FOCUS ON: KC SYMPHONY MUSIC DIRECTOR MICHAEL STERN

NO LIMITS      Stern on the Kansas City Symphony: We’re just getting started!

One of the exciting things about living in Kansas City through the last decade has been the chance to see the Kansas City Symphony claim its place in the community as a world-class institution alongside the Nelson-Atkins and Kemper Museums, the Harriman-Jewell and Friends of Chamber Music Series, the KC Rep and Unicorn Theatres and the Lyric Opera and KC Ballet. Yes, the Kauffman Center has had much to do with the upward trajectories specifically of its resident organizations, but at the Symphony one man has headed up a powerful team that has remained unflinching in its pursuit of excellence.

Stern horiz

Initially Michael Stern was, for many, “that famous violinist’s son.” He never showed discomfort about this, indeed he embraced his father’s legacy, while growing into his own musician with his own sense of purpose. At the Symphony his goals have been less about who he is than about building a partnership that will entice supporters and audiences. Those goals are paying off artistically. One critic wrote, in a review in the International Audio Review of the KCS’s Grammy-winning disc “Britten’s Orchestra”: “Just as his father Isaac Stern elevated the future culture of New York (and the rest of the musical world) by virtually single-handedly saving Carnegie Hall, so also Michael Stern has wrought a cultural miracle at the helm of the Kansas City Symphony. This is now a first class orchestra, and they play with enthusiastic dedication, precise ensemble, and precise intonation.”

As he wraps up his eighth season at the helm of the Symphony, Michael conducts his final programs of 2012-2013 this month, with music by Mozart, Schubert, Richard Strauss, Alban Berg and Carl Ruggles. Recently he spoke with The Independent at some length about the Symphony and its future, the city’s cultural outlook and the Kauffman Center’s impact on that, and about recordings, collaborations, operas, future programming, history, cultural politics and a host of other things.

 The Symphony’s final concerts of the season are May 31st-June 2nd (with violinist Gil Shaham) and June 7th-9th (with Strauss’ Alpine Symphony). For tickets call 816-471-0400 or visit kcsymphony.org.

 

Paul: The other night, driving home from a concert, I was listening to the Miraculous Mandarin on the radio, and I said, Wow. Of course I knew it was the Kansas City Symphony Hour, and I was just marveling at the sound. How did we get from where we were 13 years ago, when I moved here – which is not to denigrate the progress that had been made at KCS already – to where we are now? What were the steps necessary to reach this point, during your eight seasons here?

Michael: First of all, it’s always a shared effort, and the first and foremost thing is hard work: You just work all the time to make whatever you can make better, better. And that doesn’t only involve what goes on onstage, it also involves the culture of the orchestra and the work ethic, and everything that goes into contributing toward what we do. In the end you’re only as good as the sum of your parts, and we’re very lucky. You know, a band will sound its best if it’s happy, which is not to say every good orchestra is happy, which they’re not. … nor that some of the most comfortable places to work don’t make good music – that’s also not true. But in general … you play as you are, and so when you’ve got, for lack of a better word, complicity with board and staff and artistic direction, and all the pins are firing at the same time, then you can really start to address where you want to go.

Photo by David Bickley

Photo by David Bickley

But then the other part of the question is, if you’re just talking about strides – and I also don’t want to denigrate anything that was done before, because you know, the Kansas City Symphony has been always been, even when it was the Philharmonic, aspiring to be something in this city – but now I think that something has changed, and the world has changed, too. There’s no doubt in my mind that actually there are no limits. Because the old conviction that the Big Five [the orchestras of New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago and Boston] were what they were, and everybody else was sort of underneath – and that American musical culture could only exist with those few centers and everything filtered down – is not borne out by the truth. The truth is, the pool of talent in America right now is greater than it’s ever been, and despite all the naysayers the artistic climate and the ability for music to prosper is as healthy or healthier than it ever has been. So we just have to figure out how to make that mean something for the 21st century.

So in that context, if you’re setting your sights that high, then it just comes down to, How does it sound? What is the playing actually doing to serve the music? And there I think we have really ratcheted it a little bit – well more than a little bit. And I will say this: We really have yet to begin, I mean the best is ahead of us. Because I think that you can’t ever be satisfied, and that will probably be the one thing that distinguishes us, if there is one element. If you’re saying, why are we making so much progress? It’s that it can always be better, it can always be more refined, it can always be deeper, it can always be better. And that constant striving never ends.

