By, Dan Perttu



For this post on my “Muse in Music” Blog, I am super excited to be interviewing Francesco Lecce-Chong, the Music Director of the Eugene Symphony (Oregon) and the Santa Rosa Symphony (California). Francesco loves to work with living composers, and has created fresh, exciting programs for both of the orchestras that he conducts, frequently featuring living composers from all backgrounds. Francesco has appeared with orchestras around the world including the San Francisco Symphony, National Symphony, Atlanta Symphony, Pittsburgh Symphony, Toronto Symphony, St. Louis Symphony, and Hong Kong Philharmonic, and has collaborated with top soloists including Renée Fleming and Itzhak Perlman. In this blog conversation, he and I start with a discussion about what is inspiring to him about working with living composers. The conversation leads into other topics as well, including what Francesco believes makes “great” music great. Francesco has wonderful insights on these and other topics; I hope you enjoy reading our talk.

Dan: What's inspiring to you about working with living composers? Usually with these issues, there is some kind of emotional impetus, not just an intellectual reason, so that's why I'm always interested about the inspiration, so to speak. I know it makes intellectual sense to do it but, is there an inspirational reason for it?

Francesco: I think a lot of it is based around the fact that I was actually a pretty serious composer for my undergraduate degree. I started at the Mannes College of Music, and I was actually a piano and composition double major. I actually thought I was going to be a composer; I probably started when I was around ten. I even had a couple of orchestra pieces performed, and I was always writing music. I honestly thought that would be my field. After my first year of undergrad I ended up switching to piano and conducting as my double major, and it was hard to give up composition. The only reason I did is because they told me I couldn’t triple major. So I had to choose, and I thought the composition was the one thing I could do on the side, and I did; I continued to take lessons with my teacher. It was Robert Cuckson at Mannes. I continued to work with him, continued to compose, and actually the last thing I was working on was an opera. I really thought it would be a part of my life, and there were a couple of things that happened, but I think the major issue was just growing up as a musician and widening my horizons on what was out there because I grew up in Boulder, Colorado. A lot of innovative things were going on in Colorado, but I wasn't really a part of that. I lived a pretty musically sheltered life, and did not encounter a lot of new music; therefore, I wasn't familiar with a lot of it. When I went to New York, it was this influx of new information and musical experiences I'd never had before, and my horizons broadened. I also became very self-critical of my work as a composer, which I've come to believe is the main reason why I have not composed in maybe eight to ten years. The funny thing is – maybe twice a year, I think, oh, maybe I wrote something that was good. I have this stack of drafts in my closet. It's like a giant box. So every couple of years, I'll go into that box and think, I'm sure something here was worthy of me taking up composition again, but then I realize that it's not. The reason is, I think, as I started conducting more, and as I went into my serious conducting studies, I think part of being a great conductor is understanding what makes great music. It's not just analyzing, it's not just theory, but you truly begin to understand, why was Mozart more important than Salieri? Why were the composers that were important – why did they do better than the composers that were actually popular in their time? And, you start developing this kind of innate sense of what being a “genius” composer means. And I think the more I studied it, the more I got into my own head. I'm sure you understand the worst thing you could do when you compose is to analyze what you've written as you're writing it. It has to be natural. And the true nail in the coffin for me as a composer is that I would write one measure, and then I would already start analyzing it; I just could not get out of that frame of reference. But I think at the same time, a lot of my friends were composers, and so it was kind of like these two things came to a head because not only did I realize that I wasn't writing music that I thought was worthy of being performed, but I also came to recognize which of my colleagues were really special. So, we kind of flipped around to where I was thinking: as a conductor, I can promote and encourage and support the new music that is as good as all the music that I am constantly studying.

