Welcome to the Knowledge Project, I'm your host, Shane Parrish, curator behind Farnam Street blog, which is an intellectual hub of interestingness covering topics like human misjudgment, decision making strategy, philosophy, and today, beauty and music. The knowledge project allows me to interview amazing people from around the world, deconstruct why they're good at what they do and get inside their head. It's more conversation than prescription. It's about seeing the world the way they see it on this episode.
I have Alexander Shelley, the music director for the National Arts Centres Orchestra. This conversation took place in his office at the National Arts Center in downtown Ottawa.
Shellie's leading a new era for the National Arts Center Orchestra is currently in his seventh year as chief conductor of the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra. And in January 2015, he was named principal associate conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Alexander is simply amazing and this conversation is off the charts. We're going to explore a host of fascinating topics, including what goes through his mind as he walks out of the dressing room and assumes the podium, the architecture of music, the necessity of art and beauty and culture.
He's even going to break down the beauty of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony for us and explain why it's so famous. I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did.
Before I get started, here's a quick word from our sponsor. This podcast is supported by SLOK, a messaging app bringing all your team's communication into one place. Slack is on a mission to make your working life simpler, more pleasant and more productive.
Visit Slocomb slash Furnham to create your team and receive one hundred dollars in credits that you can use if you decide to switch to a paid plan. Welcome, Alexander. It's a pleasure to meet you as a fan of classical music. I've been looking forward to this interview for a long time. Thank you. Can you walk me through what goes through your mind from the time you leave the dressing room until the time you reach the stage, huh?
Well, that's a very good question. Often it's only a very short walk. Normally it's 10, 15 seconds to to to get from the dressing room to the stage.
Depending on the building. Every conductor has a different way of going about these things. I am lucky. Well, I think I'm lucky to have quite a compartmentalized mind so I can quite quickly switch from one thing to another and then feel very kind of focused on the next thing. And so I'm fairly comfortable, let's say, up until a few seconds before I go on stage having conversations with people. But what I then, you know, it's important in the moment that I walk out that I'm in exactly the frame of mind required for whatever the pieces.
And the wonderful thing about music in general, and in my case, classical music, is that it could be so many different things. Last week we performed here Brahms Requiem, which requires a particular kind of focus and the sort of connection with one's soft underbelly emotionally, if you see what I mean. And then sometimes we'll be performing things like this evening we have a concert with a common it's a very different kind of music is more ebullient. There are moments of great tenderness, but it is a very different kind of story.
And so I try and focus into that. But ultimately in that walk, I try to set myself into the right frame of mind for the music.
When you're up on stage and you first pick up the baton, what's going through your mind?
So, I mean, first and foremost, I'm thinking about creating a sense on stage through my body language, through my eye contact, through everything about the way I am that prepares us. And by us, I mean, first and foremost, the orchestra.
But then, of course, the audience for the beginning of the journey and the journey being this piece, a piece of music exists in time. You know, you are taken on a journey which is going to take, let's say, in the case of the Requiem that we did an hour and 15 minutes. And I have to before I give the first downbeat, before I start the piece, create the conditions, a certain kind of silence. Let's say there are pieces you can you can walk on stage, bow to the audience, turn and give a downbeat.
You know, everyone's still clapping, but it's that kind of music, bam. It's something that explodes off the stage.
But if it's going to be a really long and very intimate and very intense journey, it's sometimes nice to create a true silence beforehand, this kind of focus. And it's one of the things I love about the many things I love about giving concerts is the this shared experience. I mean, that's for me what is so important about about life music.
And you can see parallels between concert halls and religious spaces. If you go to a cathedral, you don't necessarily have to be a believer to sense something special happening when it's full of people and when there's a silence, let's say after a prayer, you don't necessarily have to believe in the idea of the God of that given faith. But there is a great beauty in that shared silence, that collective silence, that collective experience that we all recognize. And it has different manifestations.
It could be a ball game as well. You know, it could be a hockey a hockey game, that sense of joy. Twenty thousand people being joyful. So I try to focus the energy of the orchestra, the energy of the audience to where it needs to be to begin the peace. And then I'm thinking, of course, of the opening measures of the peace and how how we want to perform them. But with with works, with bigger structures and longer journeys.
I always have an eye on where we're going. That's my job is also to be the sort of navigated through these bigger works as you're conducting with the eye to where you're going with the piece.
What do you focus on while the music is actually playing?
Well, the interesting thing about it, describing what a conductor does is that you at any given point have to be prepared to do a lot of different things. So there's the let's say, the very simple craftsmanship of a conductor. You need to be able to give a beat that however you do, it makes clear to the orchestra what the rhythmic impulses are of the music. Now, in contrast to majority of pop music or folk music or jazz, you know, pretty much any other world there are there are lots of works in classical music and moments within works classical music where the pulse is movable.
It's what we call rubato. So give and take within the music and. So a conductor there has to lead that sense of give and take, and it's a it's a very beautiful thing. It's when it's functioning correctly, it's a symbiosis between me and the 80 musicians on stage is, in fact, I find one of the most beautiful things that humans do. You have sitting in an orchestra, 80 people who are absolute experts of what they do.