We recorded the Mandarin, that’s our next CD, that and the Hindemith Symphonic Metamorphoses and Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges, and the recording is already a couple levels higher (than the live performances). I will admit that when I came to the orchestra to guest conduct, and then in the designate year, I don’t believe we could have negotiated that. It’s not so much the notes, the notes would have been there more or less. But I think now it’s more – it’s not just the notes. I don’t think they could have negotiated the vernacular and the intent behind that music as fluently as they can now, and I’m proud of that, too. One of the reasons the orchestra sounds better is also that we really try to make whatever … composer we’re playing sound authentic to him or her, to make Schubert and Mozart sound like where we think that should be, and to make Bartók and Tchaikovsky sound like where we think that should be. And that makes you listen differently.

We’re making recordings. We’re on the radio, yes, but we’re making recordings, and that really makes you listen to yourself. A lot of orchestras don’t have that luxury any more, and we are incredible fortunate to have this relationship with Reference Recordings, because it’s at a very high level, and the sound that they put out is really supreme. So it makes us really pay attention, and that’s a good thing.

Our next disc is actually (all-)Saint-Saëns, the Organ Symphony and two solo pieces featuring both Mark Gibbs, our principle cellist, and our concertmaster Noah Geller. … (Helzberg Hall’s Casavant) organ has proven to be one of the great instruments, and Reference wanted it on a disc. Then the year after that we’re returning to this year’s composer in residence, Adam Schoenberg, for an all-Schoenberg disc. Adam, not Arnold. …

Adam horiz

It’s a really happy consideration for me that we are now in a position of mutual trust with our record company that we can discuss the breadth of repertoire that we are doing. And I think having appointed Adam very successfully as composer in residence, and having performed all these orchestral pieces of his – and the chamber music pieces he curated so wonderfully, and the Composer’s Institute – he added so much to this year. The fact that we should then issue some kind of emblematic record of that tenure is a great thing.

Adam’s Picture Studies this season, with movements inspired by artworks from the Nelson-Atkins Museum, was one of the most successful collaborations between two local organizations I’ve ever seen.

He’s got a real sense of getting visual inspiration down on the page. Some people do it less well: I think he does it very well.

It’s safe to say you found a very good work ethic here when you came, and you’ve been able to build on that. You’ve also devoted a great deal of energy here: You could have I’m sure taken on a lot more guest conducting gigs than you have. You’ve chosen to focus your energy here (and on your IRIS ensemble). What is it about this orchestra that makes you want to devote so much time & effort to it?

Look, I never see any place as a half-step, you know? And it just happened to be at the moment in my life when everything came together. I thank you for saying it – and I think it’s true but I’m not going to beat my own drum – but it’s true that it’s more than just a job. You take a commitment, you do it 100 percent. But I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t seen the capacity, and if I hadn’t felt the commensurate reaction from the other side, both from the musicians and from everybody in the community.

We are incredibly lucky, and that why I say it’s a team effort. It’s not just me at all, it’s everybody working together. You have an administration that, starting with (executive director) Frank Byrne, is devoted to music and passionate about the art form, a board [including departing president Shirley Helzberg] that’s committed to success, and an audience that not only supports us but – let’s face it – as much as anybody else made the Kauffman Center possible. For all of Julia (Kauffman’s) vision and hard work and everybody else who contributed, if the idea had sounded hollow and fallen on deaf ears, it wouldn’t have happened. And that’s a real testament to the community and to the people who devote themselves to making the place happen. … And when you’re faced with that kind of dedication and commitment, how can you not step up and join the team? … You want to be part of that progress.

And the other thing is … I do have this real feeling of pride that we can be, if not an antidote, then an alternative to some of the horror stories you hear (among orchestras) around the country – of dwindling interest and real financial trouble and moribund music making and anemic program-making and all the rest. If we can make a vibrant case that the arts can really make a difference, and everybody can look to the middle of the country where we are and say, Hey, they’re doing something right, that’s not nothing.

