By, Dan Perttu

 

 

Photo by Dan Rest

For this post of the "Muse in Music" blog, I am most happy to be interviewing the President and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, Jesse Rosen. Mr. Rosen has been the President and CEO of the League since 2008 and "has been a leading voice for the League’s more than 2,000 member organizations and individuals, empowering them with knowledge and perspective to navigate a rapidly changing environment" (LAO website). Jesse has been known for leading advocacy for orchestras to engage more deeply with their communities, to address diversity and equity issues both in concert programming and in workplace culture, to use data to inform decision-making, and to enhance their engagement with the work of living composers. In this blog post, Jesse and I talk about his perspectives on American orchestras -- past, present and future. True to the blog's identity, we discuss what is inspiring about what is happening with orchestras today. We also talk about issues pertaining to diversity and equity, new music, audience age, among other engaging topics.

Dan: Thank you for agreeing to talk with me! My blog is about what inspires musicians to do what they do, and it’s a pleasure for me to talk with you about what is inspiring about the current and future state of orchestras in America. So, let’s get started: what is inspiring to you about the future of orchestras?

 

Jesse: There are many things. The variety, volume, and quality of new compositions nowadays is at an all-time high. I ran the American Composers’ Orchestra for ten years, and when I started there, in the 1980s, there were two camps: the “uptown composers” and the “downtown composers.” You had to declare which side you were on. Since that time, not only has that wall crumbled, the idea that there are only two camps has also dissolved, and we’ve had such an explosion of genres. Part of it is from immigrant composers, from Asia and parts of Europe, as well as our home- grown composers with the influences from various idioms throughout America. Just a great, great wealth and variety of music today. I think that has contributed to the closing of the chasm that separated audiences from the new orchestral concert music. I think that gap is not closed, but it has been closing very significantly, and it’s a great cause for optimism.

In addition, musicians today bring a broad array of interests and skills that are really enriching music making. Some of that has to do with an interest in many different genres, a heightened attention to audience engagement, and creating experiences where there is genuine back-and-forth with the audience. There is a desire to do good with music and to contribute to our society, and also a sense of agency, of taking responsibility for creating your own musical experiences, working with the people you want to work with and creating music you want to play. These have all been features of the generation coming up that really adds to the way we think about and “do” orchestra.

 

Dan: Thanks for sharing this. This leads nicely into my next question. What about the ways in which orchestras are being managed now as opposed to in the past? Is there anything that is particularly inspiring about the future of orchestras from the perspective of management?

 

Jesse: I think that the understanding of leadership in orchestras today is increasingly infused with new, very relevant attributes. In recent years, people in leadership roles and organizations are prioritizing their organizational cultures more than in the past, so the quality of experience in the workplace really matters. People are paying attention to that, and it is manifested in many dimensions. It's partly in attention to creating equitable, inclusive, and diverse workplaces, and it's also creating collaborative workplaces in many sectors. We've seen workplace cultures move from the command and control/organizational model to the servant/leadership model, and I think that's been playing out also in orchestras. So, the leader is not necessarily the person who knows more than everybody else and tells everybody what to do, but it's the person who surrounds himself or herself with gifted and talented people and creates the conditions for them to flourish and be part of the strategic and generative work of an organization. When the organization moves forward, it does so with good alignment and collaboration across the organization. Also, in terms of administrative leadership, we are seeing increasingly more women in leadership roles, particularly in our larger budget orchestras, and I think that's been a welcome change. We do have a long way to go in terms of greater representations of other underrepresented groups, but we’ve made progress.

 

Dan: Besides what you have just outlined, are there other essential trends in orchestras that you have observed over the course of your career?

 