So, and that was that and once I realized that, once I started working with composers seriously, it really took off after that. The composition aspect has always fascinated me, and I think I work well with composers because I understand the process of what they need and how all that works. And I think because of that I’m also exceptionally picky. I could be a tough conductor to work with, for sure. I mean my fondest memories were when I went to Curtis for my grad work. They pair conductors with composers each year, and one composer I was paired with was Gabriella Smith. Next season I'm doing the premiere of her symphony. She’s a great composer, and I remember we talked a lot. I had been paired with some other composers too. When working with composers, I'm going to ask for things to be clear; I'm going to suggest all sorts of things that I think will help me on a conducting level, will speed up rehearsal time, and will solve balance issues. So, let's have a dialogue about your piece, how you want your piece to sound, and let's make sure that we are on the same page as to how that's going to happen. A lot of composers just walk away from that because they don't want someone messing with that. But Gabriella and I hit it off right away; she was incredible. We've always had great interactions, and it was amazing to me, as much as I fell in love with her music, watching her kind of rise in the composition world has been one of the most satisfying things for me, and so you know these little experiences have made me really passionate about new music. Luckily I'm in a position as a music director to influence a whole community. We're not a traveling string quartet. We're not a soloist. We actually shape, an entire community’s idea of what new music is. And I think that's one of the most powerful and the best parts of my job. It really is that you get to curate the tastes of your community.

Dan: I have to ask you about the innate sense of genius and what makes great music great. I'm sure a lot of people who read the blog will be curious. So what makes great music great in your opinion?

Francesco: I should have prepared for this question. The prerequisite should be that it's subjective. There are some exceptions to this, but I feel like at its core, the technical genius behind the music is felt, not heard. For example, I was giving a talk to an audience about how Brahms’s music is so special to me. In his Second symphony, the first three notes of the piece, that little oscillation of a half step, in the bass line, is going to be the basis for the entire first twenty minutes. It’s an exploration of how that interval can encompass the whole world. And you see it as it starts at the beginning, and then of course it’s at the climax of the development section where the trombones have it clashed on top of each other. Then, you see it in its culmination in the final horn cadenza. As the Second expands, it gets larger and larger, and you realize that this one little interval can encompass the entire scope of the piece. And I said, “Okay, that's the technical part, but here's the thing. An audience member isn't going to know that when they're listening to the piece, but that story that I just pulled from that little note, becoming something that's intensely violent and ugly, to becoming something that's gorgeous, to becoming something that's universal, you feel it.” And that's what's remarkable about Brahms for me is that on a construction level, it is perfect; on a technical, philosophical, psychological level, it's perfect. But at the end of the day, it communicates; it is a piece of art that affects us on an emotional level. I can't even imagine having to think about that as a composer, and he probably didn’t; it was probably natural, but I suppose that's the genius is that he hits it on every level, and that the story that he's trying to tell technically is the story that we actually feel in the end. I think that's kind of my journey with new music, this trying to find new works of art that share that idea that we don't need to hear the map of your piece, we don't need to know what your fancy little technical devices are. If you put electronic music in your piece, which I am totally fine with, but it better make sense, there better be a real reason. I think that's where I fall along those lines. Obviously there probably are some exceptions that I'm not thinking of right now, but even when I think of the Second Viennese School, which was the most technically crazy school, but if you think about it, Schoenberg couldn't even follow his own rules, and I think that's a really good example of his musical genius. It didn't even allow him to follow his own rules that he came up with, because at the end of the day, he was trying to communicate something strongly. If I see a piece of music that is entirely founded on a set of core principles and it follows them exactly, I'm not going to like that piece of music.

Dan: There's also something about being able to take musical material (and you were talking about this with the Brahms to a point) and narrative musical material and then transform it across a large scale form in a way that it has a much different emotional quality later in the piece. It's still the same motive through which the composer sets up an emotional expectation early on and then makes a transformation, over time, or having the course of an emotional narrative through the music. Over time, then, what started in a mood that might have been sunny and happier, and then, is genuinely and authentically developed into something that is terrifying, or whatever the composer wants, whatever emotion that is. I think there are a lot of composers who do that well, but for me, a composer who does that extraordinarily well is Mahler. For me, the genius of Mahler is the large scale transformation of musical material and emotional material because of it. But again, the composer’s technique has to be amazing, but it has to be supporting the inspiration because, you know, no one's going to want to listen only to the math of music, and, as you said, Schoenberg had to break his own rules. There's a Navajo custom about deliberately weaving an imperfection into a rug to allow the Spirit to pass in and out. Are you aware of that?