So that makes me happy, and we are pledging to go forward, we are pledging to expand in a very reasonable and right way. But we live within our means, and it’s important for us to be able to sustain the growth that we set out for one another. I don’t believe that you always have to measure what is possible artistically by the realities that confront you on the other side. … Artistic success breeds excitement, breeds interest, breeds audiences, breeds all sorts of energy and curiosity, which then generates more support. The two go hand-in-hand.

And people like the idea of sustaining something and nurturing something that really has an impact. Not just to say, oh, the city needs a big museum, a theater, a symphony orchestra and an opera company. … I don’t think it’s important or significant that Kansas City has all of those things. I think it’s significant that we have the quality of the Rep here that we do, and the quality of the Nelson Museum and all the rest of the institutions of visual arts, and the quality of the Lyric Opera – and especially the quality of the Symphony.

I think the symphony plays leagues above its “classification.” You know, orchestras in this country are classified purely on budget, with no regards for artistic output. And I think that’s silly, it always has been silly. There’s no reason to think that a $25 million orchestra plays any better than we do. And that’s been proven by the audience reactions, by our recordings, by everything else. And I just say upwards and onwards, and you fight the good fight for more interesting projects, for more profound and insightful music-making, more education programs, more resonance in the community, more more more, more of everything. And it doesn’t mean you have the break the bank. In fact if we can do it without breaking the bank – if we can do it in a way that is fiscally responsible and prudent, yet are still growing – then we’ve really accomplished something.

In your ideal world, do you have a sort of rough draft of what you’d like the next seasons to look like, areas in which to keep moving forward, new frontiers to explore? In 2013-2014 we see music from the Americas, French masterworks, Requiems. What else can we expect? More Mahler?

I don’t believe in “hooks” in programming. I like connections, and I can tell you, I was very gratified by the collaboration with the Nelson-Atkins: My interest has always been gravitating toward more collaborations like that with more and more institutions. I won’t be more specific right now, but that is always in the back of my mind. I also don’t believe particularly in anniversary years, I don’t like celebrating everything of one composer, especially when you have an orchestra that doesn’t play 52 weeks a year. … I don’t believe in that kind of lazy programming that says, Oh let’s just do nothing but Beethoven all year. Or let’s celebrate Buxtehude’s birthday, or whoever. It’s not that interesting.

But I do believe that if you are curious and things cross your transom, then all of a sudden it sparks an idea and you go with that. And what animates me at the moment and helps me decide to explore that comes and goes, and influences how the next year or two will go. It’s no secret that the World War I centennial is coming up and we are an important city for that. I like the idea of learning from history and the idea that we are now (at the end of) this “first decade” of what has proven to be a very new century, a very new time. It’s interesting to look back and see exactly where we were at the end of the first decade of the 20th century, when that also was a completely new time.

What is now, looking backward, is referred to as the “rise of modernism” set the stage for the next 90 years. So what are we going to be talking about in the year 2070? I’m not going to get to see it – well, who knows, I’ll be 111 years old, I’ll get back to you. But you know it’s interesting to make connections like that, and then to start to explore ways to have art reflect on that reality, and make us understand it better. Because that’s the whole point of art: It’s not just to entertain, although it can be entertaining, and it’s not always just to uplift, though it should be uplifting. It needs to be a better voice for us to explain our world and to see ourselves and our world … with more clarity and more humanity, more beauty and more honesty.

About the Mahler project, I love Mahler and the orchestra for a long time didn’t play that much of it. I think it’s good for the orchestra to play and I think the audience has taken on this sort of, “Oh, now what’s next in the series?” But am I absolutely fixated on the idea of doing Mahler every year? It’s not an imperative. It is very much a possibility, but if there’s a way to make that a part of something else, or if a better idea has come to supplant that idea for that moment, I don’t believe in that kind of didactic, formulaic programming.

The period of WW I is so rich that you don’t even need a “red thread,” as the Germans say about thematic programming. There’s so much great stuff there that you can just play it.

Well, yes and no. If you just stick to that very rich period … it’s not as interesting as looking, at the same time, to everything that led up to it make it so – and everything that came after it that changed the way we listen and feel and make war and create democracies and resolve problems and see the world. And that if you take the period of just before the war, and into the war, and up to the completion of the war, you have, I agree, a very rich field from which to mine, but it can be much more than that. I think that period, and World War I changed the world more than any other conflict in any other period. Even though, if you take the century decade by decade … there is more foment, more change in the first two decades than in any other in the 20th century.

