Justin Brown knows how to craft a program. In his six years as music director of the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, Brown has infused the ensemble with his love of new music and gained it a reputation as an adventurous presenter of contemporary music. During Brown’s tenure he launched the ASO’s composer in residence program; the ASO has performed works by Elliott Carter, George Crumb, John Adams, and Peter Lieberson and won a first-place 2009-10 ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming. In 2011, the ASO and Brown won ASCAP’s highest award: the John S. Edwards Award for Strongest Commitment to New American Music. The ASO recently released a recording on the Bridge label of three commissioned works by Paul Lansky, whose Shapeshifters will be featured by the ASO when it comes to Carnegie Hall this May as one of six orchestras in the Spring for Music festival highlighting innovative programming by North American orchestras.
SymphonyNOW recently chatted with Brown about his programming ideas, working with composers in residence, and the connections he hears between new music and masterworks from the classical canon.
Leah Harrison: At what point in your conducting career did you become interested in contemporary programming?
Justin Brown: When you’re a freelance conductor, you have very little control over programming. I started my career as an opera conductor, but even there I gave world premieres, for example Judith Weir’s Vanishing Bridegroom. And I was lucky enough to work with Leonard Bernstein and conduct his music. And then as a freelance orchestra conductor, of course you have very limited opportunities because as a guest conductor, you’re always negotiating material. When I came to be a music director I thought, “Okay, here’s my chance.” I could really build this into being a pillar of what I’m trying to achieve as a music director, and that has really worked wonderfully well in Alabama. I think it’s taken people in the music world by surprise—that in what is thought of as a very conservative state, we’ve built ourselves a reputation for pushing the envelope.
“I think it’s taken people in the music world by surprise—that in what is thought of as a very conservative state, we’ve built ourselves a reputation for pushing the envelope.”—Justin Brown
Harrison: Is there a difference between playing music by someone you know, like a composer in residence, and someone canonic?
Brown: In the case of a composer in residence, there’s a very real sense of being part of that creation. To confer with the composer, getting them to know the musicians and what kind of orchestra they’re dealing with, and then being able to have an in-depth discussion about what the piece is, what might work. I’ve been very fortunate that the composers we’ve worked with have been of a very collaborative mindset. Having said that, I think I always set out when I’m conducting anything, to try and put myself inside the composer’s head. That’s the only way I can approach it. I think the composer is what it’s about. I’m not a composer myself, and I’ve always been in awe of those people. There’s some astonishing gift there that enables someone to start with a blank piece of paper and write something that can change people’s lives, or become a deeply memorable melody or piece of music—in non-classical music as well. The idea that someone can come up with a tune that everybody is going to know is just an astonishing thing. Being a re-creative musician, there’s absolutely no question in my mind: we’re secondary people. There’s no better way of approaching music than to try to get inside the mind of the composer. One almost has to approach it uncritically. If you’re going to perform a particular piece of music, you have to love that piece of music or otherwise you don’t have a hope of getting it across. You’ve got to become invisible.
Harrison: Do you ever program a concert without a work from the classical canon on it?
Brown: Absolutely. In Alabama, we played a concert that began with George Crumb’s Haunted Landscape, then the world premiere of Paul Lansky’s Guitar Concerto With the Grain, which is on our new CD, and then after we played John Adams’s My Father Knew Charles Ives. We finished with two Ives pieces; it was football season down south, and I thought, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. We played Ives’s Yale-Princeton Football Game, a two- to three-minute piece; then we played his Variations on “America.” Apart from the fact that everybody knows the tune “America,” there wasn’t a single “known” work on that program. And of course they all thought I was crazy initially, but it had an internal logic, and it was a lot of fun.
Harrison: Tell me about the ASO’s May 10 concert at Carnegie Hall.
Brown: We’re playing a Paul Lansky piece, Shapeshifters, which is on the recording we just did. Paul was our first composer in residence, but this piece predates his residency. It was his first orchestral work ever. He’s widely known and admired as a writer of computer music, and had only recently started writing for humans! He’d written some chamber works, as well as the computer pieces, and I thought his was a really original voice. The idea came along that we might commission him to write an orchestra piece, and it ended up being Shapeshifters, which is a concerto for two pianos and orchestra. It’s very exploratory, from many points of view. What I loved about working with Paul is that you sense that joy of creating sounds. He’s approaching the orchestra as a newcomer, and it was like he had a new box of toys. The hallmarks of Paul’s style are all there. In this wonderful way, they transformed into real time.
Avner Dorman was also a composer in residence. We’ll play his 2011 piece Astrolatry, which means the worship of the stars. He’d learned that there’d been an ancient, pre-Christian cult of star worship, a discovery that coincided with his taking a teaching position outside the big city, and he described the sensation of going in the woods and being able to see the stars. You hear this wonderfully at the beginning of the piece: a star suddenly appears, and then another, and these little curly-cues of melody start to appear. Your eyes get accustomed to them, and then the sky is full of stars. Later on, as the piece develops, he imagines this ritual of the star-worshipping cult, and that allows him to create this wonderful heavy beat dance music, in one sense very contemporary, but there’s this folk, dance music edge there.
The finale of Shapeshifters, the Lansky piece, also sets up a very powerful dance beat, and then you begin to understand why we might have felt that Beethoven’s Seventh symphony goes in the program very nicely with these two pieces. It’s the symphony that I think Wagner described as the apotheosis of the dance. It’s obviously more than that, but that’s an element whereby these three pieces seem to me to have this elemental, creative energy. Beethoven’s Seventh doesn’t seem to be telling a story—as the Eroica may be, or even the Ninth Symphony, with its message of brotherhood—it’s about music, and about creative energy and thrust. That’s what binds these three works together.
“The danger is that we end up thinking of Beethoven as some historical figure. Beethoven, to me, is not a historical figure. Beethoven is a living part of our culture.”—Justin Brown
Maybe I have a different view about Beethoven to the prevailing one. We live in an age where we’ve been through a historical-practice revolution, and that’s been an incredible experience and we’ve all learned a huge amount. The danger is that we end up thinking of Beethoven as some historical figure. Beethoven, to me, is not a historical figure. Beethoven is a living part of our culture. If that wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t be interested at all. I think we play Beethoven because he speaks directly to audiences.
That stuff is just as relevant today, to young people, to people without any musical background, and I don’t make any apologies for putting that stuff together with what I consider to be really exciting music being written today. I don’t see a disconnect there. In the end, an audience is going to have a good experience and come back for more if the performance is passionate.
Spring for Music program, Alabama Symphony Orchestra
Justin Brown, music director
Thursday, May 10, 2012, 7:30 p.m.
Avner Dorman: Astolatry*
Paul Lansky: Shapeshifters for Two Pianos and Orchestra*
Beethoven: Symphony No. 7