Francesco: It's so true. I think that's where the composers that we don't play anymore have fallen on one side or the other side. Either their music was all just about pure emotion and trying to communicate something, but there was no technique underpinning it, or composers on the other side, it was too perfect; every phrase was four bars. If you go back to the people that Mozart beat out, there'll be six composers more perfect than Mozart. Every phrase is four bars; every modulation is perfectly done.

Dan: Yeah, I would hazard to say even a fair amount of early Mozart’s music (the 25th and 29th Symphonies excepted) can be rather formulaic. But then you get into the piano concertos or the late symphonies and it's . . .

Francesco: Yeah, he does some ridiculous things, and I think he gets a little bit too much credit for everything always being perfect, because it isn't. I suppose it's perfect in its, I don't know what, its rule breaking?

Dan: I know you're also a pianist so you know the C-minor Fantasia. That thing is so wonky, but I love it. And in terms of rules and stuff, yes, he's following most of the conventions, and it makes theoretical sense to a point, but it doesn't even have a key signature. And, then everything he goes through it, it's so experimental and interesting, and I remember loving that.

Anyway, before I get too off topic, you also talked about why you like programming the music of living composers because it helps you to influence the taste of the community, so to speak. Was there anything else you wanted to share about the “why” of your interest in new music?

Francesco: I mean it's kind of harsh, but I just don't see how you could be a conductor and not be a proponent of new music. I mean, there hasn't been a well-known conductor in history who wasn't a proponent of new music. Part of the reason is, how can you be in this field if you believe the best has already happened. In the history of humankind, orchestral music has only been around for three-hundred years at most and not even really in its present form. So orchestral music is a blip in history; even in human history it's a blip. In Western culture, we've only begun, in my opinion, to realize the capacity of the orchestra. It's such a short period of time. So, I just I can't imagine doing what I would do if I thought that we could never do better, better than Beethoven. Have we found something that's better than Beethoven? No, but that doesn't matter. I mean, people thought Mahler wasn't great when he was writing his symphonies, and people thought it was atrocious, and it's only later that we realized the genius behind those pieces. I'm sure there's a lot that I'm conducting now that'll never be done again, but there might be a couple of things in there that actually have a chance to influence the music world at large, and all I can do is pick the things that speak to me. Luckily, I have the capacity to communicate, to present these works in ways that our audience can appreciate, and I'm very grateful that some natural skill was given to me over the years, where I can get people excited about new music by basically saying what I just said to you. That is, what is the point of doing what we're doing if there's nothing good that's ever going to happen again? Then I would want to work in a new field; I would go into a field where I knew there was something to look forward to. That if we've already heard the full capacity of what an orchestra could do, then I just don't know how one could be inspired.

Dan: Now those are some inspiring perspectives! That actually also leads really well into the third question, which is about your projects with living composers and what they actually entail. You're doing the first symphony idea, right? You're actually programming new symphonies by composers, and as a composer myself, I thought, “I'm never going to have the opportunity to write a symphony.” I mean, it’s just in this climate nowadays; I'll be lucky if I write concertos because conductors are so hesitant to program new symphonies. And then now here's a music director who's actually programming symphonies by living composers, besides Robert Spano who has cultivated that, but it's still not common besides maybe you, Spano, and a few others. Can you talk about that?

Francesco: So, the caveat for me is that I'm learning. I've been a music director now for two and a half years, that's it. My first season was in Eugene. I've been in Santa Rosa for one and a half seasons and Eugene for two and a half. I started in Eugene one year before Santa Rosa, but my first season in Eugene was already programmed. So, I have only programmed and conducted one full season in my programming. So, these are really early days for me, and every single time I conduct a concert with my orchestras, I've learned more about how I want to program, how to present new music, how to work with composers better, and how to get my orchestra to understand new music faster. So, I think the caveat is that I see myself at the very beginning of learning how to do this well. And that's part of why I'm intense about doing it is because I think you learn by doing. If you do one commission every five years, you're never going to get that right, but you know I want to excel at this, because of all the other things we talked about. When I was an assistant conductor with the Milwaukee Symphony and the Pittsburgh Symphony, I was obviously aware of what orchestras were doing all over the country. And, you know, when you're an assistant conductor, all you do is watch and learn, basically. I guess a couple of things struck me: first, the lack of taking new music seriously. People ask, why don't orchestras just do more new music, or why don't audiences like new music? I apologize because it's our fault. It's the orchestra world's fault; we have trained our audiences not to take new music seriously by how we programmed it—not by not doing it. In fact, it would be better if the orchestras that didn't take new music seriously simply didn't do it.

