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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.

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By, Dan Perttu

This time on the Muse in Music Blog, I interview conductor Matthew Kraemer. He and I talk about bold programming while still growing an audience, and touch on composers from Janáček to Torke. Please join me for a fascinating conversation with Matthew.

Dan: You must be thrilled about the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra’s being featured in the League of American Orchestra’s Symphony Magazine as an orchestra that is deeply committed to presenting and promoting music of our time. Tell me about that.

Matthew: The article in Symphony Magazine created a great deal of excitement (and still does) within our organization. It was an unsolicited article by a writer based in Cincinnati, who has covered the Cincinnati Symphony. Despite being an orchestra with a budget just under a million dollars, we are still able to contribute to the creation of new music either by commissioning composers directly, joining a consortium, or performing the works of living composers. We really feel that as a percentage of our programing we do more new works than many large symphony orchestras. We have seven subscription concerts vs. the 150+ annual concerts some large orchestras have. So on almost every program, with the exception of Messiah, there is a work of a living composer, not necessarily American. As a music director, I feel an obligation to share with our audience what’s happening in the industry, either here in the states or abroad, so they get a taste of the new trends in music. They’re not just reading about it, they’re not going somewhere else to hear it. We can program music specifically written for small orchestra, and it’s going well.

Dan: What is your instrumentation there?

Matthew: We have double woodwinds, two horns, two trumpets, one trombone, harp, and strings. We often expand slightly.

Dan: That’s sort of a different corpus of repertoire that you are dealing with. Especially with currently composed music. To what extent is this built into your mission? How do you get audiences to buy in?

Matthew: It’s tricky. When you are new to the position and you are getting to know the community, it is a difficult balancing act to figure out what kind of new music can be introduced. The orchestra’s been around for 35 years, and we have always done new music. The Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra has a residency at the Indiana State University Contemporary Music Festival, and we have been a fixture there over the last ten years. So, in some way or another we have always been involved in new music, but we often start off conservatively. I might introduce Ligeti and program his more tonal works, such as the Concerto Romanesque. So I’ll introduce composers whom I’m really fascinated with, but I might not start with fully atonal or densely complicated compositions. With new music, I’m very interested in music that’s beautiful, not necessarily tonal, but has something to say. I’m not particularly interested in something that is just an exercise in structure and technique. There is so much music out there that we have to weed through, whether it’s composers you have relationships with, composers who contact you, that you do have to be very specific about what you choose. It’s a relatively conservative audience in Indianapolis, but they are quite often excited to be challenged by new and unfamiliar experiences.

Dan: How long have you been there now?

Matthew: It’s my fourth season now.

Dan: So over time you’ve built that trust and can take more risks. But now it’s nearly 2020. It’s a different landscape now; it’s not 1950 through 1975 when people were really pushing music to the very edge and even calling into question the very definition of music. Can you speak to that?

Matthew: I do enjoy serialist works, including works of Berg and some Webern. It’s difficult to program some of these pieces because there is a great deal of intricacy and complexity in this kind of music. It’s fascinating to look at it on paper, study it, and see how the sounds come together, but that’s not something you can always share with an audience even in a preconcert lecture. So now we are obviously in a different landscape. Many composers have turned around; they’re writing music that is at least pitch centered in some way or another, that does have melodies and that is accessible in a way that serialist music might not be. If it’s related to social issues, that’s even more interesting. People are writing music about global warming, the ocean, or social injustice. It’s no different than the music Beethoven was writing in his time; he was often responding to the world in which he lived. But these current themes give something for an audience that might not be classically based to latch onto. And I find that’s very helpful. If I share a story about why I programed that piece, if I tie it in to other pieces on the program, it makes it very easy for us to have a jumping off point with our audience to talk about it.

Dan: Yes, many composers are now writing with certain contemporary themes, such as global warming, in mind, so what you are bringing up is timely. I don’t know how many times I’ve talked to conductors who have told me that the thematic material is driving their programming now. I don’t even know to what extent you can sell a program just on the composer’s name any more. People will know Beethoven and Brahms, but will they know Khachaturian or maybe even Debussy? How many people know those names? What are your thoughts on this?

