Updated: Apr 4


By, Dan Perttu




For this post in my “Muse in Music” blog, I am so happy to be interviewing Maestro Brett Mitchell, the Music Director of the Colorado Symphony since July, 2017. Brett is also an incredible advocate for new music. Throughout his tenure there, he has led the orchestra in the majority of its classical subscription concerts, as well as a wide variety of special programs featuring such great artists as Reneé Fleming, Yo-Yo Ma, and Itzhak Perlman.

Brett is also in consistent demand as a guest conductor, having performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, Dallas, Detroit, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, National, San Francisco, and San Antonio Symphonies, among many others. From 2013 to 2017, he served on the conducting staff of the Cleveland Orchestra, having led the orchestra in several dozen concerts each season at Severance Hall, Blossom Music Center, and on tour.

In this blog post, we talk about Brett’s passion for working with living composers, how he brings contemporary music to the Denver audience, and how he serves as an advocate for new music. Brett is a delightful conversationalist who shares many lively anecdotes; I hope you will enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed talking with Brett!

Dan: What is inspiring about working with living composers? What is inspiring about that aspect of your career and why do you do it?

Brett: I became a conductor of contemporary music because I was a composer before I was a conductor. Actually, my undergraduate degree is in composition, and I started conducting out of necessity because I was writing pieces for larger forces. Although musicians may wish they could do everything without a conductor, there does come a point at which a conductor is helpful. I really started by conducting my own pieces in high school. I was 16 when I conducted my first piece. It was really my high school band director, Lesley Moffat, who had commissioned me. I wrote this big ten minute work that she had me write for our bands in high school, and Lesley eventually asked me to conduct it. I did, and that was the first time that I conducted. My undergrad was in composition and I kept conducting more and more of my own pieces, especially as I started writing bigger ones.

It was really my fellow student composers who said, “I've written a bigger piece; now maybe I'll have Brett conduct it,” so I really started by conducting contemporary music, brand-new, fresh world premieres. This was what I did at the beginning of my conducting career, and it wasn't really until I was twenty when I first conducted something that hadn't literally just come out of the printer. I guess I conducted other small things in high school, but it was the Mozart Oboe Concerto that was the first big piece that I ever conducted that wasn't by a living composer. I say all of that to point out that for me, the baseline where I started was conducting contemporary music. It didn't really have anything to do at that point with delving into the past and interpreting the works of these great masters. That certainly came in time, but that's not how I got started in my career.

So, what do I love about it? At the Colorado Symphony, we recently performed our 250th birthday celebration for Beethoven with a performance of his Missa Solemnis, which is obviously a phenomenal work that gets done very, very rarely. Maybe because it is performed as rarely as it is, there are just certain questions that I would love to be able to ask Beethoven. For example: “what are you doing here; do you really mean this or is it an immediate change of tempo? Are you trying to apply a gradual change of tempo?” Just little things like that; no matter how well you know these great masterpieces, there's always that moment, no matter whose work you're studying, you always have questions. My conducting teacher had a great observation. He said, “The most frequent question that you will ask when you're studying is ‘why?’” “Why double the oboes with the trumpets there?” or whatever the case may be. When you work with a living composer, you can ask why, and you will usually get an answer. With those who are no longer with us, we just kind of have to do the very best we can to figure out exactly what it is that they were trying to accomplish. I wish I could ask Beethoven and Rachmaninoff questions all the time, but I can't.

The joy of bringing music to life for me is to do the composer's music justice. I am really there first and foremost, in my opinion, to serve one person, and that's the composer, and then certainly the orchestra, and then I serve the audience. But, it's really all about the composer because if the composer hadn’t written any of these notes, none of us would have anything to do with our lives. So that's really why I love it as much as I do, and, ultimately, why I do it.

Dan: This is such an interesting perspective because so often conductors don't grow out of being composers first. That seems unusual to me. I myself was actually on a conducting track for a little while, but then decided that I love composition more. So that was when I veered off the path. So, your background is very interesting, because a lot of conductors nowadays still are suspicious of new music for many reasons.

Brett: And, yeah, who knows why that is. I'm sure everybody has different reasons. There are perhaps commercial reasons, perhaps audience reasons, and perhaps conductors who are very content to do the same forty or fifty pieces over the course of their career. I don't hold that against anybody. It's just not the particular path that I've chosen.

Dan: My next question gets more specific. How does your community in Denver respond to your programming of new music, and what do you need to do as the Music Director there to sell it, so to speak?

