As he embarks upon his third season as conductor for the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra, musical director Brett Mitchell has proven himself not only a significant asset to the Great Lakes Bay arts community, but also a worthy successor to such prior SBSO luminaries as the late Patrick Flynn and Leo Najar, each whom waved their iconoclastic batons in a manner that both re-defined the role & significance of a classical orchestra within the cultural fabric of our community as a world class artistic entity.
Possessing both youth & vision, Mitchell has managed in these challenging times to not only set attendance records at four of the five seasonal presentations for the first year he was at the helm; but also managed to bring the largest audience attendance ever in the 76-year history of the Orchestra to the Temple Theatre during the Symphony's annual Christmas Holiday concert.
And artistically, Mitchell has a keen flare for wrapping tried-and-true classical favorites with cutting edge musical visions from young new composers into packages of thematic presentations that broaden not only the audience; but also the respect given to this orchestra throughout the state as one of the finest performing orchestras that Michigan has to offer.
Kicking things off for the 2012-13 season will be A Parisian Soiree on Saturday, September 29th at 8:00 PM. Themes of romance and love will be explored from some of France's best composers, featuring Chabrier's 'Espana, selections from Bizet's 'Carmen', Ravel's 'La Valse', and two pieces (Prelude to Afternoon of a Faun and La Mer from Claude Debussy in honor of his 150th birthday.
Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with Mitchell and discuss not only the programming, but also the musical potential that he hopes to unlock for audiences for the upcoming 2012-13 concert season of the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra.
Review: Now that you are entering your third year as Director at the SBSO, I'm interested in how your perceptions of the orchestra have changed or evolved; as well as your thoughts on the direction that you are striving to take with the orchestra to solidify its appeal with various age groups that comprise the demographic of your audience.
Mitchell: Like any relationship, the relationship between a conductor and an orchestra grows over time. The SBSO and I have now done almost 20 concerts and 40 rehearsals together over the span of about two and a half years. In that time, we've really gotten to know each other well. When we're rehearsing and I stop to make a few comments, the orchestra will often know the gist of what I'm about to say even before I say it.
On the flip side of the same coin is that I often know what might need tending to in rehearsal well before we hit any problem spots. It allows us to be much more efficient in rehearsals, which enables our performances to get better and better. The orchestra is transforming into one of the nation's finest, most culturally relevant.
As for the direction we're taking, especially with regard to engaging all the demographics in our audience, that's something I tend to on a very conscious level. When going through their search for a new music director several seasons ago, the SBSO board sent a message loud and clear that they wanted innovation from their artistic leader.
I got into classical music because of my love for the Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, and the rest of that gang. That said, I didn't come to classical music until relatively late (not really full time until I was in college), so my formative years were filled not with Brahms and Elgar but with Billy Joel and Elton John. Growing up in the world of pop and jazz certainly broadened my musical horizons, and I try to bring some of that to our audiences at the Temple Theatre.
I'm a young music director, and that fact in and of itself helps me connect with our younger audience members; that I chat with our audience from the stage during concerts doesn't hurt in breaking down those barriers either. I've found that the kind of programming we do at the SBSO--still focused on the great symphonic masterpieces of all time, but with a good sprinkling of innovative music, lighting, stagecraft, and the rest of it, please both longtime patrons and those who have only recently joined us at the Temple. There honestly is something for everyone.
Review: In approaching the conceptual task of pulling together a fresh season for 2012-13, what are some of the things and elements that you feel distinguish this season?
Mitchell: My first season with the SBSO was two years ago (2010-11), and that focused a lot on establishing our method of pairing "warhorses" with more adventurous (yet eminently accessible) contemporary works. Last season, I wanted to show our audiences how much great music comes from right here in our own backyard, so I included a piece by a living Michigan composer on every program.
We also expanded our collaborations to work with more local artists and arts organizations. This coming season--which begins on Saturday, September 29 at the Temple Theatre--takes us away from home and on various "Musical Journeys" throughout the world, which seemed a completely logical "sequel" to last season's Michigan-centric theme.
I never program concert-by-concert, and rarely even season-by-season; I always try to have a multi-season arc in mind to ensure that our orchestra and audience not only enjoy one particular evening at the Temple, but also feel that they're on a longer journey with us. Taking that long-term journey is part of what makes subscribing to the SBSO so rewarding; it's like watching a TV series from start to finish rather than just tuning in from time to time.
Review: That seems like a well-thought out and equally adventurous approach. So let's take a closer look at some of those journeys that you will guide us through, beginning with the Parisian Soiree on September 29th. Who doesn't love Paris? Tell me a bit about the composers & works that you selected for this and why these particular pieces appeal to you. I love Debussy and Bizet, but Chabrier is unfamiliar to me - is he a relatively new composer?
Mitchell: I programmed an all-French opening evening for two principal reasons. First, the SBSO is holding our first-ever Opening Night gala, featuring a Parisian-themed street party before the concert, complete with hors d'oeuvres, etc. I wanted to make it as easy as possible for our gala coordinators to latch onto a theme, so I thought a concert of all French would be perfect for that purpose.