Matthew: It depends on the market you are in. I’m the Music Director for three orchestras now, the Butler County Symphony Orchestra, the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, and the Marion Philharmonic Orchestra. Since there is a full-time symphony orchestra in Indianapolis, we have to be very creative with the programming at the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra. The thematic program is something that I have used for a long time. In Butler I put programs together not really so concerned about an underlying theme, but how the pieces tie in together. I think your point is very well taken that names don’t really bring in people, either the composers alone, or especially guest artists. There are no names among guest artists that will bring in people other than the handful of top-echelon artists, such as Yo-Yo Ma or Joshua Bell. The pieces have to fit well on a program, and they have to balance themselves. I always have a thematic edge in some form, whether it’s composers celebrating other composers, or a program inspired by folk music or nationalism in music. This season we have Michael Torke’s new blue grass concerto Sky along with folk music from Eastern Europe and the United States. A thematic program can come from anywhere. It can come from world events or social issues, but it can also come from pieces that fit or complement each other. So to answer your question, it has very little to do with the actual composers.

Dan: How is programming different in different places, or is it similar?

Matthew: It is similar. It is important to balance popular appeal, and pops concerts with classical programs. A successful concert does not always translate to a sold-out hall; for instance, classical concerts typically don’t sell as well as pops concerts do.

Dan: So, through all of this, I wonder: what inspires you musically as a conductor? And if the entire body of classical music were on fire, what would you save?

Matthew: As a music director, I am inspired by the long-term result of the hard work that goes into the administration of an orchestra. The fundraising, the connections with the community, the articles that acknowledge the hard work that we are doing—all of that is inspiring, and it inspires the orchestra too. But, as a conductor, I put all of that stuff in the back of my mind; we are actually there in the moment, rehearsing the program that has been on paper for over a year. So that’s the inspiring factor for me: taking the sounds we have in the first rehearsal feeding off of that enthusiasm and talent of the musicians, being there in the moment, shaping things in rehearsal, making music with the orchestra. . . . I have several favorite composers; one composer I really like is Janáček, a very unique voice. But, it is difficult to use him, very expensive to program him, because of all of the brass parts. Also Debussy, and as a string player, Mozart, Haydn.

Dan: What about Janáček’s music is so intriguing?

Matthew: His compositional style often imitates speech; the inflections, the meter, and the stress of speech patterns are evident in his music. His harmonic language is immensely complicated too. His operas in particular grab you; they have a compelling story. The music is just unlike any other composer. In Janáček’s early music, you can hear the Czech roots, but as he got older, he created an entirely different kind of sound. His approach to meter is very interesting; every other measure seems to change tempo, but it works in such a way that makes perfect sense. The challenge is so worth it.

Dan: It is true that Janáček is not frequently programmed.

Matthew: There’s not much orchestral repertoire that he wrote. The Sinfonietta is a masterpiece, but isn’t very long and utilizes a massive brass section. Taras Bulba and the Lachian Dances are great. The Glagolitic Mass and operas are expensive to mount, and the language is difficult. I’ve programmed his Suite Op. 3 in Indianapolis next season, but it’s an early work. As a violinist I’ve performed much of his chamber music. Janáček was writing music regardless of whether he felt it was going to be programmed or not, it seems.

Dan: There are also these very interesting composers who have a nationalistic musical identity, and their music seems somehow linked to the language, and also somehow linked to the ethos of the country. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact nature of these linkages, which makes them very difficult to study and to even discuss informally. Perhaps some connections are in the language rhythms. Other connections may be in approaches to timbre and texture, though the extent to which these are features of a nationalistic identity is dubious. Nevertheless, important composers within a certain nation were well aware of their national musical heritage, so it is not surprising that, for instance, the Finnish composer Rautavaara was influenced by Sibelius in terms of texture and timbre. However, the general public isn’t necessarily going to be interested in this level of detail, so it makes it harder to deal with that in programming.