Jesse: This will be a bit of an oversimplification, but for purposes of answering your question, I would say that orchestras have moved from a more transactional way of doing their work to a more relational one. In the past, orchestras believed their job simply was to produce concerts and sell tickets to the people who wanted to buy them. When we did that work well, we put on really great concerts, people came, and donors made contributions. But, the environment changed. When there were threats to the income streams, changes in audience behavior and preferences, and changes in civic priorities, the transactional model was really not really up to the task. Doing more concerts at higher levels of quality, marketing harder, and fundraising harder were really not adequate to meet the challenges and opportunities in the environment. So, I think in adapting to some of these changes, orchestras become much more focused on the relational aspects of their work by investing a lot more in understanding how audiences are changing in what they're looking for, what they're valuing in the performing arts experience, and what their preferences are. And similarly with donors, donor relationships have become far more nuanced; there is much more give and take. The days in which the donor gave you a gift because you were the orchestra are largely in the past. Donors are interested in impact and results, and they want to be a part of the process. They want a relationship; whether it's donors or audience members, those people desire a relationship. Similarly, internally I think orchestras are focused on the quality of relationships within the organization, as I said earlier. It was said in the old days that the musicians play; the managers manage; and the board governs, but now I think that orchestras have shifted their approaches. In order to be strong and sustainable, internal constituents have to have a healthy, constructive relationships to do the hard work of adapting to the very changed environment. That's how I would characterize, in a very generalized sense, how the orchestra environment has changed over the last 25 years or so.

 

Dan: Then following on that, what do you see as being the most significant challenges for orchestras in the near future? And are these challenges different from the difficulties that you have observed in the previous 25 years? How might orchestras position themselves to address these challenges?

 

Jesse: You know, in some ways, there is the continual challenge of how do we support a very expensive proposition. Orchestras cost a lot of money. Sustaining the musician workforce with the wages, benefits, and challenges surrounding pension plans today, as well as the cost of health care is difficult; it costs a lot to keep these things going. The facilities and venues are extremely costly. I think there always is the continuing struggle to identify sufficient resources to keep the organizations going. I think the long-term strategy that's been emerging has been to create more value for more members of the community, partly because it's the right thing to do, and also because it's a way of opening up more sources of support, and more people who care about the organizations are prepared to support it. That's a long-game strategy, and what's always needed is the good short-game strategy, and every year the orchestra must make it work. Every contract cycle they have to figure out how they're going to manage the next three to five years of their costs, and so on the one hand, playing the long game, but being able to navigate the immediate circumstances, is a big challenge. Now, you kind of have to be in both places at the same time.

 

This circles back to my earlier comments about the internal work of orchestras, dealing with the lives of musicians, staff and everyone associated with the organization. This often occurs in a constrained environment for having adequate resources. You need people to be aligned and to be able to function together successfully.

 

I also think that issues around equity are very much in the forefront of most orchestra leaders today. Whether it's gender pay equity or creating more inclusive environments for unrepresented peoples, particularly African Americans and Latinos (given where our country’s populations are heading), these are huge challenges for orchestras. Given the relative lack of change over a long period of time, there is a degree of impatience among orchestra stakeholders and a real urgency for creating change.

 

Dan: This topic actually touches on my fourth question. Since we are now seeing more programming of more music by people other than white males, can you comment on the current state of this issue now from your perspective, where it has been recently, and also what you hope to see for the future?

 

Jesse: I think we are in a much better place now than in the past, and I think we have a really long way to go. The positive change that I've seen is that orchestras are moving beyond a surface kind of approach to dealing with equity, diversity, and inclusion. Orchestras are moving toward more holistic, organization-wide conversations and strategies, including at the core artistic level. In some ways, I think some of the most promising change is when music directors embrace these ideals and see them as an operative driver, and how they think about their core comes from programming. In the past, these were issues that were relegated to the community engagement department or fellowship program, and so when music directors are saying that these issues matter, and they’re going to address this in their core work of concert programming, the changes on these fronts are much more significant. So I think that's all been a really, really positive change. And having said that, I acknowledge that these changes don’t come easily or quickly, and there are barriers and push-back. So there is a lot of work to do. Overall, though, I'm encouraged by the shift from a rather cosmetic response to a move toward a more holistic and core artistic change.

 

Dan: How long do you think this shift from a cosmetic response to a more central artistic change has been going on?

 

Jesse: In the last five years, I've seen this shift to a deeper, more authentic engagement with these ideals of equity, diversity and inclusion.

 

Dan: And what do you see with respect to the future?

 

Jesse: It's hard to predict, and it's going to take a while. Doing this requires years of work; a quick turnaround does not happen. However, I do think the prioritization of this work has occurred in a relatively short amount of time, from this being a more of a back-burner item to becoming a front-and-center item for many orchestras.

