“Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your own wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.” - Charlie Parker
As he enters his second season as conductor for the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra, musical director Brett Mitchell is riding a flurry of high notes reinforced from achieving some fairly remarkable goals during his inaugural year at the helm of one of the Great Lakes Bay’s pivotal arts organizations.
Apart from mixing crowd-appealing and challenging works from the world’s most famous Classical composers with innovative programming showcasing the fresh face of talent populating the classical world, Mitchell and the orchestra managed to set attendance records at four of the five seasonal concert presentations of the SBSO. And he is obviously jazzed about not only the upward direction that the organization has taken, but also the levels of local support that both framed and inspired his vision for this upcoming 2011-12 concert season.
“I have to say that I feel like I knew from the minute that I first arrived in Saginaw that we could do great things,” reflects Mitchell over a cappuccino as he reminisces about highpoints of last season. “But I had no idea that we could achieve so many of our objectives so well. The community response was unbelievable; and for our season finale we were only 80-seats shy from a complete sell-out at the Temple Theatre.”
“For an organization that has always been strong artistically, but not always able to draw large audiences, not just the size of our audience but the diversity of it is what excites me,” he continues. “We seem to be drawing from every section of the community, and I have to say, my first season here was every bit the artistic success I expected, but definitely exceeded my expectations in terms of actively engaging the community.”
“It’s the people here that make the difference,” states Mitchell. “Last night I threw an opening pitch at the Loons game, which was great fun; and while driving home with a friend after the game we were talking about what makes Saginaw so great. What it really comes down to is the people and being able to connect with them. I feel that’s what I’ve been able to do on a personal level and have established some quite good friendships here; and as an orchestra, we’ve been able to connect with the public-at-large and re-establish our presence within the community.”
Consequently, in putting together his second season of programming for the SBSO, Mitchell approached the task from both a philosophical and practical perspective. “The title for our 2011-12 season is Pure Music. Pure Michigan, which is a play on the Michigan tourism campaign,” he explains. “But where it really comes from is something that I realized several years ago when thinking about larger orchestras like the Chicago Symphony or the New York Philharmonic. What they all have in common is that the first word in every symphony is the name of the city it represents.”
“Most orchestras will perform Brahms, Beethoven, and Bach, and we are no different; but if that’s the extent of what you do, then all you’ve really done is make yourself irrelevant to your community,” he states. “You’re merely a symphony that happens to be located in a particular city, rather than distinguished by what makes you, as an orchestra, unique within your city.”
What Mitchell devised to remedy this situation is to design a season programming schedule for the upcoming year as much “of, for and by the people of Michigan as I possibly can.” Believing that the orchestra should aim to be synonymous with Michigan and its artists, every program for the upcoming season will feature a piece of original music created by a living Michigan composer.
“So yes, we’ll play Brahms and Beethoven,” he continues, “but we’ll also showcase original Michigan composers and give audiences a taste of what they have to offer. The great classical composers have specific musical messages to deliver and have withstood the test of time because their message is universal. But I know for a fact that each of the Michigan composers we will be featuring also has something to say to us right now. Whether that message will turn out to be universal 200 years from now is for posterity to decide, but the immediacy of their work right now is a gift worth accepting. They’re writing for us.”
Was it difficult for Mitchell to find ‘purely Michigan’ composers to showcase within the expanse of the five-performance season? “Not really,” he responds. “Michigan has so many good universities, in particular the University of Michigan and Michigan State, that are known the world over, that many of the composers we will feature come from these schools.”
“But the second way we are expanding our collaborations this season is to focus on non-musical entities within the local arts community,” he continues. “Therefore we will also be collaborating with Pit & Balcony and The Saginaw Choral Society, in addition to working with a brilliant local visual artist, Kellie Schneider, who will create original commissioned works to showcase during one of our performances.
A Season of Innovation, Detail, and Balance
Kicking off the season on October 8th will be A Fantastic Beginning, which will feature Franz Liszt’s Totentanz and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Beginning this performance will be recent Grammy-winner and Michigan resident Michael Daugherty’s Red Cape Tango.