Dan: That’s a wonderful soundbite!

Francesco: I have a lot of time to think about these things when I was just sitting in the audience for years. Anyway, when you program a piece of new music, then a Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto, and then a Brahms symphony, you’ve basically told your audience “Oh, don't worry about this; it's not great art.” And, you do this repeatedly, to the point that if you ever try to program a larger work the audience is going to say, “what is this; how do we grapple with this; we have no idea what this is.”

We have, over decades, I think, trained and trained our audiences not to take new music seriously, with the idea being that, if you don't like it, you can ignore it, and if you did like it, you'll forget it. That's kind of what it comes down to. We have no chance to move our art form forward if we are only doing eight minute pieces, and I think honestly that's why chamber music has really flourished in the past fifty years because composers can write fuller works for string quartets, but orchestras don't want to risk it. This has really been a process for me. I knew the idea that I wanted, if I ever commissioned works. Right now I'm working on six commissions over the next three years, and every single one of them is going to be longer than twenty minutes; every single one of them is a big concerto or big symphony, and in my lifetime I don't plan on ever commissioning anything less than that because I don't want to. I know there's a gazillion great ten minute pieces out there, and I'll let other orchestras commission those pieces. I'm going to be the one that goes all in.

So here's what I've learned through this process. This is a four-year project that I put in place, we're now just finishing year one. I did the premiere of Matt Browne's first Symphony this past year in Santa Rosa and then we have three more years to go. Having gone through this process once, the only reason I can see that a conductor wouldn’t do this project is because of fear. That’s my challenge to all my colleagues out there. Although it was expensive, this project was remarkably easy to fundraise for. I have four households in Eugene, and I have four households in Santa Rosa, and myself, and all of us are nine equal partners for four years and commissioning all four symphonies. They were the first people I asked; no one turned me down; and in fact what I have now is donors who are upset they weren't asked. So now I'm cultivating the next set of donors so when I want to do my next commissioning project, I can go to the people who felt left out of it this past time, and say, “Alright, here's your chance to join in the next project.” We did not have to apply for a single grant or any government funding. I wanted to prove that this entire project could be done by the people who care about the orchestra. So that was the first part. Fundraising is not an excuse.

What else do people say? First, it's always a money thing. Second is audience. Will audiences come to hear a new piece? Santa Rosa had an incredible week. People flocked in, and were genuinely excited, because we really marketed this as something special: be a part of our orchestra’s history in commissioning this major work. Furthermore, every one of these composers is doing a double residency in their year. Matt Browne was actually out in the fall, and we played an eight minute piece of his, one that I knew would get the audience excited. The audience got to meet him, and they loved him. They were already excited about him, so when we finally got to the symphony, I had built up this massive support behind this piece, and you could feel the excitement in the room. Before the piece I didn’t have to explain much because Matt’s music is so evocative, so I said, “Thank you for being here tonight. This moment right now is the most important journey that an audience and an orchestra can take together. It has been the most important journey that audiences and orchestras have taken together for about three hundred years, and now we're a part of that history.” Obviously, it wasn't my presentation; it was the music. After forty minutes and five movements, the audience was in rapt attention, and they went nuts afterwards with a massive standing ovation. There's something really special about that, and it wasn't just for his symphony, it was for our musicians as well. In an eight minute piece, an audience doesn't realize how hard they work, but in a forty minute piece they can see how hard these musicians were working. When I was giving solo bows, every section of the orchestra got a massive cheer, and the audience really felt like they were willing this piece into existence; it's palpably a unique and different feeling. Therefore, fundraising, marketing, and the in-concert experience aren’t a problem. I'm sure someone could challenge me on this, but as far as I can tell, it comes down to a music director’s ego. What is a conductor willing to give up in a season to make space for a substantial new piece?