 

Dan: I’m now going back to just another one of the other follow-ups from one of the earlier questions. We had talked a little bit about the future of orchestras. As we're talking about shifting demographics, and responses to those shifting demographics, I also think about the issue of audiences aging. People come down on multiple sides on this, because on the one hand, we see aging audiences, but on the other hand, I've heard the argument been made that audiences were old in the 80s, and they were old in the 90s, and they were old in the 2000s. So given these two sides, where do you fall on the issue of aging audiences?

 

Jesse: The data on this is pretty conclusive. The audience was not always old. It’s a lot older now than it used to be. This was captured first in an NEA Survey of Public Participation in the Arts in 2008 and demonstrated the increase of the audience age for classical music over a 25 year period. The median age went from 42 to 48. I don't think anybody disputes the data, but I think the myths and mythology still prevail that the audience is always old, and if it is mostly about old people we have no problems. And I think there's other data that further dispels that; there's research we commissioned from McKinsey that shows that every successive generation participates in attending orchestra concerts at a lower rate than the generation before it. There’s also data that indicates that, at a time when the largest proportion of our population is going to college, we have fewer college-educated people going to concerts than we ever had before. Having a college education was always the biggest predictor of becoming a symphony subscriber, so you know the data is not very encouraging. Things used to be different, but that’s not that way they are now. In the 1960s, some orchestras’ subscription campaigns might consist of a one-page letter with dates, artists, and repertoire, and they were then sold out on subscription. That was a time when there was a great alignment of the product with what the market wanted. Those days are long gone, and there's no reason to think they're going to come back in the normal course of things. So, the challenge now is that the current core audience subscriber skews older and is more traditional in his/her tastes and buying habits than the coming generations. The question becomes: how do you retain your core audience while investing in the cultivation of a new one, whose behavior is different from the older ones. Orchestras are doing a lot of experimentation, and a lot of innovation is happening in the development of new audiences. The good news is that more people are going to concerts than ever before, and we don't have any issues around people liking the orchestra experience. The music is as strong and healthy as it has ever been. But people's buying patterns are different, so that poses a challenge, but there's nothing existentially wrong with the experience or with the repertoire. The challenge is, how do we develop the loyalty, frequency, and volume that is sufficient to meet our needs.

 

Dan: So are you saying that people are going but they may not be returning or they may not be subscribing?

 

Jesse: They're coming, but instead of buying multiple tickets every year they're buying one ticket or two tickets, and they may be coming back year after year, but it is not what it used to be. And there is in fact a shift now. We've turned the corner a couple of years ago where there's more revenue coming in from single ticket sales than from subscriptions.

 

Dan: So, going back to the initial question about what is maybe inspiring or optimistic about this: orchestras are adapting to this and are trying to find creative solutions to engaging these younger generations. Is that fair to say?

 

Jesse: Yes, absolutely.

 

Dan: And do you think that financially speaking, with these adaptations, we are seeing evidence that they are yielding positive results, or is it hard to know?

 

Jesse: There is a high degree of experimentation taking place in the field. What's hard to tell is what's going to stick. What works in one place may not work someplace else. There is a lot of interest in the membership model, which is being tested in a variety of places. It's a really different way to think about how you achieve loyalty and frequency that's quite different from the subscription model, but is more aligned with how people think about being affiliated with an organization these days. In the membership model, people a flat amount of money and go as often as they want. It’s being experimented with.

 

Dan: In some senses, linking back to what you said earlier, the membership model is in line with this notion of a relationship, built between the consumer and the orchestra as an organization.

 

Jesse: Right.

 

Dan: Well, there’s some potentially exciting experimentation going on. I try to remain optimistic about the future of orchestras, since I love them so dearly, and this shows some promise. Well, thank you for your time! I really appreciate hearing your perspectives on these issues.

 

Jesse: Thank you so much!

By, Dan Perttu

 

I am pleased to be interviewing conductor Martin MacDonald on the Muse in Music blog. Winner of the prestigious Heinz Unger Award for Orchestral Conducting from the Ontario Arts Council, Martin MacDonald is one of Canada's most dynamic and outstanding young conductors. Including recent posts as a Cover Conductor and Guest Conductor for the National Ballet of Canada and former Associate Conductor of Symphony Nova Scotia, Martin has conducted extensively across Canada having appeared with the orchestras of Toronto, the National Arts Centre, Edmonton, Calgary, Hamilton, London, Niagara, Windsor, Thunder Bay, Sudbury, Newfoundland, Kamloops, Prince George, and Orchestra Toronto. In this conversation, we touch not only on what inspires him and his work, but also on the interpersonal relationship between the conductor and the orchestra, on musician investment and authentic performances, and on some of his perspectives on Canadian “classical” music.