They start when they're four, you know, four or five years old playing instruments. Then they go and study, they do degrees and master's degrees, and then they go into the profession. I mean, there are so few professions where you can say that, you know, lawyers don't start studying law at four and and so on and so forth. Medics don't start studying medicine before you study elements of it like language and physics and mathematics. But musicians are very, very specifically trained.
And you have these these masters of what they're doing, sitting in an orchestra together. And in the best case scenario, they start to behave, you know, like a flock of birds. When you see a flock of birds moving around, you're not quite sure who's leading or what's happening.
But so there's the the element of being able at any given point, let's say, that symbiosis breaks and suddenly somebody is not together with someone else to know what to do to to instinctively be able to react, to get people back together, just the coordination of people on stage. And I think the correct state of mind for for a conductor while performing is even though I don't meditate, I have some I have a close friend who meditated when he was growing up and he just used to describe it to me.
And actually the experience of conducting is very similar.
You are in a state of very, very high focus where you're ideally not thinking about a specific element. You are channelling your allowing it to happen. But at any given point you could switch into, OK, the second violins need my help or this has got a little bit slow or this is a little on the quick side. I need to readjust sort of doing things that, um, well, let's say the flow has been broken, that you can just come out of that state for a moment, solve it and then go back into it.
That's the ideal. And so at any given point, I could be thinking about a thousand different things.
I also sense the focus of an audience and that is very much part of a performance. One of the beautiful things about life performance, again, is that we musicians on stage play and perform differently depending on how an audience is reacting.
What decisions does the conductor make versus the musician in the chair? What's the relationship between the conductor, the audience, the music and the musician?
Well, in an ideal world and this this happens regularly. I mean, it's it's it is ideal, but we're actually able to do it. It's not a question of having to make those choices.
Um, my my personal approach in front of any given orchestra is to try and respect as far as possible within the parameters of of how the work is constructed, how I analyze the work to respect the nuances that come from the players. So you will for example, I mentioned that we're doing a piece by piece tonight, some music from Common.
There are a lot of very beautiful solos for individual instruments, long solos like like a sung aria, but from the instrumentalists within the orchestra. At that moment, they're playing as soloists. They're sitting within the orchestra, but they're playing a soloist. Now, I I believe very strongly that. If you trust the musicians and you respect them, you have to also allow them the freedom to express how they feel a phrase. Now, normally you sit as a conductor, the parameters.
So let's say the tempo, the speed of the music makes a big difference. So if I start one of the movements quicker than the soloist in the orchestra would intuitively do it, you might hear that than the way he or she plays it. You might hear that there. They feel a little rushed the way they're phrasing. So if you're sensitive as a conductor, what you'll try and do is then just slow the music a little to try and create the right conditions for them while maintaining whatever reasoning you had behind doing it at the original tempo.
Sometimes that's to do with the architecture of a movement so we can maybe talk about the architecture of music in a moment. But put simply, a phrase like a sentence or a movement like a chapter or a work, like a book or a play, always has an architecture, a great piece or even just a good piece, has an architecture, a point where it starts that it builds towards and then the sort of afterglow.
And within that, all the phrases, all the little movements, chapters, they have their own inner structure and the work. As a conductor, when you're preparing a piece, this is simply trying to understand with as much clarity and desire as possible how a composer has done this. And then then you try and realize that so often, in fact, normally one would choose a tempo that one feels appropriately, represents what's happening in this architecture. But that's something like I said, if if you're working with an individual who who really feels that particular phrase differently, you have to try and be or at least I feel like I want to be accommodating.
Now, there is another school where you say, no, absolutely not. There's only one tempo in which this works and you have to fit into it. It's a it's a slightly more dictatorial school, if you like. And both of these schools bear wonderful results when done well. And they can also have terrible results.
So I assume they would like freedom more.
Well, you say that the that would seem to be logical, but if you are among a group of 80 people are expecting consensus on anything, then then you're living in a different world from the world I live in. Because, you know, in any walk of life, no matter how expert people are, if you get a group of even 10 people together, they're not going to think the same thing about the same stuff. So so, yes, there are a lot of people who love that that idea of collaboration.
There are others who feel very strongly that the the dictatorial element is is vital. And frankly, as a conductor, you have to have both elements up your sleeve. It doesn't mean you have to be rude to people, although that's also an option. There have been some very rude conductors, but you have to sometimes just draw a line with with an orchestra for the sake of the group, because if decisions are constantly, you know, hanging in the air, then nothing ever gets done.
So you have to draw the line. Let's talk more about the architecture of music and how it relates to how the audience feels it and experiences it, sure. Classical music is is is something that's always wonderful to talk about and very difficult to talk about because. It is so many different things. It encompasses 500 years of music and the ideals and the aesthetics of medieval times, very different to the baroque period or the classical period or the romantic period.
And the forms and the structures that were used in music have changed a lot over the years.