Matthew: I love observing the connections from one composer leading to another. We are all influenced, whether we acknowledge it or not, by what we hear, whom we study, whom we study with. For instance, in the next season in Indianapolis we are performing the Poulenc Sinfonietta, which is a very accessible piece for the audience In the Dutilleux that I programmed, you can hear the influence of Poulenc, but in later Dutilleux, you don’t hear the Ravel or the Poulenc. So composers obviously evolve with time.

Dan: So, continuing on the subject of compositional style or aesthetic orientation: do you have some preference for some aesthetic orientations or styles when you are programming, particularly when you program new music?

Matthew: To the point of programming new music, variety is key. For instance, at the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra we have seven concerts, one is a Christmas oratorio. Then there is a silent movie program which is unique to us in Indianapolis. So, we really only have five concerts for which I have more freedom in programming. When I mention “variety,” of course I want to program living American composers. Diversity is a priority for me, so I try to include composers that have been historically underrepresented, but specifically to the sound, or the musical language of the composer, I want variety. Also, I want to program composers from Europe. It’s important for the audience to be exposed to some of the leading composers in the world.

It’s a puzzle putting programs together; it takes 6-8 months to figure it out. There are 350 years of orchestral music to consider, and I like to program a wide variety of music. Sometimes the greatest ideas are expensive and are very difficult to see through. We are doing a lot of semi-staged or staged pieces in Indianapolis now, such as Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate, Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, and Beethoven’s Fidelio. These all happened on significant anniversaries for the composers, such as a birth or death date. Our 2019-20 season focuses on social themes. One of our programs is on immigration. On the first half, we are featuring the golden age of Hollywood composers, such as Korngold, Waxman, and Rósza (the entire film music industry was built by immigrants), and Peter Boyer’s Ellis Island on the second half. We’re also doing a program on tyranny and oppression with Shostakovich and Michael Daugherty’s Trail of Tears, and the second half of the program is Beethoven. He was very much about universal brotherhood and was anti-aristocracy. To summarize, though, diversity and variety in music are important to me. The theme might be great, but if it’s all the same kind of sound on a program, it doesn’t work. It’s kind of like including both the “Emperor Concerto” and the “Eroica Symphony” on the same program – too much E-flat major! One piece has to complement another, but it cannot be too much like it. On the other hand, consider pizza and sushi; I love them both, but you generally don’t eat them together. There has to be balance on a program.

Dan: So, what about on a more personal level? What do you like to do besides being a conductor?

Matthew: I am an avid reader. I was also a philosophy major for two years until I realized there was a career other than music that had less likelihood of getting a job! As a philosophy major, I read a lot of important works. But really, literature is what I am most interested in. I just finished the Jan Swafford Beethoven biography, and I’m also reading about the history of Prussia right now which figures well into art. Last summer I read Faulkner: Absalom, Absalom; The Sound and Fury; Light in August; As I Lay Dying; and A Fable. The first chapter of The Sound and the Fury is often considered impenetrable, from Benjy’s perspective. The first chapter is complicated and the second nearly impossible. I find a lot of similarities in various art forms, in literature and in music. Both composers and authors face many of the same decisions that have to be made: the voice, the style, the flow. I also enjoy cooking, I find a lot of similarities in there as well between cooking and music. Creating a recipe can be like composing music.

Dan: So, you have two kids and a very active family life. How do you balance the time? Any secrets for the rest of us?

Matthew: I work early in the morning. Then, once my kids go off to school, I have time later in the morning to work. My older son is taking violin now.

Dan: Is anything else you wish to leave our readers with?

Matthew: Even in large orchestras, we all need to do more to show this is a vibrant art form capable of change, and that we’re not afraid of trying new things. You can have a compelling program without a warhorse or an anchor on it. It is possible to cultivate a reputation for taking chances and being bold while still growing and maintaining an audience.