World War I Memorial and Museum

Even though there’s a lot of foment in the [20th] century. I’m mean, the ’50s the ’60s, of course, and World War II blew up the world, right? And the ’30s were upside down. But nothing can compare with the sea change and the speed of that change than occurred from 1900 to 1922 or so – just after the war and the immediate impact of that war, and the whiplash we had from that war.

It was, among other things, the death of Western feudalism.

Exactly … The whole idea of the social construct of society, and Western democracy’s feelings toward the Pacific Rim, toward minority populations, toward everything. How can you not see all of those parallels in the way we view art: The sources of inspiration of the artist, the ways the artists were responding to that, how art was used differently, the base materials that were chosen, the styles that were chosen, the impact that it had, the reactions that it evoked?

You are the kind of person who is always curious, always learning, moving forward. How have you grown during these eight seasons with KCS? 

I like to think I’m a better musician every day. You have to try always to challenge yourself to do something better. I don’t believe I coast, that I will say pretty confidently, I don’t “phone in,” either study or performance. Because I still get a thrill of being able to share onstage this music that we worked on and wanting people get it the way we got it. that’s what’s exciting. It’s not about us, and say, look how wonderful we are, that’s not it at all. And it’s not just oh isn’t this a beautiful piece, and you can just decide for yourselves whether you think so or not. I mean there’s some of that.

One of our roles is present the music and let it speak for itself. But really what you want is for people to love what you love, that’s human nature. If I get completely excited not only about the piece but why that piece is so incredible, I want people to know why I think that. And when we play it and we work so hard to make that nuance come out in just that way , or make that detail come out in just that way, because we think it’s so imp to making the spirit of that piece come alive, that’s what we want the audience to feel.

If you take that as your starting point and think, ok it’s a lot more than wow this is a complicated rhythm and we have to play this together and there are a lot of notes, and we gotta play them in tune, it immed takes on a diff dimension. And I think obviously the musicians of the orchestra and I have gotten much closer, not that we weren’t close at the beginning but it’s like any relationship, it deepens. There’s a shorthand which is easier, the work is faster. It doesn’t mean that we shorten the work but we can get to that place more quickly and then delve deeper in the time that we have to work. And so that also makes you grow, and I confess also that making recordings is a very useful tool because you hear yourself, you hear yourselves differently, and I think also to be honest, the trust that has built up between the orch and the audience, allows us to take certain chances, I wouldn’t call them risks, but to expand our horizons with respect to programs which is very exciting. I never believed partic in playing it safe, but you know you come to a partic place, and I did not know much about Kansas City when I came and I know a lot about Kansas city now, and I feel like Kansas city has been very welcoming of me and I hope I can repay that, and continue to pay that as much as I can. So all of that breeds confidence in the conviction that I always had, that we all had, which is now deeper, which is the part that really matters, which is jumping in with both feet. And that is part of growing as a musician.

What are some of the highlights that you are most proud of, happiest about, in these eight seasons so far?

You mean specific performances?

Achievements in general, or specific performances.

Well, the obvious one is opening the hall and having everybody say, wow, the orchestra really makes this hall come alive. It would have been a terrible thing to have this beautiful building and to have this heightened acoustic ability, and to have people say, Eh, it’s still the Kansas city Symphony that we don’t like. And just the opposite happened. I think we make the hall sound good.

I mean the hall sounds good, but it took us a little while to learn to play effectively in it, and I think that it gets better all the time and we now feel truly comfortable. But the very, very first times we played there was such a sea-change, it was hard to make that leap. You listen like crazy, but then you have to adjust. I had a lot of ears also listening for me and I did listen from other parts of the hall. But you feel a lot onstage, I mean, you know it instantly. After years and years and years of forcing sound at the Lyric Theatre and making accommodations for the fact that you can’t hear one another – or you couldn’t hear one another from one side of the stage to the next – then suddenly you have to consciously tell yourself, Oh, you don’t have to do that any more.

