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.