David Loebel in conversation with Steven Swartz

Q: How did you choose to become a conductor?

A: I didn’t choose music; music chose me. My becoming a conductor was what I like to call a pre-ordained accident. The pre-ordained part came from the fact that my father was a musician and I had music in my house constantly. I knew that it would be the main thing in my life, but I also knew how hard it is to make a living as a musician. I thought that I would be involved on the periphery somehow, that I’d be a critic or a record producer or a music librarian or a radio announcer. (As it’s turned out, I’ve done all those things in my life as a conductor). But conducting itself was an accident. During my senior year at Northwestern I suddenly found myself in front of an orchestra, and that’s where I’ve been ever since.

So was that the moment you realized,“This is what I want to do?”
There was no question it was what I wanted to do. Conducting is so wonderful it should actually be illegal. The rush is just amazing, feeling yourself in the midst of that unbelievable sound and, of course, there’s such a great repertoire to deal with. Once I got hooked, I’ve stayed hooked. I feel unbelievably fortunate that I can make my living doing the thing I love most.

What was your next move after that?
My first incredible bit of luck was getting a conducting job right out of college. A friend of mine had heard about a position as the assistant conductor of the Syracuse Symphony, and through a series of strange occurrences, I ended up there and found myself actually getting paid to be a conductor. There were times I would wake up in the morning and think, “What am I supposed to do today? Oh, that’s right, I’m a conductor now!”

In Syracuse, did you have a role in programming? 
No, that came later. I’ve come to realize that whatever affinity I might have for making programs comes from my radio experience. The first thing I was ever music director of was the campus radio station at Northwestern. This sounds like a terrible cliché, but I did a late night radio show on which I played Frank Zappa and Mahler and bluegrass, trying to find links between different kinds of music. (People are sometimes surprised to find out that I really like country music. I think that helps me when I conduct Bartok or Copland). You know, the junction points between pieces, between composers, between different genres of music, I still find interesting to this day, and I think that’s where the programming part of my brain started to develop.

So what, to you, makes a satisfying orchestral program?
What you want to do is simultaneously challenge and reassure. Every concert should contain something that comes as a surprise, and that doesn’t necessarily just mean a brand new piece. It may be an older piece that the audience doesn’t know or hasn’t heard in a long time; it may be a different way of approaching a familiar piece. But there should be something that’s unexpected. And there should also be something that the audience can bring their previous experience to. Balancing those elements is what makes program making – in fact what makes music – so enjoyable. 

Who’s your favorite historical composer?
The clichéd answer to the question is “My favorite composer is whomever I’m working on today.” And that’s true. But I find myself returning to Mozart more frequently and with greater joy than with any other composer.

Part of it is genetic, because I’m half German and half Austrian. The German part of me is well organized and prizes order, and the Austrian part of me is sentimental and emotional. And it seems to me that most composers struggle to find a balance between those two elements-- the head and the heart, Apollo and Dionysus, intellect and emotion. And in Mozart’s music, I think, those elements are perfectly aligned. I don’t know of a piece by Mozart that’s too long, that has too many notes, too many bars, too many repeats. As an intellectual accomplishment, it’s as close to perfection as exists. And yet it speaks to the heart, to my heart, in the most direct way. I find nothing more exciting than to open up a brand new, unmarked score of a Mozart piece that I’ve never conducted. It’s as though a whole new world has opened up – he’s never disappointed me. There are other composers I love, but none as much as Mozart.

OK. Now name a few others, then.
The music that I feel the closest to (and which, if I may say so, I think I do the best) is the mainstream German and Austrian repertoire, from Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven through Mahler and Strauss. It’s part of who I am as a person; it’s in my DNA. But I’m also interested in almost anything composed in the 20th century. I think it was just the most fascinating period for art and life and history. If I could get in a time machine and be anywhere, I would want to be in Paris, Vienna, and Berlin between, say, 1900 and 1930, because it was a time of such incredible fermentation of ideas. I love conducting Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, all the great composers of that era.

I also feel really strongly about American music. I don’t just mean the American pieces composed this week, but going back to the 19th century, to composers like George Whitefield Chadwick and Amy Beach and also to 20th-century figures like Copland and Barber. Charles Ives is one of my heroes. There’s something about his relationship with the spiritual world and with nature, his uniquely New England way of thinking about life that I find tremendously appealing.