And the hall changes, you know. The hall certainly sounds different, and better, when it’s full, and it sounds different when the chorus is there, and it sounds different when you the organ playing. You have to make adjustments all the time. It sounds different when we have 110 people onstage, than when we have 60. It sounds different when there’s a quartet playing in there and the risers are down. You learn all those things, and it takes a little bit of time. You learn them intellectually, (then you have to) translate that into the physical accommodations, put it into your playing.

But certainly opening the hall and being there ready at the moment is a huge highlight. One of the best examples/advertisements/examples of that “feeling good about being in the hall” was the concert with Joyce DiDonato and the PBS program that came out of it – which I still think was a signature moment for us. She’s amazing. The fact that she is not only a great singer but also a great friend and a great collaborator and great musician, means that the feeling onstage was just immense. The show was an accurate reflection of everybody at their best. Everybody from the KCPT people to the outside sound and lighting people that we brought in, from the music-making to Jake Heggie’s piece – and Joyce sang like an angel. … That was a great moment for us.

Photo by Chris Lee

Concert with Joyce DiDonato / Photo by Chris Lee

It’s not that you’ve avoided opera, but there’s so much great music there. Do you ever contemplate trying to move more in that direction? Obviously you’re a busy guy right now … 

Oh sure. I’ve done some opera in the past and I’ve always enjoyed it, I don’t know of any plans at the Lyric, but I certainly would do opera at other places. It’s just that, I’ve for the time being gravitated more towards symphonic conducting. I have this chat with my brother (David) all the time, because he does some symphony work, but more and more he does almost exclusively opera. … That’s a huge passion for him and he does it very well, but if he were asked to do a symphony concert he would, and if I were asked to do an opera I would do it happily. And I think there will be a time when the Kansas City Symphony does in-concert and semi-staged operas. That is also is something I’ve been thinking about.

Could we talk a little bit about the repertoire for these final concerts? The Berg Concerto is a very special piece for me and always has been. There’s a special sound to it, and I was just curious if there are keys to obtaining that.

I love Berg. I mean I appreciate (Arnold) Schoenberg and Webern greatly, there’s a lot of great music there, but I love Berg especially. It’s just as atonal as the others but it’s not unmelodic, it’s terribly lyrical. In fact the secret to that music is twofold, I think: One is utter transparency, even in the thorniest passages. Because there’s not anything that he wrote – especially in the Violin Concerto, which I think is a miracle – which is casual or accidental. It is so clear why everything is the way it is, and when you get to the chorale, it’s such an uplifting spiritual moment. …

And the other thing, in addition to the transparency, is that it’s an incredibly Viennese piece. You should play it like it’s Johann Strauss. You have to play it like those melodies, dance and sing and lilt – lilt especially, as if it were old music (and frankly for us now it is old music). But it’s incredibly beautiful, especially when you’ve got somebody like Gil Shaham coming to play it, who is so “at home” in this piece. This concerto holds no physical challenges that he can’t subsume almost without thinking, and that is a big deal, because when you’re struggling against this concerto it doesn’t sound quite as lilting. So when you can play it like the dance that it is, it’s quite extraordinary. … It’s a very spiritual piece.

Violinist Gil Shaham / Photo by Luke Latray

Violinist Gil Shaham / Photo by Luke Latray

And that’s actually why I paired it with the Schubert (Ninth), because I think the Schubert is one of the most pure spiritual moments of Romantic music. I suppose it’s real Classical grace, but a lot of Schubert is like that, there’s this feeling of time on a breath, sort of effortlessly floating along in this shining way – perfectly proportioned and yet so deeply felt, and so exhilarating at the end. I hear that piece as just “one long song.” People make a huge deal about how long it is. It goes by in a flash! It’s longer than any of his other symphonies, for sure. And people always used to make this big thing about its “heavenly length,” and you have to understand the weightiness of it. There’s nothing weighty about that piece unless it’s in the architecture: It’s not in the density of it, nor in the length. Frankly a lot of people did it too slowly, and added minutes to piece. But the tempi in that piece are fast – the opening is a perfect example, the opening is mark “alla breve.” That’s what he wrote.

The sort of superficial debate about whether it’s a Classical piece or a Romantic one has sometimes been weighted toward the Romantic side by just playing it too slowly, trying to make it sound like Brahms.