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By, Dan Perttu

For my next interview on the “Muse in Music Blog,” I am thrilled to be talking to conductor Mariusz Smolij. Maestro Smolij is a frequent recording artist for Naxos International, and has been consistently gaining international critical acclaim, including praise from the New York Times for “compelling performances.” Maestro Smolij has led over 125 orchestras in 27 countries on five continents, appearing in some of the world’s most prestigious concert halls. In North America, he has conducted the Houston Symphony, New Jersey Symphony, the Orchestra of the Chicago Lyric Opera, the St. Louis Philharmonic, the Rochester Philharmonic, the Indianapolis Symphony, among many others. He is currently the Music Director and Conductor of the Riverside Symphonia (Lambertville, NJ), and the Acadiana Symphony (Lafayette, LA), and is the Principal Conductor of the Toruńska Orkiestra Symfoniczna in Torun, Poland. Here is my fascinating conversation with Maestro Smolij.

Dan: I always like to start by talking about inspiration, which is the theme of this blog. What music inspires you as a conductor? If the entire body of classical music were on fire, and you could only save 2 to 3 pieces, what would you save?

Mariusz: Each historical musical period has a unique library of inspiring/exciting compositions. One of the privileges of being an orchestral conductor is the opportunity to access and work on this extremely varied repertoire. If I was in the “fire situation” and had to save three scores, one of them would be by Mozart, one by Beethoven and one by Mahler.

Dan: I would have similar choices! I’m glad you included Mahler – his work is just amazing. So, what motivates you as a conductor? Why do you do what you do? How would you characterize your artistic vision? How does music by living composers fit into this vision?

Mariusz: The entire creating process excites and motivates me, from the early stages of planning the entire seasons, particular concerts, selection of guest artists or arrangers - to the detailed score studies, rehearsals with the orchestra and the live performance. Producing and recording CDs is a big part of my career and important motivating element for research, planning and work.

For me, motivation comes from the beauty and essence of the music itself, from musical collaborators/colleagues, and appreciation of the audience. My artistic vision has to be compatible with the organizations and people I work with. What I bring “to the table” is passion and knowledge of varied musical styles and composers, and the ability to prepare orchestras to sound the best they possibly can. Being able to work with living composers is a great privilege as well as duty. It also helps to understand true intentions of composers whom we can’t ask direct questions any more.

Working in Louisiana for over 10 years now, I was able to explore another aspect of contemporary music/composers by creating new “musical marriages” between the sound of the symphony orchestra and original works of local popular artists. I have co-created and performed symphonic collaboration with blues guitarist Sonny Landreth, Cajun music legend Michael Ducet, jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis, Cajun/French songwriter and singer Zachary Richards, and many others. I hope those are a meaningful addition to the contemporary library of new orchestral creations.

Dan: What interesting new compositions and collaborations! I appreciate how you have led your orchestra in a crossover of classical and other genres. This makes me wonder if you have preferences for certain aesthetic orientations or styles in new music. What does this imply for your programming and for your audiences?

Mariusz: The works that provide above mentioned “musical marriages” and the new “fusions” of sound with contemporary popular artists have been important and very satisfying part of my programming. Those collaborations also provide unique opportunities to bring new audiences to symphonic concert halls and introduce more traditional symphonic works to new audiences.

Dan: I really appreciate your interest in creative collaborations involving new music. These projects are unique and truly inspiring. This can certainly be a model for many others!

On the lighter side, do you have any hobbies? What do you do to relax?

Mariusz: Working as a conductor is quite taxing mental and physical activity. Staying fit on both fronts is extremely important. I enjoy physical activities of running and swimming and all possible water sports. I am fortunate to travel quite extensively because of my profession and try to explore and learn more about all the places and people I visit. A good book is always a “valued friend” as well!

Dan: Yes, traveling is a wonderful aspect of being a musician. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me! I have enjoyed learning about what inspires you as a conductor, and I very much appreciate your unique approaches to programming.

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