You’ve talked about 20th century music. How about 21st century music? Are there any composers working currently whose music especially speaks to you?
I hesitate to name names, because what I find so exciting about involving myself in the music of my own time is that you don’t know what’s coming just around the corner. You can’t tell who’s going to end up developing a really unique voice. I’m just interested to hear whatever I can hear. 

That said, I admire John Adams’s journey. I also think that his book, Hallelujah Junction, is one of the great composer autobiographies going back as far as Berlioz’s. I’ve really enjoyed hearing the way his music has changed over the years and I can’t wait to hear his next piece.

What are your impressions of the young composers and musicians you encounter as an educator?
The good news is that so many young composers still want to write for orchestra. They consider it a landmark in their careers. (That’s not a criticism of composers who don’t write for orchestra!) It’s interesting to me that the orchestra’s variety of color, its ability to generate wide-ranging emotional states, its potential for rhythmic vitality, its viability as a means of expressing intellectual ideas – all those things are still very alive to young composers today.

Another bit of good news is the absolutely phenomenal level of playing by today’s young instrumentalists. I’m also encouraged by the fact that they’re not coming into the profession with the same pre-ordained ideas as previous generations. They’re hungry to make music, and they’ll figure out how to make a living at it despite the challenges our profession now faces.

My job as an educator is to try as best I can to help them discover their own voices and their own ways of making music, whether it would be my exact way or not. I hope that I can help them understand the great things about our musical past that need to be preserved, and at the same time, open their minds just a little bit to the rich variety of human experience that they can express through music. I want them to have as rewarding a life in music as I’ve had so far.

Has the conductor’s role changed since you first took to the podium?
Sure. It’s no longer possible for a conductor simply to conduct concerts, at least not in the United States. In most cities, the local orchestra is the dominant classical music institution, and the music director of the symphony, whether he or she wants to or not, is de facto the community’s most visible musical leader.

 And one has to really embrace that role. I think American conductors understand this instinctively, (although there are certainly non-American conductors who have filled the role very well). The symphony orchestra in the United States is a typically American, audacious experiment. What we are trying to do is to take what is at its root an 18th-century, European, white, male art form, and graft it onto the most heterogeneous society that exists. I don’t think American musicians shirk from that challenge; we welcome it. But we have to constantly be asking ourselves, “What are we doing, how are we doing it, and how can we do it better?”

What are some of the answers you’ve developed with your own orchestra?
Just being musically excellent is no longer enough. There was a time when orchestras could pretty much sit on top of the hill, as it were, and say to their communities, “You know, we’re really great, you should come and hear us…It’s good for you, you’ll like it”. What we have to do now is to look outwards from ourselves. We need to say to our communities, “What can we do for you? How can we fulfill our mission in a way that helps you fulfill yours? Let’s do something together for the community that couldn’t happen otherwise.”

And another piece of good news is that the orchestra profession as a whole has recognized this. There are all kinds of fantastic experiments going on all over the country. Best of all, in most cities there’s only one orchestra, so we can borrow from each other and build on each other’s experiences. For all the seemingly insurmountable challenges we face, I think it’s a very exciting time for music right now. Call me Pollyanna!

What were some of the partnerships and community engagement programs you were involved with in Memphis?
During the time I was Music Director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra we began a partnership with a charter school in a very economically disadvantaged part of town.  Against all odds, it was doing some really amazing work, and music was a central part of its curriculum. Every eighth grader in the school was required to play in the orchestra, which consisted of just strings and rhythm section. Initially, six of our string players went each and every week to coach the string players privately and also perform alongside them; the program grew from there. It was a service that the Symphony could provide that nobody else in town really could.

The other was a program we called “Leading From Every Chair.” We put on a day-long workshop for businesses and non-profits using the orchestra to demonstrate aspects of leadership, creativity, and teamwork, things that all successful organizations need. It was not the kind of thing where you bring your employees in and they sit in a conference room all day. The participants learned what goes into both composing and performing, and sat in the midst of the orchestra while we rehearsed.

These were both experiments. And as anybody in the sciences knows, most experiments fail. But some of them won’t. And we’ll go from there.

[Note: further information on these programs can be found in Fearless Journeys, a report by the League of American Orchestras.] 

And a completely different note: what’s a fact about you that nobody knows?
I once loaned my guitar to John Belushi.

Did you get it back?
Yes, he gave it back; he was very nice!


Steven Swartz is the founder of Dotdotdotmusic