I understand the problem because I have that ego too; I would love to do a Mahler cycle! I want to do massive projects. At some point I want to do an Alpine symphony. I want to do Bluebeard's Castle in concert. I want to do these massive projects, and I'm getting to do some of that. I have nine subscription weeks in Eugene, and I have seven in Santa Rosa, and when you're putting together a season that's not that long, you're giving up a lot if you program new music in a serious way. When I give up a half of a concert to premiere a new work, I don't know if it will even be a good piece. Yeah, that's a huge risk, and especially as a young conductor I wonder, am I really going to make my mark on that? Probably not; the best I can hope for is that it's a good piece. No one's going to say, “Francesco’s conducting of Matt Browne’s first Symphony was revelatory.”. The reviews were ecstatic; they thought the music was incredible; but no one said a word about me. Right now I'm planning my 2021 22 season, and our composer in residence is going to be Angélica Négron. I’m really excited to get her on board, because recently the Los Angeles Philharmonic announced that they commissioned her. When I jumped on that bandwagon two years ago, I had no idea that was going to be in the works. I programmed my season with a lot of note cards where I can shuffle pieces around, and then I start developing how my season’s going to work. Right now in both orchestras, an entire half of one of my concerts, which is good percentage of my entire season, is being taken up with a symphony by Angélica Négron. When you do that, it severely limits what's on the other half of your concert, because you don't know how the symphony ends, so you’re going to put it on the first half because you don’t know what it’s ending will be like. The second half of that concert has to be a concerto that is popular enough to draw in an audience that wouldn't have come for a piece that they don't know. That is incredibly limiting, so this year, we did Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto in Santa Rosa, and we're doing Rachmaninoff’s Second in Eugene, and that’s getting people in the door. In future seasons, I'm planning on putting something like Carmina Burana with a new symphony, but there is a limited group of pieces that will work in this capacity. Essentially, I've lost an entire program to this concept. All of the big orchestral pieces that I want to show off with my orchestra can't happen on that program, since it is purely about this new symphony, and getting as many people to hear it as possible. A part of me thinks, damn, I really wanted that program to do other things. That's been the only challenge. It hasn't been the things that we pretend are the challenges. It's the things that we don't want to admit are the challenges: music directors might not want to give up a program.

Another problem is that it was a lot of work. Working with Matt Browne’s symphony resulted in the most stressful conducting week I think I've ever had. With a forty minute piece, we made over one hundred changes in the course of about seventy two hours. You can do that because this was the major piece of the program. We had two rehearsals devoted exclusively to this new symphony, which is five hours of rehearsal time. In those rehearsals we're able to adjust these issues in real time. We're making changes; we're making sure that this piece is a living, breathing thing that we are editing, literally as we go.

Dan: What kind of adjustments? Fixing balance issues?

Francesco: A lot of balance stuff. It depends on each composer, and I love working with Matt Browne because he totally knows that if he's going to err, it's going to be on the side of orchestrating too heavily, and he’s very quick to make changes to clear up orchestral textures. Also, we did the end of one of the movements differently every rehearsal and every concert as well, and it was actually quite frustrating. It's called The Course of the Empire, and it's based on these five paintings about the rise and fall of an empire. The fourth movement has been this really violent movement as the invading force tears apart the Empire. But at the very end, it just comes to this dead standstill, and the last movement is very plaintive. It depicts the ruins of the empire. I think a lesser composer would have done something like this: this violent music comes to a dead standstill, and then there's this chord, hanging in the strings. I think that's a little gimmicky. However, when Matt did this, I love it because the chord holds, but inside the chord, a string player, at a specified moment begins to overpressure, and so the chord goes to scratch, only one player at a time. You hear this chord, then you hear this crunch in the string section, and then you hear another crunch, and then another crunch. It's really one of the creepiest things I’ve ever heard. But the problem was the pacing of it. At first we wondered, should we have everyone crunch whenever they want to, but of course orchestra mentality is that everyone will do it at the same time. Since I wanted to spread out these moments I tried doing it by stand, and then I tried doing it by player. I tried all these different things and next time, I'll probably do it a different way as well. I love something like that because it's a musical problem we're trying to figure out – emotionally – how much time do we need between the final smash of the orchestra, and this gorgeous viola solo that's going to start up the last movement? It's a great problem to have.