Brett: Well, that's the real trick isn't it? I mean, for me, presenting new music is all about the context in which one presents it. I mean context is key. So, I'll give you a perfect example of my very first subscription concerts, where I saw this back in September, 2017. I knew that I wanted to do Beethoven Five on that program because that was the first full symphony that I ever conducted. And then I thought, how do I work some contemporary American music into this program, so that from the very outset I am setting this audience up to know when they come visit us in the concert hall what they're going to get. Yes, of course they will hear the greatest classical masterpieces, but they will also hear music that's being written by our friends and our neighbors, our compatriots, because I think that while those great classic pieces from centuries ago stick around for obvious reasons, and they have, in many ways, universal things to say, composers writing today are writing specifically for today’s audience. In that first contact point that I had with our subscription audience, I wanted to set that expectation up. So, I looked at Beethoven Five, and I thought, what are the two things that make Beethoven Five tick? And one of them, for me, is the journey from darkness into light, starting with the C minor and ending with that glorious celebratory C major. So I thought, what would be a kind of contemporary American corollary to that idea of trial. I'm very good friends with Kevin Puts, and have been, for -- God, it's almost twenty years now, which is terrifying. Kevin has a wonderful piece called Millennium Canons that I've done quite frequently. We opened our concert with this great celebratory fanfare, which is a perfect way to open a concert, and a perfect way, as far as I'm concerned, to start a music directorship. It also shows the audience, because of the kind of language that Kevin uses as he writes, that just because you may not know a name or two of these living composers, I promise, I'm never going to throw anything your way that's going to make you wish that you had stayed home with a glass of wine tonight.

So that was item one. Item two in the Beethoven that makes it tick is that kind of insistent rhythmic drive. Of course, that applies mostly to the first movement, but I was thinking of what contemporary American case might be a good corollary to that. The first thing I think of when I think of contemporary American music even more than John Adams is Mason Bates, because of the amount of electronica that he includes in his pieces. We did a piece that he wrote called The B-Sides for Orchestra and Electronica. We had Mason come out and play the electronica part. So, the audience had some interaction with him, and I came out and I played Millennium Canons with the orchestra and Kevin’s piece. I welcomed the audience and introduced Mason; Mason came out; and we chatted for two or three minutes on stage before we played the piece. So again, as I say, context is key, and I think putting the audience in as direct contact as possible with these composers, seeing that these are real people writing music today, it's not some abstract thing. It works best when you approach it from multiple angles: explaining to the audience that yes, we're playing contemporary music, explaining why are we playing contemporary music, and why did these pieces go together.

I went to a master class fifteen years ago with Leonard Slatkin at the National Symphony. Ara Guzelimian, the Artistic Director and Senior Advisor at Carnegie Hall at the time, was also there and related this really awesome analogy or metaphor, a kind of a scenario to set up in your head when you're programming. The analogy goes like this: if these three pieces all sidled up next to each other at a bar, what would they have to talk about? I just love that idea because if you have too much in common, then it's difficult to have an interesting conversation. If the three have nothing in common, then you can't have a conversation, either. So, there has to be some kind of link, and you have to be willing and able to share that link with your audience, so I do an awful lot of speaking from the podium to our audience, and almost always it's to prepare them for the contemporary piece that we're about to hear. I try to give a little bit of context, a little bit of background, a little bit of history in the programmatic piece, what is it actually about. I find it's much more helpful for the audience to hear things like that before a contemporary piece, more than even, you know, an old programmatic work like the Symphonie Fantastique or whatever. I mean, not that there's not plenty to talk about with Symphonie Fantastique, but it's such a known quantity, I mean it’s now 190 years old.

But that's not the case with contemporary music. So, it's really about letting the audience in and making sure that you're programming intelligently, that you're finding those links, that if they were all to sidle up next to each other at a bar, they'd have something to talk about. And then sharing that with the audience. Honestly, I think that conductors aren’t always good at that. We tend to be good at programming, because that's what we do for a living; we come up with these great programs that have all these great links and intricate interrelationships. We go to all that trouble, but then many of us don't even bother to talk to the audience. We came up with this great idea and then we say, no, we're just going to play these three pieces and not tell them why you would play those pieces together. And I think that's more than half the battle right there.

Dan: And how have you found that your audience responds to this approach? Do you have some examples or anything you want to share about how it's been successful? Even though I haven't necessarily been there to see it, I imagine it's been successful for you since you keep programming new music.