Secondly, last month marked the 150th anniversary of the great French composer Claude Debussy's birth, so I thought it would be a great chance for us to play his two best-known orchestral works: Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun and The Sea (La Mer). Debussy was known as an impressionist composer (think Monet, but with notes rather than colors), so pairing him with his fellow musical impressionist Maurice Ravel on the first half of the program seemed like a no-brainer. Rounding out the program are a selection from Georges Bizet's incredibly popular Carmen and his contemporary Emmanuel Chabrier's brilliant depiction of Spain in his overture España; Chabrier was really kind of a "one-hit wonder," as this is really the only thing of his that ever gets played nowadays.
Review: The next performance takes us into the holidays with a Classical Christmas. Holiday pops concerts are always challenging because thematically you have the same topic to deal with year-after-year, and often the same body of songs & material; so how do you add a fresh spin on it?
Mitchell: You couldn't be more right, and it certainly is a challenge to keep this fresh year after year. That said, we had our largest audience ever in our 76-year history at last season's holiday concert, so we must be doing something right!
There's actually a wealth of great holiday music out there for orchestras, and I try to combine classics that everyone knows and loves (for example, Sleigh Ride, the "Hallelujah" chorus from Messiah) with some less familiar works that can prove great new discoveries for our audience and the orchestra alike.
We also try to engage different guest artists each year to have some fresh faces onstage with us. Last year, we welcomed Mayor Greg Branch and the SVSU Cardinal Singers and their director, Kevin Simons. This year, we're thrilled to welcome The Center Stage Chorale at the Midland Center for the Arts and their artistic director and conductor James Hohmeyer for the second half of our program, along with a great bass-baritone from Mt. Pleasant, Eric Hoy Tucker. Coming to this concert is a holiday tradition for so many families in the Great Lakes Bay Region, so we try to play works that get everyone into the holiday spirit. The goal for this concert is fun, pure and simple.
Review: Moving into 2013 the next performance is billed as American Pastoral, which sounds like an intriguing selection of material, as it's hard to go wrong with Ludwig Van Beethoven! Please give me your thoughts about how you pulled the musical threads together for this program, and also what appeals to you about John Adams and Edgar Meyer's contributions to this musical portrait.
Mitchell: Since I auditioned for the SBSO music directorship in 2009-10, I've done a Beethoven symphony with the orchestra every season, and will continue to do so until we work our way through all nine of them. This season, I chose Beethoven's 6th Symphony, also known as the Pastoral. He wrote the piece in the Viennese countryside, and it paints a musical picture for us of various country scenes: a merry gathering of country folk, a scene by a brook, a thunderstorm, etc.
When I learned that the great American composer John Adams described his first orchestral piece, Common Tones in Simple Time, as "a pastoral with pulse," I thought it would be a perfect opening work. Edgar Meyer, another American composer, is most famous for his work in the classical crossover genre, working with greats like Yo-Yo Ma on bluegrass and Appalachian music. His violin concerto seemed to fit in perfectly with the "country" theme of this program, and we couldn't be more excited to welcome the principal second violinist of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Angela Fuller, as our soloist.
Review: Next on the bill is A Heavenly Life, which is a pretty amorphous yet ecumenical concept - this thing called heaven; yet also something that unites us all with thoughts of peace and possibility. Tell me how you pulled the pieces together on this one and what you find appealing about each of these works.
Mitchell: On my very first opening night concert in September 2010, we performed Gustav Mahler's first symphony to rave reviews. I couldn't find a slot for another Mahler symphony last season, so I'm glad we're having a chance to revisit his work this year, and with one of my favorite works of all time: his 4th symphony. The final movement of this symphony includes a solo soprano (in our case, the brilliant young American soprano Rebekah Camm), who sings about how wonderful life in heaven is, especially after all the trials and tribulations of earthly life.
To complement this gorgeous piece, we'll open the program with a stunningly beautiful work for just the string section by contemporary American composer Aaron Jay Kernis called Musica Celestis (Heavenly Music). The orchestra, Ms. Camm, and I will also perform American composer Samuel Barber's nostalgic Knoxville: Summer of 1915; its theme of longing for the innocence and perfection of youth makes it a perfect bridge between the Kernis and the Mahler.
Review: Closing out the 2013 season you have Russian Milestones, which looks like a powerful finale to me. For this one I'd be interested in your thoughts about the singular strength that you feel distinguished these composers musically from one another; and also what musical elements you feel they shared.
Mitchell: Stravinsky was hugely influenced by Tchaikovsky's music, so it's fitting that we'll pair these two composers on the final program of our season, which really is a concert of two blockbusters. First, guest violinist Joan Kwuon will join us for Tchaikovsky's ever-popular Violin Concerto, which most people consider to be the height of Romantic music. The Tchaikovsky was actually the second piece I programmed on this concert, as I've known for years that I wanted to do Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring in May 2013, as that marks its 100th anniversary. When it premiered as a ballet in Paris in 1913, the first performance was so scandalous (especially the dancing) that it literally caused a riot both inside and outside the theatre. The Rite came to be one of the best loved and certainly the most important work of orchestral music in the 20th century, and I'm glad we can share this riotous music on our season finale!
Review: Are there any thoughts or comments that you might like to make about the SBSO or the new season?
Mitchell: I'm really excited to begin my third season at the helm of the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra later this month. It truly is one of the great cultural gems in our entire state. The orchestra is playing at a higher level than ever before, and we're welcoming more people--old and young alike--into the Temple than ever before. It's a terribly exciting time to be a part of the SBSO family, and I'm so eager to share with my great friends onstage and in the audience all the great music we have planned over the next nine months.
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