A recent interview with New Jersey Symphony Music Director Jacques Lacombe
The Colbert Conversation
Maestro Daniel Meyer
As Music Director of the Asheville Symphony and Erie Philharmonic, you have made some bold program choices, like mixing John Adams' Lollapalooza with Sibelius' Fifth Symphony. What do you think makes for an interesting program?
For me, a program always has to have a sense of adventure – some degree of risk-taking and some element of the unknown. At the end, you should sense that only that combination of pieces could have worked together with those musicians on that particular night. Some of it's alchemy, some of it's good planning, and some of it is just mixing the right ingredients at the right time.
Part of my philosophy on programming comes from having worked often with living composers. I was fortunate enough as Resident Conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony to work with composers like Christopher Rouse, Christopher Theofanidis, and Richard Danielpour. It fascinated me to learn that they love Beethoven, Dvorák, and Tchaikovsky just as much as I do, and that they really think of themselves as part of an artistic continuum from earlier works to today.
I really believe that composers today want to write music that is listenable and accessible – accessible meaning that even if they are writing on a difficult theme, they are interested in making an immediate impact on the audience. Of course, when I choose any music for a particular program, I need to feel strongly about the piece and that I have something to say about it. The next step is to give it a context – maybe the composer was inspired by a life-changing event or another great work of art. It makes all the sense in the world to me to program today's music alongside those masterpieces.
You studied conducting at the Hochschule für Musik in Vienna as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar, and you returned to Europe last May to rave reviews in a performance with the State Theater Orchestra of Stuttgart with violinist Thomas Zehetmair. What was this like?
It was a thrill for me to make my German debut under such great circumstances. They're a superb orchestra who can play anything with a high degree of finesse, and it was a special opportunity to collaborate with Zehetmair to play Szymanowski as only he can. I think perhaps my facility in German went a long way in making an immediate connection with the musicians. They were pleasantly surprised that an American conductor could speak with them and rehearse with them entirely in German. From the first rehearsal there was a wonderful spirit and collaboration – we relished working together. The opportunity to have five or six rehearsals to craft a distinct impression on the music is a joy, and it's the way I like to make music. I really like to dig out the details of the music, create just the right colors, and help the musicians feel like what they've accomplished is really getting behind the notes and exploring the essence of why the music was written in the first place. And I think those things really helped us understand each other and led to a vivid and colorful performance where we trusted each other to a high degree, even though it was my first engagement with the orchestra.
As a student, I wanted to be steeped in Vienna's incredible musical culture. Living there, studying at the Hochschule, enrolling in the conducting class where I studied under a pupil of Hans Swarowsky, I absorbed everything I could. It was also critical for me to observe rehearsals, concerts and opera. I was at the state opera at least three or four nights a week. And if I wasn't there, I was attending different performances at the Musikverein, especially Vienna Philharmonic rehearsals and concerts. To watch and listen to this great orchestral culture and absorb how these conductors were making music had a profound influence on me – and in particular brought me to a special understanding of the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler and Bruckner. I remember attending Nikolaus Harnoncourt's Concentus Musicus concerts and feeling excited about how he brought his "modern" ideas about performance practice to the music. The music-making was always fresh, the phrases and gestures always seemed to dance.
How do you go about learning a new work?
Each new piece has its own set of rules. A completely new work demands something quite different from, say, a Beethoven score, where I already have a grasp of its language, style, and context. Part of it has to do with just sitting down and wrestling with the notes and phrasing and how the music is constructed. I feel that as a composer I have kind of a head start in figuring out how a piece is put together. With that said, I always try to investigate other music by the same composer, composers of the same period, and what might have been happening in political history and art history. Was there a specific reason or occasion for that piece to be written? What was the original audience expecting from that piece? And once I feel like I have absorbed those elements, I feel like I can start to formulate an opinion and an interpretation.
I've been fortunate to observe Mariss Jansons conduct Shostakovich, Manfred Honeck conduct Mozart. There's a wonderful lineage of great interpreters and performances that inform the choices I make, and I come to each work with a deep intensity and total commitment to bringing out the music's essence. It's a balance between staying true to what's been written on the page, and finding the inner fire and sweep of the music that brings it to life.
What inspired you to become a conductor?
I came to conducting as a composer. As a young composer, I was offered an opportunity to conduct my Stabat Mater for chorus and orchestra. When I first stood in front of my colleagues and started to move my arms and elicit music that I had written, it was the most phenomenal lightning bolt moment for me as an artist. And I thought, I have to figure out what it takes to make this my life – because I hadn't conceived of making it my life up until that point. The emotional rush, the intellectual challenge, the idea of making seemingly esoteric ideas physical and then bringing them to life was thrilling to me. I've always been attracted to figuring out how things work, and how things are put together. For me, cracking open a full score was so satisfying, whether it was a Bach Passion or Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis." I was so interested in the intricacies of how all those musical ideas were put together to create an inspiring whole.
If you were stuck on an island and could only have one piece of music, what would it be, and why?
I've always had a special affection for Mozart's C Minor Mass. I love how it's everything you'd expect from Mozart – majestic, glorious, complex – yet it also has moments of such tenderness and intimacy. I also like the fact that it's incomplete – somehow that mystery continues to fascinate me for what might have been.
Next up, DANIEL MEYER leads the Erie Philharmonic in Schoenberg's "A Survivor from Warsaw" and Beethoven's Symphony No. 9.
And, just to follow up the lovely news about the Juno Award for Hamelin's Liszt Sonata disc, we look forward to the next Hamelin/Hyperion recording: the third installment of the (soon to be complete) Haydn Piano Sonatas from Hamelin, out in June 2012.
Click here to preview tracks from the album, and to learn more about the disc.
Next month MARK KOSOWER, principal cellist of the Cleveland Orchestra, steps in front of the section to perform Boccherini's Cello Concerto in D Major with Ton Koopman.
Next week violinist ANTHONY MARWOOD makes his NYC solo recital debut, playing a gorgeous (sold-out!) program of Beethoven, Schumann and Bartok at the Frick Collection, with his frequent recital partner, pianist Aleksandar Madžar. We heard from a patron seeking to do some prep listening for the concert -- so we directed them to Marwood's Hyperion Records Schumann album.
Maestro CHRISTOPH von DOHNÁNYI wrapped his US tour -- in which he led concerts with the Kansas City Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic -- with the Boston Symphony, leading the Brahms German Requiem. "He commands authority without grand gestures. Last night he led an eloquent, wisely shaped performance that seemed true to the gentle spirit of this requiem." - April, 6, 2012 Jeremy Eichler for THE BOSTON GLOBE
Dohnányi returns to the BSO this summer, leading the Symphony in an all-Beethoven program for opening night at Tanglewood.
In case you haven't heard all of the great buzz about the American Mavericks festival, here is a wonderful video in which organist PAUL JACOBS and Michael Tilson Thomas discuss the Lou Harrison Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra. And, if you missed the concerts, don't fear -- the Harrison will be released through SFS Media on an American Mavericks album (a nice follow-up to Jacobs' SFS Media recording of the Copland Organ Symphony.
Want to know more?
Visit our artists' concerts and events on the April and May calendars.