Brett: Yeah, absolutely. I think one of the most daring programs that we did, or that we've done so far during my time here was this past November when we had Renée Fleming come join us for the second time during my tenure here. And on that program, Renée was singing a piece with Rod Gilfry, a wonderful baritone, written by Kevin Puts. The piece is called the Brightness of Light and is based on letters of Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz when they corresponded with each other. It's almost like a little, non-staged opera.

That piece was on the second half of the concert. It is a forty-five minute piece that we co-commissioned, so it’s totally brand new. We had that on the second half, so what do you put on the first half, because you've already got this brand new piece? Do we do a piece of Mozart, a piece of Beethoven? Hell, no. We're going to do Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, then take an intermission, and then do the Puts. So, as you can imagine, that took a little bit of encouraging to make sure that we could make that program happen, but I was really convinced that that was the right approach. They are two totally different love stories, if you can call them love stories, I suppose, and are very complementary with each other. And, again, I'm always looking for new ways to present these works.

So, before we did the Schoenberg, I gave an introduction to the audience because it's thirty minutes of music, and if you don't know it, it's good for it to be set up for you. I told them a little bit about what the story was. And then I mentioned that it is based on a poem by Richard Dehmel that goes like this: the narrator starts, the woman speaks, the narrator speaks again, the man speaks, and then the narrator wraps things up. We actually had two actors come in to portray the woman and the man, and I was the narrator. So we shared this with the audience, and I translated the poem from German. You cannot take too much care with these things, and if that means that I need to translate a poem to make it more accessible to our audience, I will. We performed the poem as the lights went down, and I actually wrote lighting cues for the performance just to help people process the emotional journey of the music. It was a really intricate way of performing the first half. During the composition about Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz in the second half, in addition to all of the music, there are visuals that go along with it.

So, I tell you all of that because that was maybe the biggest risk that we've taken artistically since I've been here. And it was our greatest artistic triumph in so many ways because of the feedback that we got from the audience. People said everything from “I had no idea what to expect,” to “I was really looking forward to [this] but maybe not looking forward to [that].” The end result was hardly unanimous, as you can imagine; there is no such thing as unanimous opinion, certainly not about art. But, I was always very diligent about reading our audience feedback. I read every comment from every audience member that attends any of the shows that I conduct. And just hearing people get turned on to it—I mean, imagine turning people on to Arnold Schoenberg or to Kevin Puts! And yet, if you do it intelligently, and if you do it with great commitment and great creativity, then you can do it. But, you have to be an ambassador.

A little anecdote here; I'm not going to use any names. When I got to the Houston Symphony, thirteen years ago as their assistant conductor, before they had me do an education concert, they had hired somebody else to come in and do a few of them. They just wanted me to watch and see how it went, so that I would know what I was doing when I finally got up there, which was very helpful. It was great. I had never done one before, and it was good for me to watch. There was this teeny tiny short little Schoenberg piece on the program. I don't even remember why it was on the program, what the purpose of the piece dramatically in the context of the show was, but I remember what the conductor said to the kids. He basically said: “you're not gonna like this but sit here and eat your vegetables anyway.” And I was like, “why?”

Because here's the thing. I have performed for over 200,000 kids over the course of all my years at the Houston Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra. All of the music is strange to the kids—not just Schoenberg. They don't know. And so what that means is, you are the one who has the opportunity to influence how they're going to hear this. If you say this is some weird stuff, they're going to view it as weird stuff, and they're not going to like it. But if you say this is very interesting music and here's what the composer is trying to do, et cetera, then, people are attentive. In fact, I think, in many, many cases, kids are more open to new music than adults are because they don't have that built-in bias that all of us have by the time we're adults. So it really is about how you frame the music for the audience—that’s the key.

Dan: This actually leads well into the third question. What are the unique challenges of programming new music now, especially in terms of being an ambassador for it, and in terms of trying to work with the audience to make sure that you can meet them partway. Also, are there any other unique challenges or things that come to mind when working through new music?

Brett: I don't think so, to be very honest with you, I think it's really just about being committed to doing it. When I am guest conducting, there are certainly programs of mine that I like better than others because I find them more interesting and more intriguing, and those are the ones that have some kind of contemporary music on them. Also, obviously it varies widely from orchestra to orchestra, but it tends to be a little bit easier for me to program contemporary music here in Denver, where I'm the Music Director, because I do have a little more pull here than I do when I’m a guest conductor.