 

Dan: Because it’s the theme of the blog, I always start with this question: what inspires you as a conductor? And, I’ll add a twist: if the entire body of classical music were on fire, what would you save if you could only save two or three pieces?

 

Martin: There are a few particular pieces that have had an immense impact on me, and the first that comes to mind is the Mahler “Resurrection” Symphony. I performed it first I was fifteen years old and playing it in the Nova Scotia Youth Orchestra for the first time as a cellist. I was cello thirteen of thirteen cellos, sitting in the very back of the section, and I played every note of that symphony with every ounce of myself. It was my first big orchestral experience, and I probably listened to the symphony hundreds of times. It’s just one of those pieces that stood out to me, and then when I went to get my master’s degree in conducting, it was the first piece I assisted on. So, the Resurrection Symphony is probably my favorite. Another one is La Mer by Debussy, which I adore. It’s an astonishing piece of music. The colors, the orchestration, and the depth of that piece are incredible. It is another piece that has stood the test of time for me as a favorite. And, if I had to choose a third piece, I would just say the entire body of works of Haydn , Mozart, and Beethoven. I’ve done a couple of lectures lately; I filled in for a friend of mine teaching an orchestral literature class here in Toronto a few times a year. For this, I really dug quite deeply into the work of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. The bedrock of the classical symphony was propelled forward from their musical models and structures.

 

Dan: I can understand; of course they’re incredible. That’s the First Viennese School right there. That’s the wonderful thing about great art . . . great music. You never get tired of it.

 

Martin: That brings me to your second point. That’s what inspires me to be in I this field; that’s what motivates me. For a number of years I didn’t pursue a conducting career, and I was miserable. I knew I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to do, and then I had the opportunity to go for it, and I did, and I never looked back. It’s just something I was meant to do, and that’s why I keep doing it.

 

Dan: Yeah, I can see that. In music, you’re constantly being surprised, constantly being exposed to some hidden mystery in music; and especially in a great piece of music, upon multiple listenings, you can hear these things. When you are talking about inspiration, there are multiple experiences of music, including how your life experiences figure in. This leads to my next question. What motivates you as a conductor, and why do you do it? And how would you characterize your artistic vision?

 

Martin: For me, it’s more about the fact that this is what I’m supposed to do. I know it’s a lofty answer, but I mean it with utmost sincerity. Standing on a podium and working with musicians in that dynamic and that role just is what fits me. In terms of motivation, more than anything I just enjoy collaborating and working with musicians. I take a collaborative approach to music making; I like to make myself as approachable and open to suggestions and new ideas as possible. Depending on the level of the orchestra I’m working with, I like to extend a great deal of flexibility when it comes to an orchestral solo or something like that. Obviously direction comes from the podium but, depending on the level of the orchestra, there can be a degree of flexibility in dynamics and phrasing, while still observing the composer’s intentions. I conduct a lot of different types of programs, different types of music, and I like to stay open minded to in what I’m doing. Also, we are creating a sense of community as we are all working together; that also motivates me. That’s the twenty-first century conductor in very many respects: you have to be open and collaborative, and your working style has to complement the working style of those you are working with.

 

Dan: And that is different even from what I experienced as a student sometimes. A lot of the time we were terrified of the maestros.

 

Martin: It’s a very unique wall that you have to tear down sometimes. It’s very mysterious sometimes, why there’s a wall there, and why it has to be there. I guess it’s because of years of the maestro barking directions. Groups need leaders and you can be as collaborative as you want, but eventually the decisions have to be made on musical ideas. There has to be a level of leadership there as well. Also, it’s taking ownership for everything that happens. When I came on the podium I realized that everything that happens on stage is down to me. That’s a very important thing for young conductors to realize. So, there is a lot of responsibility that you have to accept. And I accept it and enjoy every moment of it.

 

Dan: I understand what you are saying. And linking that now to the artistic vision question, I appreciate that you recognize the collaborative nature of making music, a group of people who are also very much invested in it and in love with it. On the other hand, you recognize the importance of leadership and that the buck still has to stop somewhere.