But let's talk about one of the forms of architecture that's most kind of prevalent in classical music. And it's actually a big part of pop music as well, is the idea of themes recurring and then changing developing. Now, if we think of as a pop song, what will quite often happen in, let's say, jazz or gospel or pop is you will have a tune stated that's kind of related to the home base, the home key that you started, and then you'll have a little journey to another related key and then you'll normally go back to the home.
So the architecture of that is is kind of a B, a. Now, there's sort of psychological elements involved in that. If one wanted, one could simply just write notes that have no relation to one another and you never come back to what you started with. But the coherence of a piece of music, whether it's a four minute pop song or a one hour, 15 minute requiem, has to do with recognizing elements again and DNA. You know, we all enjoy that.
Let's say we go to or we we listen to a lecture. It's nice at the beginning of the lecture for some clear statements to be made that are recognizable. Somebody makes a statement X and then why? Then they start the lecture, but then they refer back to X, Y and you're like, oh, I see that point and I see that point now.
So you have some sort of landscaped NAVCENT landscape.
Yeah, I like to to think of it as the DNA of the piece, like the stuff of which it's made.
Now I talk a little bit more about that in a second, but you and I think a lot of our listeners will know about Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. They will have heard of it. You know, it's a famous piece and they probably have ask themselves, well, why is it so famous? One of the reasons is that he takes two notes and one rhythm and creates an entire symphony out of it. So Papa. Papa. Yeah, just that the next three notes.
The next four notes are Papa, Papa. So you can already see the relationship is the same interval, but just down one step and then it goes, papa, papa, papa, papa, papa, papa.
It's the same idea. It's the DNA. It's like a tiny little cell. And that builds up, up, up, up, up, up, up, up, up, up, up, up, up, up, up, up, up, up, up, up, up, up. A bum, bum, bum. So, in fact, you're not listening to lots of different phrases.
Just listen to one idea. There's this growing like in a petri dish. It's starting to grow into some kind of entity, you know, like those sort of genetics experiments they do with computers to see what will happen to certain forms.
And he then builds the whole first movement out of that interview.
But then he takes a second movement and writes a theme taught, oriented or read on if you talk to you that you learn all the way through that theme, this interval that you've heard at the very beginning of the piece comes up and the third movement, pas de de de de de de la creme again, there's this little interval that the brain, even when you're not thinking, oh, wow, that's the interval your subconscious like we do all the time in life, we recognize shapes and forms.
Your subconscious is taking it in. And the same thing happens in the fourth movement. So the reason that musicians are so fascinated by this piece and why it's such an incredibly strong compositional statement is because in an almost unprecedented fashion, he uses a tiny amount of material to create something incredibly grand. And it's true that efficiency of of use of material that we actually find without maybe being able to articulate it, that the symphony has a lot of cohesion. It takes us on a journey where we feel somehow that we understand intuitively relationships with feels very tautly argued.
And that's one of the reasons, because actually everywhere if you start to analyze the score, it's related. Back to this one theme. By the way, his fourth symphony is related to the same theme as well. This guy was mental.
I mean, he he wrote one symphony based and then the fourth simply it starts ti or, you know, it's also a third interval and creates a whole symphony out of that.
So he was incredible at his use of of material. But to get back to the architecture which you're asking about.
So who there's a thing that we call in classical music, sonata form.
Now sonata form is really a mechanism for. Implanting these ideas like these little bits of DNA in listeners minds so that any composer can use them to to make a story, and the way that Sonata form works is that you have the statement of a theme. You know, it could be a melody and then you have a, let's say, 20 measures or 30 measures of sort of a little bit of transition, but not material. That's very important. And then you have the statement of a theme which generally contrasts or complements the first theme so that they're clearly different.
Um, and a listener will hear, oh, that's nice tune.
Da da dum ba dum ba da dum dum dum dum da dum da dum. Something like that, you know, of being a bomb. Poppy, that's the first time. Yes. And then you'll have a second theme which is contrasting and then that whole section.
So the theme, little transition, second theme with a little bit of stuff afterwards gets repeated. So we have then an opportunity to hear it one more time and it becomes ingrained.
Then we reached the end of the repetition and it goes into what's called the development section, and what happens there is that the composer takes these ideas that he's ingrained in our minds and he starts to play with them and vary them.
Sometimes he'll stick one above the other or she'll stick one about the other, invert them, write new harmonies, break up the the the the tune into something smaller, smaller pieces and and develop it.
Now it could go somewhere dark, it could go somewhere bright. He could do anything with it. And then he leads back to that original section again. So you hear once again stated the original theme. And then the second theme now and we're just to finish that thought. Then he writes what's called the coda, which is just a a short afterglow. It's the stuff that comes at the end of the argument about everything. So the architecture of of a of a movement in sonata form, which is what pretty much all symphonies are written in and sonatas anyway for solo instruments is June 2nd, June.
Repeat the whole thing, ingrain it in your mind, then the development where it's played with and changed and altered and then a return to that original section.