When you have the priorities that I have, which are: how do you show an audience that the music of Beethoven and the music of Bates are not so different, that it's all part of a continuum, those are the kinds of programs that I enjoy conducting the most. When I'm able to do contemporary music programs, I always feel like those are the kind of healthiest and most intriguing programs that we do. Sometimes, especially when I'm guest conducting some orchestras, the programs just aren't quite as intuitive, and you can only push so hard as a guest conductor. So I end up doing some programs that are all standard programs, and that's okay, I don't mind doing that. But I think that's really the challenge. I suppose it would be easy to throw your hands up after a while, and it would certainly be easier on my time management if I didn't bother programming contemporary music all the time, and just kept programming Beethoven and Brahms symphonies and all, but I didn't get into conducting because I wanted to conduct Brahms symphonies, I got into conducting because I was conducting contemporary music. I didn't even think of it as contemporary music. I mean, it was just music. I wasn't trying to write contemporary music. I was writing contemporary music by virtue of being contemporary myself.

So, so yeah, that's really the challenge. Sticking to it, and keeping the faith that you know that it's the right thing to do. You just have to be willing to take chances, and you have to be willing to take risks, and I think it's also really super important to remember that not all of those risks are going to pay off. Sometimes they do, especially with a world premiere. I mean it's one thing to program unknown quantity, but it's another thing when you have no earthly idea what's going to come your way when it shows up in the mailbox. And, you know, oftentimes it works well and sometimes it doesn't.

This might be interesting to you as well. During that masterclass with Leonard Slatkin, fifteen years ago, he related a conversation he had with Mstislav Rostropovich, who was his predecessor at the National Symphony. Slava had said to Leonard: “You know, people ask me why I commission and do as many world premieres as I do.” Obviously Slava was one of the greatest cellists of all time, and he said, “It is because I hate that one of my predecessors never went up to Mozart, and said, ‘Hey, would you write me a Cello Concerto?’” That’s why we don't have a Mozart Cello Concerto. Yeah, that sucks. The point of it was that we don't know who, necessarily, the Mozarts or the Beethovens are. That's for posterity to decide. But our job right now is just to keep bringing as many new voices into the world as we possibly can. And, you know, hopefully it works well for the orchestra and for the audience and all that, but ultimately history will render its verdict as it does with all of us.

I have another short little anecdote that will inform why I am the way I am. When I was a little boy, it was just me and my mom at that time. My mom was getting ready for work one morning, and this song came on the radio. I was three or four years old. For whatever reason that song caught my ear, so I asked my mom about this song and if we had a record of it. (That was back when records were cool for the first time.) I said that I wanted to take our record and my little record player that you bought me for Christmas over to Janet’s house (Janet was my caretaker), and I want to play this song for Janet. My mom said, “well, this is like a no. 1 song, and I’m sure Janet knows it.” I said, “but I really want to play this song for her.” My mom said, “how about this: Janet has a record player, so why don’t we take our record and play it on Janet’s record player?” And, I said, “no, I want to take our record and our record player!” So rather than arguing with a three-year-old, which is never a winning proposition, we put the record and the record player in the car, went to Janet’s house, and then my mom said, “OK, sweetheart, I’ll see you tonight.” I said, “where are you going?” She said, “I have to go to work.” And I said, “No, Mom, I want us all to sit here and listen to it,” and so we all sat there in this living room in Seattle in 1982 listening to Barry Manilow’s “Mandy.” I have no idea why that caught my ear, but it did. It’s a cute anecdote; I tell that one a lot because it’s the exact same thing that I do today: I find music that I love for one reason or another, and then try to share it with as many people as possible. This is the long and short of why I do what I do, so I’m glad that the passion comes across when I talk about it because I am passionate about it.

You know, it's an honor and a pleasure and what a privilege to be able to introduce people to music that maybe they don't know. When I do recording projects (and maybe I'll eat my words someday, I don't know), the recording projects that I'm doing with the Colorado Symphony are all contemporary because I just feel there's a million recordings of Beethoven Five. There's a million recordings of Tchaikovsky Six. We don't need another one of those with Brett Mitchell and the Colorado Symphony. But what we do need is recordings of brand new pieces that don't exist as recordings yet, because unless you are here with us in Denver, there's no way for audiences to hear those. So not only is it a priority of my program; it's a priority of my recordings.

Dan: Thanks, Brett, for this wonderfully inspiring explanation of why you do what you do in the way you do it! I really appreciate your taking the time to share your perspectives with my readers.

Brett: Thank you!



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!

© 2017-20 by Daniel Perttu. 

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