Now entering their 79th season of providing singular opportunities for audiences of the Great Lakes Bay to experience the timeless majesty of Classical Music while simultaneously advancing and cultivating an appreciation of orchestra music through both quality performances and innovative educational programs, the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra is poised to kick-off their 2014-15 concert season upon an apex of creativity and critical acclaim cultivated largely through the insightful and innovative instincts of Musical Director Brett Mitchell.
Since the SBSO Board of Directors brought Mitchell on board back in 2010 he has consistently set the performance bar higher with each year of his tenure, picking up the baton from prior Musical Directors such as Leo Najar and Patrick Flynn, whom also carved a proud legacy of superb musicianship, innovative programming, and compelling educational experiences that enrich the cultural climate for residents of the region.
Throughout his tenure with the orchestra, Mitchell has managed to shatter 75-year old attendance records, achieving the SBSO’s first two ‘sellouts’ under his musical direction, which is marked by a keen ear for combining and contrasting challenging signature orchestra works with the best new compositions being created by contemporary composers – a perfect example of this talent can be referenced from Mitchell’s last season, which featured a remarkable collaborative presentation of Holst’s The Planets with the Saginaw Choral Society; and also featured an original composition by a young Chicago composer who created one of the first ‘Electronica’ symphonic works, utilizing classical instruments to replicate electronic beats one might find the wood nymphs dancing to at the annual Electric Forest Festival. Even more important is Mitchell’s penchant for incorporating world premiers by regional composers into most of his featured seasonal performances.
Amidst this forward momentum and the impressive legacy he has rendered over five-short years, this 79th Season of the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra will also be somewhat bittersweet, as it will present Mitchell’s last season as Musical Director. Mitchell also currently serves as Assistant Conductor of The Cleveland Orchestra and Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra, which after this current season he will be devoting his energies towards full time.
In recent seasons, Mr. Mitchell has worked with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, as well as the orchestras of Oregon, Rochester, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Memphis, and Pittsburgh, the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, Washington D.C.’s National Symphony Orchestra, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and the Northwest Mahler Festival Orchestra. Mr. Mitchell has also acted as musical assistant and cover conductor for the New York Philharmonic and The Philadelphia Orchestra. He will also make his Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Blossom Music Festival debuts in summer 2014.
Beloved by an expansive and divergent array of artistic supporters throughout the region and persistently optimistic about the richness of talent populating the banks of the Saginaw Bay, recently I sat down with Maestro Brett Mitchell to discuss his goals for the new 2014-15 concert season of the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra, what he feels are highpoints of his career here in Saginaw, and what his hopes are for the future of this remarkable and important musical entity.
Review: Why don’t we start with the goals that you developed for setting the thematic structure of this 79th season. The caliber and range of material that you pull together for each of the season performances to my mind is one of your distinguishing qualities as a Musical Director, coupled with how well you mix the more familiar and popular compositions from the canon of classical music with the works of new composers. So how did you go about developing the programming for this final season, which will also be your last season with the SBSO?
Mitchell: In many ways, our fifth and final season together will very much resemble our first four: an eclectic blend of some of the greatest classical masterpieces with their contemporary counterparts. On the first program we juxtapose Copland and Tchaikovsky with Roger Briggs; on the second, Mendelssohn, Ravel, and Beethoven with Wojciech Kilar; and on our final concert, Mozart and Mahler with Kevin Puts, whom is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning native of Alma, interestingly.
In broader strokes, I very much wanted for my last concert as music director to resemble my first as closely as possible. So we've chosen the same three composers in the same order (Puts, Mozart, and Mahler), but with three different works. Seemed like a nice way to kind of tie our time together by bookending ourselves with the same three masters we started with back in 2010.
Review: I'm also always impressed with your ability to impart historical background about the works that you showcase within a contemporary context, because it adds a deeper appreciation for the audience when they can listen, experience, and understand it better. Please tell me a bit about each of the works that you will present this season; and the attributes that you feel distinguish these creations.
Mitchell: The first concert of the season came about as collaboration with Delta College, who are presenting an exhibit on Abraham Lincoln and the Constitution. They asked if we might be able to partner with them somehow, and we jumped at the chance. One of my favorite works by the American master Aaron Copland is a piece called "Lincoln Portrait," in which a narrator joins the orchestra and shares some of Lincoln's most profound words while the orchestra brilliantly underscores it. Hence we created this opening performance entitled With Malice Toward None... Celebrating Lincoln, which will premier on October 25th at 8:00 PM.
We are pleased to perform these works in conjunction with "Lincoln: The Constitution and Civil War," a prestigious traveling exhibit housed at Delta College from September 17 through October 31
I'm thrilled that one of my dearest friends in town, WSGW's Art Lewis, is joining us to narrate this performance. We'll open the concert with another Copland masterpiece, "Fanfare for the Common Man," followed by a piece by my undergraduate mentor (who was both my composition and conducting teacher), Roger Briggs, called "Gathering Together." The concert will close with the one great Tchaikovsky symphony the SBSO and I have never performed together: his Fifth.
