Guest Conductor Laura Jackson Closes Out the 80th Season of the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra with ‘A KNIGHT OF ROMANCE’

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Local Music,   From Issue 826   By: Robert E Martin

28th April, 2016     0

As part of the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra’s on-going search for a permanent conductor, they will be featuring the final performance of their 80th season with musical director Laura Jackson on Saturday, May 7th at 8 PM at Saginaw’s Temple Theatre with a program fashioned by Jackson entitled ‘A Knight of Romance’, which will feature the works of Brahms, Tian and Strauss.

As music director of the Reno Philharmonic, Jackson has been responsible for establishing the organization’s first-ever ‘Composer-in-Residence’ program, resulting in new compositions and educational opportunities and also guest conducts nationally and internationally, becoming the first American to lead the Algerian National Orchestra.

Recently I had the opportunity to discuss the musical architecture of this upcoming finale to the SBSO’s 80th season with Jackson, along with the early origins of her passion for classical music and her philosophy for keeping the beauty of classical & modern composition alive in the modern digital age where there is so much competition for audiences’ attention.

I found her to be equally thoughtful as she is humble; and amazingly insightful in terms of articulating the process by which she structures her approach to staging a memorable live concert experience.

REVIEW:  Please give me some background about yourself and how you first became interested in classical music.

Jackson:  I was a kid growing up in a small elementary school in Pennsylvania, walking through the cornfields every morning, and was lucky to have a wonderful public school music teacher that put a violin into my hands in the 4th grade, which I fell in love with immediately. I took group lessons which led to a very enjoyable relationship with my violin to express myself; and after I got serious about the violin in high school, decided to transfer to boarding school at North Carolina School for the Arts when I was only 15-years old.”

My parents were living in upstate New York and it was scary moving so far away from them, but I had a wonderful experience there and worked very hard my last two years of high school, which led me to Indiana University, which is where I studied violin. During those years I also started conducting because I was so fascinated when sitting in orchestra listening to how all the instruments worked together to create this wonderful and beautiful sound.  But I also became straddled with injuries because I practiced so furiously that I injured my arm, so had to take time off playing violin. This is when I started taking conducting classes and how I got my feet wet.

I moved to the Boston area in 1990 to freelance and teach at the Phillips Exeter Academy and also started conducting on the side for an amateur orchestra in New Hampshire, and later for a youth orchestra in the greater Boston area, so while I was learning my craft through doing this, I never saw conducting as my primary focus.  It wasn’t until the year 2000 that I decided I really loved the orchestra sound and was studying scores and marveling at what composers were doing with orchestra instruments that I decided to go back to school after having an entire career already established; and went to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where I earned both a Masters and Doctoral degree in conducting. From there I went to the Atlanta Symphony and ended up as the musical director of the Reno Philharmonic here in Nevada.”

REVIEW:   Please tell me a bit about each of the pieces that you selected for this presentation of ‘A Knight of Romance' with the SBSO in terms of what you feel distinguishes each of them; and how does each piece fit in with the conceptual context of this thematic performance?

Jackson: Overall what I’m trying to do is create a wonderful and memorable evening for both the orchestra and audience. With any orchestra concert its such an honor and privilege to perform for people that are paying attention. To get people to come out and sit and listen to this music is a miracle in and of itself – not a miracle they come, but what I find miraculous about the entire live symphonic music performance is that it demands everybody in the room is deeply present.

The performers are all coming together and creating something gloriously beautiful, but are there only for the moment its created, and then its gone – so that demands the audience be deeply present in the experience as well. It isn’t something you can float in and out of and stop to check your phone; or like a viewing a painting hanging on a wall – this is a live arts experience and that’s the power of it.  So I want to make this experience utterly memorable and wonderful.

For the program itself I’ve chosen three pieces because I love them deeply. From an orchestral perspective there are meaty things for the musicians to sink into and also I think they create a delightful listening journey for the audience.

More specifically, the Brahms Symphony No. 3 is very understated. I know this audience is experiencing a Brahms cycle and has heard all his symphonies for this 80th season, which is so cool because this particular one is so different from the other three. It’s a wonderful beginning to a concert because its intimate, ephemeral, fragile, and sets a tone to build from. It’s delicate like a flower and there’s something so soft and beautiful in every detail and nuance and sigh of each melody that it’s a wonderful way to begin; and opens up the concert to a more dramatic experience as the evening progresses.

