The Muse in Music: Brett Mitchell on Sharing his Passion for New Music with Broad Audiences
Updated: Apr 4, 2020
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!