Our second concert will feature four works by four composers from four different countries, a musical road trip of sorts. We open in Poland with an unbelievably energetic piece for strings by Wojciech Kilar called "Orawa," then head to Scotland for the German composer Felix Mendelssohn's musical depiction of Fingal's Cave on one of the islands of the Hebrides. We close the first half with French master Maurice Ravel's musical ode to his predecessor François Couperin, and continue our Beethoven cycle by performing his Second Symphony on the second half of the program.
As I mentioned, our final concert together will be a mirror of our first. We'll open with a beautiful processional by Kevin Puts called "...this noble company" (think "Pomp and Circumstance," but American), followed by a performance of three concert arias by Mozart. Joining us will be longtime SBSO friend, bass baritone Timothy Jones; this will be Mr. Jones's third time singing with us during my tenure, as we did Beethoven 9 and Finzi's "Let Us Garlands Bring" together. Closing our season and my time with the SBSO will be one of the greatest symphonic works ever composed: Gustav Mahler's miraculous Fifth Symphony. This is truly a landmark work in the annals of music, and I'm so pleased the SBSO and I will be able to present it for our audience before our time together is through.
Of course, we also have offerings more in the Pops vein like our annual holiday concert in December and a "Family Night at the Movies" on the last Friday in January. We're also offering a new 3-concert chamber orchestra series up in Bay City along with our annual education concert, so times are busy at the SBSO!
Review: What are thoughts about the SBSO and what are the things that you are most proud of accomplishing with it during your tenure as director?
Mitchell: I think the thing I'm most proud of is how boldly we've stepped into the 21st century. Orchestras are at a real turning point in their history right now, and my firm belief is that the ones that will survive are the ones that will adapt. I really believe that those who ignore the technological advances and virtual explosion of entertainment choices we have in hopes that they won't touch life inside the concert hall will fall further and further out of touch.
In our time together at the SBSO, we've ensured that we're not just up-to-date; we're path breaking. Think of our two collaborations with local artist Kellie Schneider, where we commissioned her to create a ton of original artwork for the suites from Ravel's Mother Goose and Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker.
Or think of our collaboration with both Pit and Balcony and Saginaw Choral Society on a huge, multimedia production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, with Shakespeare's play featuring Mendelssohn's music. We've worked hard to continue growing and learning, to present this great art we believe in so deeply in new, innovative ways to our audiences. If you look at the ticket numbers, they like what they've experienced, and they keep coming back.
Review: In looking back, are there specific performances or seasons that stand in your mind as high-points?
Mitchell: The two big collaborations I mentioned above with Kellie Schneider and on A Midsummer Night's Dream are big high points for me. From a purely musical standpoint, I was especially proud of our 100th-anniversary performance of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring at the end of my third season. Last season's Planets concert and the Beethoven 9 that ended my first season stand out, too.
Review: How do you feel you've evolved and improved as a conductor and as you move forward with your new position what are some of your future goals?
Mitchell: The musicians of the SBSO and I have really gotten to know each other well over the past four plus seasons, and that intimate knowledge we have of each other makes us so much more efficient in rehearsal now. The players will often know what I'm going to say before I even get the first word out! Because we're so much more efficient together now, I'm able to be much more precise with the guidance I offer during rehearsal, and the gestures that I use have become much more effective as they've learned my "physical vocabulary" very well by this point.
As for future goals, I've never been the guy to set my sights on one particular job. If you had asked me when I was a little boy if I'd become the music director of the orchestra in the city I first heard of in Simon and Garfunkel's "America," I'd think you were crazy. If you had said to me two years ago that I'd have the amazing opportunities I do with my two positions in Cleveland, I don't think I would've believed you.
My philosophy has always been just to keep my head down, work both hard and smart, and you'll end up earning the opportunities to do something with all that hard work. My only goal is to spend the rest of my life touching as many lives as possible making music for as many people as I possibly can.
EDITOR’S NOTE: THE 2014-15 Concert Season of the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra is entitled A Celebration of Excellence and will consist of the following performances and dates:
· 10/25/14: With Malice Toward None... Celebrating Lincoln
· 12/09/14: Christmas Variations
· 1/30/15: Family Night at the Movies
· 3/14/15: On the Road Again
· 4/11/15: Brett Mitchell: A Grand Farewell
NOW is the best time to purchase season tickets for the SBSO. Subscribers already save 25% from the cost of individual tickets and new purchasers can get an additional half off! There’s never been a better time to try it out - it’s a whole season for the price of 2 tickets! For information, call 989.754.7469.