The second piece we are performing is Tian’s The Palace of Nine Perfections, and he is a composer I champion and believe in. He’s Chinese born but has lived in the United States for 20 years and is on the faculty at Colgate. But the big reason I wanted to feature him is because he’s moving to the faculty at Michigan State University this fall; and what I love is the unique voice to his music. He is not writing like anybody else and his music is immediately lovable. I’ve performed his music for audiences in Reno and California and audiences love it because there is nothing edgy or challenging about it, yet it deeply empowers.

Tian understands orchestration and understands how to use it in a way that is imaginative, lush, and warm, yet also in stark contrast, his writing is very rhythmic and energetic and sort of jagged – in a way you might think of Stravinsky. So in relationship to the rest of the program, there’s that warm lush melodic writing similar to the Brahms and Strauss, but also this rhythmic energy that contrasts with the Brahms, which makes a neat centerpiece to the program.

The Suite from Der Rosenkavalier by Strauss closes out the program, which I love because the orchestra gets to sink into this wonderful dramatic music that is very light with humor. I think its going to be a delightful listening journey and a concert I would love to hear from an audience perspective.  I’m so hoping the audience in Saginaw will feel the same way. Thematically, this title from Strauss translates into ‘Night of the Rose’.

REVIEW: How do you go about rendering these works with an orchestra?   Do you try to bring out strengths and textures within the compositions that appeal to you; and what do you feel your role is as a conductor in rendering and translating these works?

Jackson: My first role is to know the score very deeply. I need to spend hours & hours looking at every detail of the music and answer the question of why did the composer write these notes and notations on how to play this music.  There’s a big difference between something written on a page and the physical reality – its similar to reading an old roadmap and then getting behind the wheel of a car; it might not be the most direct route and a large gap can exist between the two dimensionality of a musical score and the third dimension of time, space, and performers.

So I have to bridge that gap with a vision of what I think the composer is getting at and why. The composer’s voice is primary and its about way more than me and how I like my music to sound. However, I do think that none of us can help but be subjective in terms of how we interpret art, so a part of me cannot help but look at it from my own perspective.

The other component apart from knowing the score well and asking the questions of what’s on this page and why is how am I going to get this sound to happen?  When it says soft on the page, what kind of soft? Is it electric with tension and suspense or is it tender? But the other part that’s fascinating when we get into rehearsal is that I have partner in this journey, which is the orchestra that I need to lead through this journey that is live in front of me. 

Especially in Saginaw I am astounded by the level of playing from the orchestra, so I am looking forward to doing this program with them because they will be a wonderful partner and bring much to the table.  When working with them I’m not only hearing this ideal image in my head of how it should go, but the sound of what they’re bringing into play, and trying to find a place where those two things come together – the vision and the musicians.

You can prepare and study, but there is a part of the game that you can’t do until you’re on stage with the orchestra – with your dance partner, as it were. Then its all about everybody involved being deeply present – listening to them and the hall and fine tune things from there.

REVIEW: What do you feel is the most challenging component involved with being a modern conductor?

Jackson: I think in terms of entertainment and enrichment there’s a lot of competition for peoples’ time. When we think of presenting Symphonic music we have to work that much harder to make it appealing and meaningful to people; and constantly ask questions as arts organizations do such as who is in the community? Who are these people and what do they need from this art form? 

The types of concerts we present and how we present them and what we actually do onstage itself doesn’t necessarily have to do with what the community wants and needs from us, so we need to balance that with keeping the quality and representing the canon of music that we perform and the standards of that music.

There’s a whole lot of great music out there and we want to have some role in keeping those pieces performed, so its about keeping symphonic institutions vibrant, relevant and meaningful to our community while balancing that with retaining the standard and quality of the art form. That’s the big challenge for me and one that I love.

Each community has its own riddle and the answer is always a little different.

Tickets for ‘A Knight of Romance’ with Laura Jackson & The Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra can be purchased at the Temple Theatre Box Office or by going to



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