• Dan Perttu

The Muse in Music -- Matthew Kraemer on Bold Programming while Growing an Audience

By, Dan Perttu


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


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


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


Dan: What is your instrumentation there?


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


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


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


Dan: How long have you been there now?


Matthew: It’s my fourth season now.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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© 2017-20 by Daniel Perttu. 

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