 

Martin: I like the word you used: invested. When the musicians and the conductor are deeply invested in the performance, and they bring the positive energy from that mutual investment, the music-making is much more sincere. That’s ultimately what we are doing; we are making great art and recreating great art. We are recreating what is written on the page, and there is so much mystery involved even with a brand new score. Even with a composer sitting right there next to you, as you are rehearsing, there is still an incredible amount of mystery about what is on that page, and you have to discover it together. And, you have to be true to it.

 

Dan: That’s an interesting way of putting it. Frequently, when I am present at a performance of my music, I am pleasantly surprised by the performers’ interpretation of what I wrote. They picked up on something that was implied by the music, but I had not marked it.

 

So, what is your artistic vision for your orchestra or orchestras that you perform with?

 

Martin: My artistic vision is to realize the composer’s intention. It sounds basic, but when it comes down to it, that is what it is, and obviously we’re recreating art at the highest possible artistic merit. We do so together, with the best intentions in mind, and that spans any kind of music. I do classical concerts, ballets, family concerts, educational concerts, pops/crossover concerts, and this applies to every type and genre of music that’s on the stand. Whether it’s an Indie band or a Mahler symphony, the same conditions apply. I try to make everything I do on the podium as meaningful as I can possibly make it.

 

Dan: When you talk about realizing the composer’s intentions, this brings up the issue of authenticity in a performance. What do you think would be an inauthentic performance? What does that sound like, what does that look like?

 

Martin: That’s a really interesting question. For me it’s a performance where the performers are just not engaged.

 

Dan: Oh yeah; I’ve seen some of those.

 

Martin: Even when there’s one person who’s not engaged it feels like we’re all not really there. There’s a lot on the shoulders of the conductor to inspire the players to be completely engaged in what they are doing -- heart and soul, putting yourself into what you are doing.

 

Dan: So, what do you do to inspire the people who’ve played a piece many, many times?

 

Martin: Knowing what you are doing inside and out, backwards and forwards. If you are going to guest conduct an orchestra, the musicians will peg you in the first thirty seconds. It’s a very interesting phenomenon. You get upon the podium for the first time, and within a minute they’ve already made a decision about you. So your confidence level in what you are doing immediately is a huge factor in inspiring musicians to play, to be their best because you are being your best. You give mutual respect for them, and for the music. That goes a long way to inspire them to dig in, and yourself to dig in. I remember when I got my first resident job in Nova Scotia in 2008. It was my first gig after my master’s degree and my years with the National Academy Orchestra (which was really my first job although it was a hybrid training program), so Symphony Nova Scotia was my first big professional job. In the cello section, three of the four cellists were my former teachers. That’s an extremely humbling position to be in, and it is a little scary at first. Now those three people were with me for the twelve years I’ve been conducting Symphony Nova Scotia and I consider them three wonderful people who have supported me in everything I’ve done. I have extreme respect for them and their work. In essence I just think that respect for who’s in front of you is immensely important. To identify and understanding that goes a long way to inspiring musicians.

 

Dan: I think that’s a really interesting take on all of this. We’ve also covered an area that none of the previous conductors have talked about for one reason or another and this is really nice because it’s giving the people who read the blog a perspective on these issues that I haven’t explored yet and put in the blog, so thank you for that. I wanted to move on to the next question now because it is of interest to me; it may be a little bit of a shift. Now shifting to the audience: in what ways do you deal with the audience and programming? So in what ways do you keep the audience in your mind as you program your concerts?

 

Martin: Well, you know we always have to remember that aside from the immense task of creating high art, we have this stakeholder that’s sitting on the other side of the stage, and that’s the audience. We have to remember that they are the community that we serve, and giving them the music that they want to hear, or that we would like to introduce to them, is a very careful balance. Since I’m a guest conductor and freelancer, a lot of programs get programmed for me, and I get called to do a particular concert. When I have been programming concerts, I see it as an immense jigsaw puzzle. Taking care of all the stakeholders, musicians, the community, the composers, the mandate of the orchestra, the vision of the orchestra -- there’s so much to keep in mind. But in terms of the audience themselves, there’s a lot of great pieces that people just want to hear. And I think it’s important for them to be heard. I also like to program music by Canadian composers on programs where you wouldn’t normally see this music. I’ve taken older pieces of Canadian music, pieces from the thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, even seventies, some pieces that have not had a performance since their premiere and then played them again. They may sometimes be more accessible to listen to as contemporary music goes, but I find it’s an excellent opportunity. I find that at these concerts, Masterworks Concerts, people come with very open ears, and I find that with non-traditional or non-classical concerts you get people who are very open-minded and going to a concert for the first time. So it’s a really good opportunity to put a piece of contemporary music on there. It can even be successful with new Canadian music that may not be perceived as easy to listen to. There’s so much contemporary Canadian music and a lot of that has only been played once or twice. I’ve done a lot of that, and it’s gone very well.

