they are the community that we serve, and giving them the music that they want to hear, or that we would like to introduce to them, is a very careful balance. Since I’m a guest conductor and freelancer, a lot of programs get programmed for me, and I get called to do a particular concert. When I have been programming concerts, I see it as an immense jigsaw puzzle. Taking care of all the stakeholders, musicians, the community, the composers, the mandate of the orchestra, the vision of the orchestra -- there’s so much to keep in mind. But in terms of the audience themselves, there’s a lot of great pieces that people just want to hear. And I think it’s important for them to be heard. I also like to program music by Canadian composers on programs where you wouldn’t normally see this music. I’ve taken older pieces of Canadian music, pieces from the thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, even seventies, some pieces that have not had a performance since their premiere and then played them again. They may sometimes be more accessible to listen to as contemporary music goes, but I find it’s an excellent opportunity. I find that at these concerts, Masterworks Concerts, people come with very open ears, and I find that with non-traditional or non-classical concerts you get people who are very open-minded and going to a concert for the first time. So it’s a really good opportunity to put a piece of contemporary music on there. It can even be successful with new Canadian music that may not be perceived as easy to listen to. There’s so much contemporary Canadian music and a lot of that has only been played once or twice. I’ve done a lot of that, and it’s gone very well.

Dan: That actually leads well into the next question. I am curious if you have any preferences for any particular aesthetic orientations or styles in new music, be it from the 30’s or 70’s or from any composers living today?

Martin: I don’t really prefer an aesthetic style. If it’s a good piece that really says something, then it’s worth programming. Of course, it’s really difficult to quantify what a “good” piece is. It’s all so subjective, but, for me, if the music has something to say, then it’s worth programming. I find with the majority of contemporary music that’s very true, and it’s important to try to find ways to program contemporary music as much as possible. If you want to add a fourth piece of music to preserve if everything were on fire, I would want to preserve the contents of the Canadian Music Centre. That’s our future. If you are a composer in Canada, your music is sitting in the Canadian Music Centre. Everything gets stored there, it’s our national library. A couple hundred years from now, that’s going to be our history.

Dan: Is it any piece or is it only published pieces, in other words, what are the criteria for getting into the Canadian Music Centre?

Martin: I’m pretty sure it’s just published pieces, but I could be wrong. So one of my tasks in Symphony Nova Scotia was that I had to research Canadian music that would fit the size of the orchestra. Nova Scotia is a smaller orchestra. The other criteria were that the pieces needed to be longer than ten minutes, and the pieces must have been performed only once or twice. That was one of the things that I really admired about my boss at the time; he was insistent on having contemporary music and Canadian music on all of his programming. And he was insistent on having sufficient rehearsal time for it. He would actually add rehearsal time for the contemporary pieces. I took a lot of inspiration from that. I thought his treatment of contemporary music was so different from what I had experienced or seen previously. His aesthetic was very much like mine, pieces that people could connect to or relate to, pieces that had something meaningful to say. Also, thematic programming comes into it as well, because a lot of programming now is very thematic.

Dan: So in Canada, there is a strong emphasis on performing Canadian composers, which is completely understandable. However, what about contemporary American composers or even European composers -- what is your take on them?

Martin: In Canada we really focus on Canadian content, and there’s a lot of incentive to put Canadian music in a concert. It is considered a hallmark of a good concert to fill your program with Canadian content. There are mandates from all of these different arts councils to program Canadian music. It’s the same with television and radio programming; they also want to see Canadian programming. What I find is that the bigger orchestras are more in a position to present more non-Canadian works since they have more concerts per season. That said, we try to highlight our own I guess, because we are still a young country, and the number of composers we have is still relatively small compared to other countries. But I think is an open- mindedness about various composers is important. And it also depends on funding and where the funding comes from and what the criteria and mandates are behind that. There are a lot of different factors.

Dan: What are the mandates from various arts councils? I’m just curious.

Martin: There is always a mandate to highlight Canadian music. But then we’ll turn around and say why don’t we have music from more people? It can be quite the conundrum.

Dan: The last question I had was more of a personal question, just so people reading the blog have a sense of you as a human being. What do you do to relax? Do you have hobbies, other interests, anything you want to share on that side of it?

Martin: In addition to being a free-lance conductor, I am a stay-at-home dad to a four year old little girl, and she pretty much takes up every free moment that I have.

Dan: Yes, I know the feeling! I have a five-year-old and a two-year-old.

Martin: It's just great spending time with her and my wife. I also love running, and I also have a really strong background in Celtic music, being from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, there is a long tradition and I have training in Celtic music as well. That was a big part of my life for a long time. I just recently played cello in my brother’s (Dan MacDonald) cd that just came out.

Dan: It’s always interesting to get to know this other side of the people I talk to. Thanks for sharing. So, it’s been a pleasure talking with you. Thanks for such an interesting discussion!

Martin: Thank you! Talk soon.

© 2017-20 by Daniel Perttu. 

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