“I like to start the season with a big piece and Symphonie Fantastique is a very programmatic work with a story line and is really like an opera without words,” notes Mitchell. “ Essentially, it’s the tale of an artist in love with a woman, only his love is unrequited, so he has all these fantasies about her – one where they are ballroom dancing together, another where they are in the countryside together; but things don’t go well, so he has this terrible dream that he’s killed her and is executed, so this is very dark, weird, and one of the great pieces of music of all time.”
“I was looking for something to fit with this and started thinking about Michael Daugherty because he teaches at the U of M and in the 1980s and ‘90s wrote a series of five individual pieces that got put together as five movements of a symphony that he wrote based on the Superman comic book hero. For this performance, we’ll do the last movement which depicts the death of Superman and is known as the Red Cape Tango.”
The second performance of the season will be the SBSO’s annual Christmas concert on December 6th and is entitled Christmas Around the World. For this outing, Brett says that he wanted to invite the SVSU Cardinal Singers in for the holidays to partner with the orchestra, and has also invited their own artistic director to assist with conducting duties. “This exposes the orchestra and the audience to another great musical resource within the community, as well as a different conductor, and takes a bit of the focus away from me,” reflects Mitchell. “Hey, I’ve gotta go to Macy’s and get things done that time of year!” he laughs.
For the February 11th performance of Shakespearean Dreams the SBSO will perform Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture & Incidental Music. With this production, the Saginaw Choral Society and Pit & Balcony Theatre will collaborate in some unusual ways. “Mendelssohn wrote this 19th century underscore that was basically connective music for a Midsummer Night’s Dream,” explains Mitchell. “It’s some of the greatest music he ever wrote, so my idea was to have Pit & Balcony actors on the stage with us, acting out this semi-staged slightly abridged version of this Shakespearean classic while the orchestra plays this score. It’s like a live orchestra set to a movie and with the Choral Society also involved, I couldn’t be more excited.”
With the SBSO’s March 31st concert, Past Masters, Present Promise, Saginaw artist Kellie Schneider will create original illustrations depicting each movement of Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose, which will be projected live while the audience performs.
“Ravel wrote these five beautiful little movements, based upon the opening of Sleeping Beauty,” explains Mitchell, “with another focusing on Tom Thumb and Beauty & the Beast that musically are incredibly descriptive and evocative. For about 10 years now I’ve wanted to find something that would visually compliment this music and have been searching for an artist to visually represent what Ravel is doing aurally, but I’d never found the right person.”
“Then I met Kellie Schneider and instantaneously thought of this project, so approached her about it. She agreed and I couldn’t be more excited. She will create seven illustrations that will coincide with the various movements, and one of the great things is that we’ll also be doing a concert for area 4th and 5th graders. How cool will it be for these kids to see somebody from right here in this town that is successful and capable of creating this beautiful artwork like Kellie does? This way the kids can listen to the music, Kellie can explain what she visualized when listening to it, and we can show them how composers get inspired by art to write music, just as artists get inspired to create art from listening to music.”
Also featured on this bill will be Bright Sheng’s The Black Swan, which is an orchestration of Brahm’s late A-major Intermezzo, originally a piano piece, and was transcribed for full orchestra, rounding out the thematic contours of the evening with a composer who literally ‘re-imagined’ Brahms.
Closing out the season on May 12th will be “a monumental finale to a phenomenal season”, according to Mitchell, as two of the greatest third symphonies will be presented in the form of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Napoleon inspired Eroica, along with Michigan composer Kevin Puts’ Verspertine.
“Last season one of our biggest hits was the first piece we played in the season, featuring a composition by Michigan composer Kevin Puts,” relates Mitchell. “Kevin is in his 30s and composed a 3rd Symphony of his own based on the Bjork album Verspertine, which he became entirely enchanted by. I’m thrilled to be presenting this and Kevin intends to return to Saginaw for this performance.”
Undeniably, the 2011-12 Pure Music. Pure Michigan series presented by the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra carries the potential to set new records, not the least is the careful detail rendered in assembling such a divergent caliber of mixture between the classical and the contemporary.
New season ticket holders also can purchase tickets now for 50% off. Restrictions do apply, so call the SBSO today for details. For additional information call 754-SHOW.
16th November, 2023