So if you like it A, B, A and then the little coda, which is which is C, now if you go back to listen to early symphonies, let's say Haydn or Mozart or you know, anybody from around that early classical period, as it's called, these themes and the little transitions are very readily recognizable, know it's really easy to see them.
And if one's interested in kind of testing out what I just described, that would be a good place to start to take one of these high instruments and just listen to it or Mozart and say, OK, that theme I recognize I don't really know what's happening now. OK, there's a tune on.
That's the one again, you know, because what then happened, it is a sort of simplification of the history of music is that that form was developed and changed. So the the periods between the first tune in, the second tune got bigger. The whole A section where you have the tune, why don't you two got longer developments got longer.
And what then happened? Also, the return to the original material sometimes changed so that there wasn't a return to the same material or when it did come back, it was completely transformed.
So that's an example of architecture was called sonata form in music. And that's that's just one example of many different types of form.
But but as a general rule, pretty much every work in the classical canon is in some kind of recognizable form that will then be distorted.
And again, uh, stop me if, you know, it's amazing. But again, you know, if you take if you take a portrait painting and then you look at what someone like Picasso did, it's useful to be able to reference if you'd never seen any painting before in your life and you saw what Picasso did, your relationship would be different if you saw what happened in Renaissance portrait painting as you come into then the 19th century, into the 20th century.
And you see that that, of course, the figures, the portraits that he created. I have a relationship back to that, but he's changed and developed form and he's simplified certain things. He's added a different aesthetic, you know, cubism and then and and you can do that with music as well.
As long as one has the opportunity to sort of learn a little bit about what these early forms, you can see how composers can change the way that you're exposed to the music itself shapes how you see the music.
Exactly. And this is what you know, this is something is very important to me. Music like painting or whatever, poetry books. Of course, you can just read a book and it just you have your reaction to it.
You don't as long as you speak English or French or whatever language you're reading it in, you don't necessarily need to know anything formal about how it's constructed or about the history or about the context of the the the the writer wrote in at the same with painting, but pretty much every great book, great painting, great piece of music. If you scratch the surface, if you have someone, for example, I'm always happy to do it is someone who could start to talk to you about what's below the surface.
Then actually they become each work becomes a universe in itself and you can spend an awful lot of time kind of playing around in this universe in the sandpit.
And that's why symphonies are so beautiful and so wonderful, because they are entities that have an awful lot of depth. It's not just the sound of them, it's is the arguments that go on within them.
So if if you can imagine that once you take two themes, of course, it's not a it's nothing tangible. You can't say, well, a theme, a means X theme song. B means Y, but. There will still be a discourse between those teams that attention almost exactly attention, which actually reflects we don't necessarily put every thought that goes through our mind into words in our mind, but we still have feelings and emotions that do have tensions.
Do you have you know, and that's what the world of music is ultimately about. And it's why I think a lot of people, very understandably, sometimes can't find vocabulary when talking about music.
I think that's why I often meet brilliant people who can talk about literature or history or politics or and it gets to music like we are kind of like it's cool, you know, and that's understandable because it's so abstract.
Um, I enjoy, uh, having the opportunity to point out that there's such an awful lot of form in music.
It's like maths.
It really is like math. That's why a lot of mathematicians love music as well, because it's all about structures and forms and about relationships. Um, and I had one of my closest friends is he studied Mass at Oxford. And I remember us having this discussion when he sees an eloquent argument in maths for him. It has aesthetic qualities and he finds it beautiful. And I find the same thing when I'm studying a piece of music.
I'm not playing it. I'm studying it. I find the the craftsmanship and the the argument that's happening on the page also very beautiful. And because I love it so much, I always want to talk to people about it.
That's amazing. What would you say is the role of art in your life?
So not only music, but literature and poetry? And how does that work?
Well, one of the I'm not one of those people who says, oh, you know, the modern world is more bad or whatever. I think the modern world is amazing. And I think we live in a time of opportunities to learn and and exist pretty much second to none ever.
It's an amazing time. One of the things I find sad sometimes, though, is that we we tend to speak as if the world of the arts and the world of the sciences are unrelated or somehow, you know, one one has utility. The other one is kind of, well, if you got a bit of time off, you know, get involved in the arts is kind of cute.
Whereas my life I mean, I live what I think is a very practical life. And I like everybody else and I just live and do. And, you know, I like efficiency's I like I like learning about science has always had I love physics all my life.
And but for me, art, it involves just as much of the analytical side that I, I know from physics and from the sciences when I studied it as anything else.
And yet it is this this point. And it's something very fundamental about being a human that we actually. Create through very controlled and very precise thought the conditions for creating beauty, that's why, again, if you look at paintings, it's no coincidence that often the proportions in great paintings will be very similar between them. You know, the sort of golden golden ratio, the golden ratio. Thank you very much.
And for me, the hand in hand, that's why I love there's a lot of wisdom in this is a yin yang circle that you can't have arts on one hand and everything else in the other. It is one. And you tend to see that everywhere. The sense of balance is what matters. The equals sign is essentially the same thing is it's a Western version of Ying Yang saying you have to have a balance. And so for me, the role of art is is life and science is is life.