Of course. I mean, look, there were some beautiful performances of it that sounded closer to Mahler or late Brahms than they did to Schubert. Which is fine, those interpreters were great musicians. But it’s not what the composer’s intent really was.

It was a nice touch to couple the “angelic” Berg Concerto with Ruggles’ Angels, a sort of different take on angels.

Well that’s an interesting thing. I mean Ruggles is a complicated guy, not a savory character. And in the annals of American music he’s kind of a horrible character. I think he’s a troublesome guy. …

I mean there are a few people you draw the line about, you know. I play Wagner: He wasn’t a savory guy either, but in those days everybody was a racist and an anti-Semite, it was just ignorance. But when you get to the 20th-century and you get a guy like Ruggles, that ignorance and prejudice and nastiness is less acceptable. Although it’s very interesting to hear that piece. It’s very brief, three and a half minutes, very sort of craggy-American. It’s a complete departure from what the Berg is. The music that Berg is, Ruggles isn’t.

Two different takes on angels – or three if you count the Schubert.

Right, exactly. I’ll count the Schubert.

Is there a line past which you will not go, in terms of unsavory or anti-Semitic composers?

Carl Orff.

Would you conduct Pfitzner?

I don’t know. You have to do your due diligence. I don’t know, it’s now decades and decades ago, but it’s still personal to me and to my family. You know, some of these guys … Orff wasn’t a sympathizer, he was a cheerleader. He wanted to be the “composer in residence,” and applied I think twice to Goebbels. I mean that’s a lot different from having your music usurped later. If you were to put the question to Mozart or Beethoven – well Beethoven was a humanist so he might have seen things differently – but in those days, whether it was because of the Church or because of the small community in which they lived or because of the politics of the time – or they just didn’t have any contact (with Jews) – the larger view was often was just repeated out of habit. But when you get especially in the 20th century when people understood what the political ramifications were …

Nobody is arguing that Wagner wasn’t a nasty guy when it came to talking about the Jews – and nobody would argue, or at least nobody sensible would argue, that Wagner was a Nazi. He wasn’t. But I understand why people make that association, especially people who lived through that perverse co-opting of his music by Nazis, and who have associations – and they are entitled to those associations, intellectually unfounded as they may be. You don’t argue with feelings that run that deep. But in actual fact, you know there are people who will not go to Germany for all those same reasons still, even though the generations have passed. They have deep convictions about it. But lots and lots of Israeli artists have gone there, and have triumphed there, and lots and lots of Jewish artists have gone there. So I think it was different in 1950 right after the war, or in 1960, than it is in 2013.

Your Dad didn’t go to Germany for a very long time.

He never played there, and at the very, very end of his life he did a master class there. … My mother never went back, and during 45 years of marriage to her, he never went.

So, talking about Strauss, is there a line between the active involvement of an Orff versus the sort of indifference of a Strauss?

Yes. And I don’t think Strauss was indifferent. Strauss was a politician: He was falsely accused of some terrible things, but he didn’t take some huge stand. I wasn’t there, and I’m not going to judge. People say that Furtwängler was a collaborator, I don’t think he was. He did conduct for members of the regime, but he also tried to save musicians. And you know, artists always think they can make change happen, and sometimes they can and sometimes they can’t.

The other thing was, a lot of people were afraid, really afraid, in a way that we cannot fathom. I know this from first-hand accounts, people were afraid that they would be taken away in the middle of the night and be killed. Because they saw it happen to their neighbors. And if you had children, if you had friends … Some escaped. My grandparents tried to escape, and they got as far as Paris. My mother’s mother luckily survived but her father didn’t. So it’s really, really hard to say, you know. I don’t believe that Strauss was a Nazi. He didn’t lead the resistance movement.

So in a way, art never completely separates itself from the artist? When I listen to Orff, I almost feel like something in the content is repellent. Whether that’s just because I don’t like the music, or whether it’s because I can actually feel sort of a disingenuous quality, I don’t know.

I don’t know. I don’t really know very much Orff outside of Carmina Burana. And it’s not a piece that I like. But if you say that, you know, people love that piece, it sells out every time you play it.