Dan: And that particular issue was an issue of combining orchestration, acoustics, and form all into one problem that is hard to sort out in the imagination alone.

Francesco: Yes, and actually this is what I love about Matt, we had a two hour talk when he gave me his first draft of the symphony. He knows how I work with composers. The first thing I say is that I think it's an incredible piece that you've given me. I already believe in it really strongly, and you have lived with this piece for a year; I lived with this piece for 24 hours. Then I say, with all of that as a caveat, and I'm not going to ask you to change anything, here's what I really think. I go movement by movement and ask questions and make comments. I may say, “I really like what you wrote here, so why doesn't it come back?” Or, “I don’t really understand this movement; I don't know what you're trying to do here.” I will ask everything that comes to mind, because some things he doesn't even realize. For example, there was this one really beautiful interval that happens in the first movement and I asked, “why doesn’t that come back?” So, there are things that I hear that I can help him see what stands out to someone else. The interesting thing was knowing the end of the fourth movement was going to be a problem right away; basically, it might not work. But we talked about it, and decided to leave it. It was adjusted on the fly, and It was fun to work out that problem.

Dan: That level of commitment, interest, and energy on the part of the conductor and music director is really unusual too. A lot of conductors or music directors may not have your compositional mind, considering you have the composition background, but also may not have the interest or the patience to fuss with adjusting the music of a living composer. As you said, it's a lot of work; it's a lot of trial and error and unknowns; but in a sense, what that effort culminated in was a really dynamic and amazing result. But as you say, I think that's unusual. I don't know if all music directors would do that.

Francesco: Well, we don't know until they start doing it. So, yeah I love the process, but I have to say it was not an easy week for me. Every night, rehearsal would end at 10 PM. I was up another hour or two having to collate notes. You also have to manage your orchestra really carefully. And I have to say, I was so proud of how the musicians handled it in Santa Rosa. A lot of them wrote to me before the week and said here's the list of things I'm worried I won't be able to do well. So, I could send those things to Matt, and say hey, do we have a workaround for this? For example, even something as simple as a clarinet part: if these six bars were played on E-flat clarinet instead of A clarinet, it would be ten times easier. The musicians really were proactive in getting this information to Matt and me so that we could make a lot of changes, before the rehearsal, but also during it. You just have to manage it. It can get frustrating for the musicians dealing with something brand new, and you have to be ready to negotiate between the them and the composer.

I guess that's the final challenge to presenting a large new orchestral work: the amount of effort required and the risk that you take with your audience and your musicians in a project like this.

Dan: So that's interesting. That also probably enabled Matt, if he knew this going in to the project, to take more risks. Was he able to take more risks at the outset? I know when I'm writing a piece, there's going to be limited rehearsal time. I'm deliberately not taking some risks sometimes, because I'm afraid that it's just not going to come off well on limited rehearsal time, and I basically have everything riding on my premieres. So if I'm having a good experience with the music director and good experience with the orchestra, I'm going to be erring on the side of caution, but still trying to accomplish my artistic goals, so that I don't end up in a situation where they hate me because it's just too hard or it's unsuccessful with the audience. So, what you're doing with your situation is you're enabling an added dimension there. Have you thought of it like that?

Francesco: Yeah, I never really I thought about asking Matt if he felt more relaxed and able to take risks during the compositional process because of how we work together.

Dan: Well, thanks for explaining how your collaboration with Matt worked. It was wonderful to get behind the scenes on your projects. Is there anything else you wanted to add?

Francesco: I'm so grateful in many ways to talk about these issues because I want to write about this process, and I just don’t have time. I want to have a blog where I can openly challenge my colleagues to take this on. So you're giving me a little bit of that voice. Thank you!

Dan: Thanks, Francesco! Your work is inspiring!

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!


© 2017-20 by Daniel Perttu. 

  • Facebook Social Icon
  • Twitter Social Icon
  • LinkedIn Social Icon
  • Instagram Social Icon