And they belong together. When I when I study a school, the first thing I do is scientific.
I analyze it, I try to comprehend it and understand it in order that when I come to performance, it's so internalized that I'm free from it again. Just like when you learn a language, people, you know, oh shit, I got to learn all this vocabulary and I don't understand the grammar.
And you have to put your head down. You have to understand it in an intellectual sense. And then forget about it, yeah, it's not that it's not there, it's not like when you speak French fluently, there's no relationship to the intellect. It's just that you laid the groundwork and then you're freed from it. And that's for me what all art is about to. And it's why it's so worthwhile. I just it drives me absolutely nuts, absolutely nuts.
This idea that art in school is an optional extra. It belies a complete misunderstanding of what the arts are, because if you're doing it properly, you have to engage your intellectual mind as well as if I don't know what the other mind is supposed to be. The intellectual mind also takes flight. You know, that is what the mind is. It it's thought and it's it's engaging with ideas that may be abstract, but there's still ideas.
You know, there's still part of the intellectual sphere.
And and quite apart from that, I think in a time where. There is either complete skepticism about religion or it seems to me. More dogma than ever and more fanaticism than ever, the arts offer, I think, a very healthy philosophy for for talking about the transcendent letting that we all think about all the time and and something the religious religion offers an answer to.
But a lot of composers or put differently philosophers like Schopenhauer or Nicha and also ancient Greek philosophers, they were fascinated by music and they found that it it well, it played a unique role in life because of its abstract nature. Schopenhauer famously believed that, you know, he had these two worlds, the phenomenal world and the numinous, the phenomenal well being, the world that we live in, that we experience and the human well-being, the ideal or idealized world, the world of of ideas where we have, you know, forms like Plato thought that we can never see as we interact with it.
It ceases to be because it's now the phenomenal world. But he felt the music was a and of course, it's a little fantastical, but he felt the music was a gateway to that, because actually we all experience when we're listening to music, we do experience. And it can be pop music. It could be jazz, it could be classical music, something which you can find ways to articulate in words. But in fact, you can't. It is something that is outside the realms of the sort of definition, as we normally understand it, and and through that form of, if you like, the mysticism involved in music, you can also get in touch with a lot of things that are involved in religion and other forms of mysticism and have a conversation around it, because in music that's allowed, you can it's not dogmatic conversation about, look, what is what is that next experience.
We as musicians, we have to understand the intellectual to construct the architecture, the all the physics around sound and how to to blend sounds and do that. But then the next level up, why are certain pieces there? What are they trying to express?
So if music is being taught right, you as a young person engage all parts of your brain. All parts of your brain. And the idea that that's an optional extra is tragic, it's just a terrible misunderstanding and and hopefully that will change. You know, I'm an optimist.
I love that answer because it seems more and more culturally we view this as optional or not something that's necessary to live a full and meaningful life. And I don't know what it was yesterday.
I was there was something going wrong on Facebook. It was a I think it's from the states.
It was a quote from probably one of the presidential hopefuls saying a great country deserves great culture. Which is a very interesting way to phrase it, because. Countries only really great if they have great culture. It's not like it's then you have a great country and then you add culture. It's all part of the same. Yeah, when we look back at history, we don't, you know, count how much money different civilizations have because it's all relative anyway.
What fascinates us is their cultural output. You know, when we think about great European countries, we think about we think about England. Of course you can think about political stuff. You think about Shakespeare or you think about Guta in Germany or Shiller or you think about the great Chinese writers of old and Japanese as well. We don't say, well, how many millions of dollars, they have more money and therefore they were a good culture or a good country.
Yes. So. So, yeah.
How would you like people to leave one of your symphonies? What would be what would be your.
I feel satisfied if somebody came up to you after and said that moved me like what would you change me it.
So every concert is is a different experience because we may be doing in one concert really like virtuosic loud music. That's fast. And if we do that, I want people to come out and say, that was awesome. It was like a roller coaster ride. I didn't know that an orchestra could do that and blew my ears off. And so if we're doing a very intimate piece. I hope that people will come and say that really moved me. I found that, you know, this experience came to mind or or I was taken to a place that I hadn't felt for.
It's like you're touching something inside that you didn't know existed.
But but there is no one experience you are having in a in a in a concert with us with a symphony orchestra. It will always depend on what the music is. And with Beezy, I hope that the concert we're doing tonight, I hope they'll be had the sense that they transport a little bit to Spain. You know, it's like taking a mini break without having to spend the money.
You know, you can smell the sangria. We had the weather. Exactly. If only we had the weather. For those listening, there's about two or three feet of snow outside.
There was a huge storm yesterday.