 

Dan: That actually leads well into the next question. I am curious if you have any preferences for any particular aesthetic orientations or styles in new music, be it from the 30’s or 70’s or from any composers living today?

 

Martin: I don’t really prefer an aesthetic style. If it’s a good piece that really says something, then it’s worth programming. Of course, it’s really difficult to quantify what a “good” piece is. It’s all so subjective, but, for me, if the music has something to say, then it’s worth programming. I find with the majority of contemporary music that’s very true, and it’s important to try to find ways to program contemporary music as much as possible. If you want to add a fourth piece of music to preserve if everything were on fire, I would want to preserve the contents of the Canadian Music Centre. That’s our future. If you are a composer in Canada, your music is sitting in the Canadian Music Centre. Everything gets stored there, it’s our national library. A couple hundred years from now, that’s going to be our history.

 

Dan: Is it any piece or is it only published pieces, in other words, what are the criteria for getting into the Canadian Music Centre?

 

Martin: I’m pretty sure it’s just published pieces, but I could be wrong. So one of my tasks in Symphony Nova Scotia was that I had to research Canadian music that would fit the size of the orchestra. Nova Scotia is a smaller orchestra. The other criteria were that the pieces needed to be longer than ten minutes, and the pieces must have been performed only once or twice. That was one of the things that I really admired about my boss at the time; he was insistent on having contemporary music and Canadian music on all of his programming. And he was insistent on having sufficient rehearsal time for it. He would actually add rehearsal time for the contemporary pieces. I took a lot of inspiration from that. I thought his treatment of contemporary music was so different from what I had experienced or seen previously. His aesthetic was very much like mine, pieces that people could connect to or relate to, pieces that had something meaningful to say. Also, thematic programming comes into it as well, because a lot of programming now is very thematic.

 

Dan: So in Canada, there is a strong emphasis on performing Canadian composers, which is completely understandable. However, what about contemporary American composers or even European composers -- what is your take on them?

 

Martin: In Canada we really focus on Canadian content, and there’s a lot of incentive to put Canadian music in a concert. It is considered a hallmark of a good concert to fill your program with Canadian content. There are mandates from all of these different arts councils to program Canadian music. It’s the same with television and radio programming; they also want to see Canadian programming. What I find is that the bigger orchestras are more in a position to present more non-Canadian works since they have more concerts per season. That said, we try to highlight our own I guess, because we are still a young country, and the number of composers we have is still relatively small compared to other countries. But I think is an open- mindedness about various composers is important. And it also depends on funding and where the funding comes from and what the criteria and mandates are behind that. There are a lot of different factors.

 

Dan: What are the mandates from various arts councils? I’m just curious.

 

Martin: There is always a mandate to highlight Canadian music. But then we’ll turn around and say why don’t we have music from more people? It can be quite the conundrum.

 

Dan: The last question I had was more of a personal question, just so people reading the blog have a sense of you as a human being. What do you do to relax? Do you have hobbies, other interests, anything you want to share on that side of it?

 

Martin: In addition to being a free-lance conductor, I am a stay-at-home dad to a four year old little girl, and she pretty much takes up every free moment that I have.

 

Dan: Yes, I know the feeling! I have a five-year-old and a two-year-old.

 

Martin: It's just great spending time with her and my wife. I also love running, and I also have a really strong background in Celtic music, being from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, there is a long tradition and I have training in Celtic music as well. That was a big part of my life for a long time. I just recently played cello in my brother’s (Dan MacDonald) cd that just came out.

 

Dan: It’s always interesting to get to know this other side of the people I talk to. Thanks for sharing. So, it’s been a pleasure talking with you. Thanks for such an interesting discussion!

 

Martin: Thank you! Talk soon.

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.