But I don’t know: The art and the artist? I do believe that the art at any given time cannot be completely separated from the time in which it was made. And that’s another reason for looking for cultural collaborations and programming ideas, ways to make art into better prisms through which we can understand the world we live in. Because I think it’s an interesting barometer of where we were and where we’re going, and it makes us feel things differently, it makes us see things differently.

Speaking of Strauss in terms of program music, it’s a continual debate: How much does an audience need to know about the “program,” and do most of his tone poems stand up purely as works of orchestral art without any knowledge of the program or story whatsoever?

Well, yes and yes. It’s better, in the case of certain works of Strauss, if you really know what the program is because he was so close to that narrative when he was making the sounds that make the music. … You’ve got to know what was in his mind to really appreciate what he did. But is it accessible and enjoyable on a purely orchestral level? Absolutely. That’s the mark of a great composer. The Alpine Symphony is particularly descriptive, I mean it’s really genius in the way it paints the landscape … there’s the sunrise and there’s the mountaintop, and even if you haven’t been there you can still think of yourself on top of a mountain. … Whereas in Don Quixote you need to understand that he’s fighting the sheep, and that he’s fighting windmills, to understand the humor in that passage.

Is it a goal for you to increase the size of the orchestra?

We have all sorts of priorities, and what is wishful thinking is not worth talking about. We have no plans to make the orchestra bigger now.

What are the things that we all need to do, or continue to do, to make sure that the symphony orchestra as an institution remains relevant in American life and culture?  

Relevant is such a facile word, and I’ve used it too. But what does it really mean? People have to embrace the fact that their lives are made better, that they cannot live without the idea of art in their lives. And you have to create that need, and then fill the need completely. You can’t invoke the desire and then not measure up when you’re actually giving what you can do the best you can do it. I think connecting both to our vernacular – where we are as a society and also as a community – and also pushing us further in another direction, is the answer to that question.

I freely admit that one of the more fun and rewarding and beautiful things we do as curators of older music, that there are ways of making performances of great masterpieces, just like looking at older paintings in museums, totally relevant in the world the way it is today… I think the old music that we play needs to inspire a reaction in us that is modern, and how we do that is in the performing, in the programming, in the setup of it. It has to be in the context of the sounds that we hear all around us today. For me that’s an extremely core value in the way the arts have to be nurtured.

When I was growing up it was considered important in considering yourself a fully educated person that you be conversant in art history, literature, theater, that you’d been to O’Neill plays, or whatever. But when it came to music it seemed like nobody really knew what Mahler was.

That’s a much larger issue. … But it’s one of my pet peeves, musical literacy has been on the decline since the end of the 19th century. In the old days if you wanted to be considered even an acceptable musical person, you had to play an instrument and sing. And if you were a professional musician, you had to be able to realize a figured bass, you had to do rudimentary composing, you had to play a couple of instruments, you had to know something. These days, music stopped: The phonograph and later on the digital age replaced real studies. You know we use our eyes all the time and we use language all the time and it’s taught to us. If you teach a kid music as a language as a child, that kid will be fluent in music. And then all the bets are off – because they can do whatever they want for the rest of their lives whether they become professional musicians or not – but they will have that language, they will have that ability to express themselves.

Just as you do in your speech, you can appreciate an O’Neill play or a Shakespeare play or the latest book. … We use our eyes all the time. One of the reasons we appreciate “old stuff,” whether it’s old art or old architecture or old design, is that we always have the points of reference that we can relate back and forth with, and see where it came from and how it relates to us – how the old informs the new and vice versa. And that kind of fluency is lacking in music. It shouldn’t be, it just is. It’s not “harder,” we just don’t put it at a premium any more. … I don’t think my children are necessarily so different from anybody else’s. We have music around them, and they’re growing up with the idea that music is very easy for them. Not easy as in, without effort, just easy to get to. And there’s no justifiable reason these days, when there is so much access at such little cost, why that shouldn’t be true for every kid.

And I don’t even mean classical music, just music. The idea of music being up there. When it’s around, it’s learned, and when it’s learned it’s not foreign, and when it’s not foreign it becomes part of you – a part of you that you can do anything you want with, depending on your interest. But if you don’t have it, that’s something else.

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To reach Paul Horsley, The Indy’s performing arts editor, send email to phorsley@sbcglobal.net or find him on Facebook (paul.horsley.501) or Twitter (#phorsleycritic).