Um, but anyway, you know, and when we did the Requiem last week and I was happy to get this feedback from a lot of members of the audience, if you wanted to be a sort of transcendental experience, you want it to be a moment which frankly, we have so seldom in life of love, maybe reflecting on what is going to come and the relationship with life and death, you know, pretty, pretty fundamental things. But that in and the sort of rush and hectic of everyday life, one doesn't often have a lot of repose to think about and also as a collective to have that experience to to sense that the people around you also in that space.
So I always hope for a reaction that relates to the music we were performing. And I want people to be taken on journeys and have experiences that they can't readily do anywhere else, because I believe that's something that we offer. Where did your passion and love for music, how did that originate, was that any you were born with it and it started so young? Is it something you developed over time because of your love of math and music?
And how did that manifest itself in you? Well, as is often the case with musicians, not always, of course, but often just like with medics and dentists. I come from a musical family and I you know, when I was in the womb, my parents were playing concerts, two pianos. My mom's a pianist, my dad's a pianist and conductor. So I was sort of bouncing around in there listening to Rachmaninoff and Mozart and stuff, which I'm sure has an effect, you know, if you're just waiting, so to speak.
And then it was all around me when I was born. It was just your life. But a lot of people rebelled against that.
Of course, that could have happened. And my parents, perhaps this is why I didn't have my parents were very they viewed it in a very healthy fashion. They never pushed me into music. I was I wanted to learn instruments and I did. And my mom taught me piano and my grandma taught me cello.
And, um, but they always they wanted me to go to a normal inverted commas school. So not a music specialist school, which a lot of my friends did because we, you know, the families that were friends were musicians, families as well. And they wanted me to go to a school where I would learn all subjects in detail and that it wasn't just about becoming a musician. They always said to me, look, if. You won't be able to make it as a musician unless you wake up in the morning with this burning desire to practice.
Do you think that broad based education made you a better conductor or musician?
Versus the more special I mean, I wouldn't want to do it if, you know, I think for my personal roots, I wouldn't want to say anything against anyone who wins, especially because there are so many great musicians who went to special schools.
For me personally, looking back, I think it was absolutely the right choice, because when you I love when I learn a symphony or I learn new work going through the doors that are open to literature and to history and to philosophy and stuff that really interests me. And I think maybe I was given at school more tools to be able to access that. So so for me, the broader based education was definitely a positive. How does that path shape how you pick people to play in the orchestra, huh?
Well, I mean, firstly, it's not the case that I hand-pick everybody who plays in the orchestra. We have an audition process and that's fairly democratic. I have a veto rights, but it's a democratic process. And we all as a collective are looking for certain, for certain skills and certain things. First and foremost, people need to be able to play the instrument very well.
But I would assume the technical proficiency is almost a given.
Yeah, although it's you know, there are different levels and everybody's at a high level who who comes are, you know, fantastic instrumentalist. And then it's as with any profession, you know, it's that final life to the nuance.
But but but then what happens in orchestras?
There's the so-called probation period. I mean, first in an audition, they will play solo repertory. You know, they'll play a concerto in a sonata. Then they'll play excerpts from the orchestral repertoire, you know, famously difficult excerpts where we can hear certain things or, um, but then in the probation period, firstly, there's the opportunity to experience what they like actually in the orchestra, how they gel with the rest of their group physically in terms of sound and timing.
But then there's also the opportunity for the colleagues in the orchestra to get to know them. It's a big family, if you imagine going to an office. But instead of sitting at your desk every time you type a letter, someone else has to type it exactly the same time with you and it through your movement, you have to be able to coordinate in real time all day with the people around you that any time you make a mistake, it immediately has effect on everybody else.
Any time your inspirational, it immediately has an effect on everybody else. That closeness is what happens in an orchestra every day for the 40 years that people sit in an orchestra. So it's a unique job and the reliance on one another is also unique. Um, so that probationary period is very important also to get a sense of. Will this work longer term, it's not just about being a great player. It's about having the the the right mindset to function within that very special set of conditions.
And one hopes always that we find people who will, you know, make the sum greater than the parts as well.
It's something I would imagine it's almost like a transplant, right. People come in and it either takes or it's almost like that's a nice analogy.
What was it like taking over an orchestra that you had no part in? You recently took over this one. What was that like coming into that and walking into something that has already been created and shaped largely without you and then having to assume a leadership position in that?
Well, one of the nice things about the way the process worked appointed me as music director is that I.
I had the opportunity really quite a long time ago, I think it's six, seven, eight years, maybe now, seven years to first meet the orchestra. I came as a guest conductor and we got on well, there was nice chemistry. So I came back and then I came back again and I did an opera here and I did lots of concerts.
So we built a relationship. What sometimes happens with conductors is that it's it's like those sort of dating sites or, you know, you you have a dinner and you fall in love or you can say, right, that's not the right person. Now, that means sometimes music directors are appointed having only an orchestra once and then come back very briefly. And that can work out beautifully. It's like that love at first sight thing.
But you can also say after a couple of extra further visits like, oh, what have I done here?
We had a different route and I knew the orchestra very well. They knew me very well. I don't think there was a sense of, OK, this could not work or this. I think we we both felt confident about what we were getting into. So I knew the players well, I knew the institution well. And so I felt very comfortable about what I was getting into. My predecessor, Pincus Zuckermann, did an astonishing job of building this orchestra, appointed such great players over the over the course of his tenure.
And I mean, it said it's been said before the one of the jobs of a conductor is, you know, it's like being presented with a beautiful God. And you need to make sure that what you're given remains beautifully trimmed and everything's very healthy as well as in developing new areas. And and and in that context, I mean repertory. So, you know, extending the repertoire of the orchestra, trying out, you know, to to extend this metaphor, you know, taking a new patch of land and then growing a new bit of garden while maintaining what was left behind.
It's almost like a painting, I would imagine. That's like half done at every stage and exactly it over and you're changing it at that. You need to kind of continue. Exactly.
And I think the health you know, Pincus is one of the great living musicians. He he he gave so much integrity to this to this orchestra, so much integrity in the sound of the orchestra. And I'm very aware that that's you know, I've passed on a little treasure there.
And I just I'm in all areas. I'm very aware of taking care that we maintain that because that's part of the heritage of the orchestra, as well as a beautiful thing to be able to continue a heritage and then to, as you say, add and develop so much, or is this dependent on the particular orchestra?
But how much say does the orchestra have in you then?
The conductor is well, the orchestra was was a committee for the orchestra was very much involved in the choice of who's the next music director at me.
Um, and, uh, what happens is when you have guest conduct, this happens all over the world.
When guest conductors come for a week, the orchestra gets forms to fill out where they comment on rehearsal technique, you know, conducting technique, whether they felt the person was inspiring or not, you know, and so they hand those forms in and then the administration goes through the feedback and then they make decisions as to whether to invite the person. Again, it's a it's it's an amazing system.
If you imagine at the end of every week, an office manager would have all his employees give feedback forms. Um, that's quite intense, but that's how it works with conductors. It's it's a it's a very interesting position to be in because on the one hand, you need to lead the group. And sometimes that involves saying things that they may not want to hear.
On the other hand, as a guest conductor, you know that they're going to fill out forms at the end of the week saying, you know, I hate this guy or I love this guy, but you can't.
I mean, I. I just never think about it. You can't think about it, otherwise you can't function. I just do the job as I feel it has to be done. And people like it. They like it, you know.
And so what sort of feedback do you get now with the musicians? I don't imagine there's forms weekly, but what are the interactions like?
Are you trying to we're you know, we're a big team and, uh, and I it dialogue is very important to me. And I think the musicians here know that they can come and talk to me at any point about anything and.
One of the many things I love about this orchestra here in Ottawa is that they're they're very accomplished musicians and they're very serious in the best sense.
People, you know, they they know what we're doing. They have a huge skill set. And they hear when things don't work in rehearsal, they have ideas of how to correct it. And we all do. And I find we we're able to talk like grown ups. When that didn't work, how do we fix it? Let's do this. Unless they're very well prepared, I'm always very well prepared.
That's all we can expect of one another, that we know our material.
Um, and I try and keep the dialogue open.
So I talk a lot with the concertmaster. Joske here we talk you know, we talk about how things are going this nation. And as long as you keep that dialogue open, nothing too grave can ever happen because you see things coming. And and so that's how it works now. It's a sort of conversational basis between rehearsals before and after you.
What's your favorite part of conducting an orchestra outside of the actual, um, performance? Well, that's a very good question. Um, I think I think, um, in terms of my interaction with an orchestra, I mean, I love the the stuff that I do on my own, the studying of scores that that I find very, very rewarding. Um, I do find it in my roles as music director and chief conductor like I have here or in Germany.
I find it incredibly rewarding being part of the development of an institution.
So having a longer term ambition for an institution and then trying to do whatever you can to to make that happen. Ta ta ta had the sense that you are a sort of guardian of an institution for a while and that is your responsibility to keep it healthy and to develop it, that's as lovely. It strikes me that musicians would feel the same way, you know, they're individually talented and they want to be or feel a part of something greater than themselves.
And that's absolutely right. You never would have thought the same thing with. And the thing is.
Well, I definitely is. And I find I mean, I love guest conducting. It's fun to go to places and meet an orchestra for a week.
Never need a bag. Boy, let me know that exact.
But the the most fruitful part for me is are those long term relationships where you can really see that you've done something for for an institution, for an entity.
And I love the responsibility of that as well as one of the things I love in this job is not only the responsibility to the orchestra, but the fact that we're a national art center. Is is this discussion around, OK, how how can we fulfill that? What is our role in society? And how can we be, you know, vocal about what's great about music and bring it to as many people as possible? You know, that's a lovely job to have.
What would you say is the role of the orchestra in society?
Well, I think that this particular orchestra has, in fact, sort of four different levels in which we work. We work for the city. So put simply, we need to be a great orchestra that people can come and listen to in the in city and hear interesting pieces perform very well. And I want us to create a narrative around our program so that people who maybe don't feel like they know anything about classical music, they can come to a concert and they know what is the narrative behind this this this program.
So I like to do the three kinds of talks I'd like us to write sort of interesting takes about it. Then we have the regional level. So, you know, looking beyond the bounds of Ottawa and Gatineau and to go back in Ontario to think about how we can be in contact with as many close communities as possible, then we have the national remit, which is to, of course, be touring the country, taking projects, new creation projects, because we commissioned an awful lot of work to communities that don't maybe have symphony orchestras all the time.
And then we have our international role as a representative of the nation. And each of those those roles has different nuances. But each of them is is very important. But I feel also this is one of the reasons that the new creation and commissioning Canadian composers and artists to work with us is very important is that, um, I've always felt we have in the UK, the BBC, you know, it's a nationally funded entity and we have several other orchestras that work for the BBC that a centrally funded and I think if you have a national arts centre and you have an orchestra, national arts and orchestra that receives funding from the central government, that, yes, of course, we need to offer programs to fill our hole, but we also need to be able to take some of the risk that other institutions that don't receive the same funding.
So we we need to be out there saying we're a mouthpiece for for Canadian creation, you know, offering a forum, a place where composers can come and they feel like they can work in partnership with us. They can make mistakes if they need to make mistakes or they can simply present works that they they've completed. We workshop stuff here. Um, we we put together a lot of artists, so it's interdisciplinary. Um, and and that stuff I feel needs to be along with presenting the core repertory brilliantly.
That also has to be at our core. I noticed when I walked in, there was records on the floor. Is that how you typically listen to music? Actually, no.
These records were here before we redid the office, and they're just there because I like them. But I, I listen to pretty much everything on my my iPhone. So I carry around because I'm travelling every week. I'm in a different place every week I just have iTunes. It's got thousands and thousands of tracks on my iTunes. But everything because I like to listen to everything. I play jazz piano myself and I, I love pop music. I love jazz, trance and techno.
I love baroque music. I love everything that's good. And I have the judge of what I think is good enough for everybody to judge what they think exactly.
But no, I listen to music on my phone. That's why I, I don't even at home have a video, you know, speaker system, because I basically just, you know, I'm a never there. And secondly, I listen on headphones.
You notice a difference in how you feel about the music. If the exact same music was played on an iPhone versus a speaker system versus kind of. Well, I do. I mean, look, I'm very lucky.
I get to I get to stand in front of the best speaker system in the world every day. You know, eighty of the most beautiful instruments ever created, played by the best musicians in the world. I mean, the sound where you work and understand is pretty amazing. So it's not like I have some friends. They have really amazing speaker system set up in the House when I go and listen to them. And it's not like a I don't care.
I think it's very cool. But I, I always want to say to them, hey, you should come and stand where I used to have my job, you know, so I have no problem listening on headphones. I mean, I have a nice pair of, you know, like noise canceling headphones and they, you know, which by the way, great on planes if you're trying to sleep.
Speaking of standing at the front, do musicians in the orchestra ever stand at the front so they can hear what you hear?
Um, well, actually, I have to to to say that the spot that's better for listening to an orchestra is about 40 feet behind me because they're the sound blends differently. You have maybe you're not quite the level of impact, but I get where I am. But the blended sound is better out there.
And musicians do go out there mean not enough because they have to play. You know, they'd be in the orchestra. But it is very, very useful. I try and go out as much as possible into the hall, into the auditorium, about thirty, forty feet back to hear how the sound blending. Um, but they do whatever they can take the opportunity to go out. And it's a very useful experience because remember, when you're sitting in an orchestra, what you're hearing is almost completely weird.
So, you know, the oboist hears most loudly the the the the man or woman sitting next to him. And then the person is right. Another oboe, another flute, the bassoons coming from behind him and the clarinet. So there may be things that I'm hearing and the audience is hearing that they seem to be in complete sync with that. They can't necessarily hear themselves.
It's an amazing skill set to be an orchestral musician must involve a lot of trust as well, a huge amount of trust. Supercoach of your time and you to get running.
One final question. When you go home at the end of a long day, what do you play on your iPhone?
Um, I actually tend to because I, I basically whenever I'm not rehearsing, I'm studying what I'm quickly eating something and then I'm studying. And so I quite often will be listening to what I'm preparing for for coming weeks. But then, you know, I have suddenly twenty four hours where it's not so stressful.
And then I, i it could be anything, I mean depending on my mood, if it's nice.
Sunny Day are quite often put a bit of like contemporary pop dance music and just kind of chill. I love listening to Bill Evans, the jazz pianist. I love his music. I'm kind of, uh, in a in a different zone.
Um, I will sometimes reminisce back to old performances of my own, just as of he was fresh is, you know, when when it's been six months or a year since you did a performance. It's quite nice to listen back and see what you like, what you don't like, what work. Um, but I, I, I do relish an eclectic mix of, of, of music and I what I love about music, you know, we can it's like a scent, it's just the right thing for the right moment, you know.
And I, I'm really not dogmatic about it. Thank you so much for your time.
Thanks. An amazing conversation. Thank you for having.
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