You’re a conductor now, but originally you studied to be a violinist. Was the switch to conducting always part of the plan, or did it take you more by surprise?
Conducting wasn’t actually part of my original plan even though I had conducted small ensembles when I was about 16 years old. The idea was put to me by Charles Bruck, one of my teachers one summer when I was playing in the orchestra at the Pierre Monteux School in Maine, America. I was leading a lot of projects, and it was suggested that I step up on the podium and see what it felt like. At the time, I was studying for my BA in Violin Performance in Montreal, but the suggestion appealed to me because I always loved orchestral repertoire – the music itself, but also its architecture. I have a passion for form, and for building things up. So, it all made sense for me to become a conductor, to be able to study the scores from the inside.
And how did it feel to stand on a podium that first time?
It was horrible! I remember vividly that I was so inhibited that my first conducting lesson was to conduct Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with my hands in my pockets. My second was to dance in front of the whole orchestra to the music of Gershwin’s An American in Paris. So, I lost my inhibitions pretty quickly!
...and from there you never looked back! Do you still pick up your violin?
I do, because my daughters play violin and cello, so I use it with them once in a while. I also use it a lot as a tool to work on bowings, and when learning scores. Learning scores on the piano is one thing, but I think that if you have the ability to play the violin line then it’s not a bad idea because it gives you a different perspective.
Different perspectives are a constant thread through your work with the Seattle Symphony. You became Music Director there in 2011. What was your vision for the orchestra?
“Innovation” was the first word that came to my mind when I moved to Seattle, because the city is synonymous with innovation. Just think of all the businesses that decided to make their home there. Microsoft of course, Amazon and, years ago, Boeing. Then there’s the music. The grunge movement was born in Seattle, and the whole musical scene there is very eclectic. All this local innovation was very appealing to me when I took this job because musical organisations need to be working out how to stop being dinosaurs. Music buildings must be more than bunkers; they should be open places where people feel they can walk in freely for the thrill of it even if they have no knowledge of the music. A little bit like how you might walk into a stadium. So, with Seattle I wanted to create opportunities for people to come as they are, as Kurt Cobain would say in that beautiful song.
It was 2013 when the two of us last spoke. A lot has happened during the intervening years with regard to that vision, which in turn has led to a massively increased international profile for the orchestra. How would you describe the orchestra as it stands today?
Tremendous energy and amazing talent. I’ve been fortunate to be able to hire close to twenty musicians over the past five years, through a combination of positions opening up and creating new positions in the woodwinds and trumpet, and we’ve been able to attract musicians from the top-tier orchestras in the States. My first hire was a cellist who had been second chair in the Philadelphia Orchestra and came to be our Principal. The same thing happened for Principal Oboe, who came from second chair in the Cleveland. So we’ve had this possibility to really attract super talented musicians, many of them very young, which has helped me in creating this amazing energy, and given us the feeling of a new team, really.
You're also very much realising that goal of allowing people to “come as they are”, with all sorts of interesting projects designed to get as many different kinds of people as possible through the doors of Benaroya Hall. One notable collaboration with local non-classical musicians was the Sir Mix-a-Lot concert. That particular evening has been much talked about, so extraordinary were those scenes of audience members getting up onstage and dancing, but I haven't actually heard anyone describe what it was actually like in the hall. How was the atmosphere?
It was fun! Sometimes we kind of think of classical music as being serious, and of course often it is, but there must be a way where as musicians we can get out of our comfort zone and just party once in a while, and that’s what that night felt like. We’ve also collaborated with jazz musicians, with members of Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Guns N’ Roses, and recently had a concert homage to Quincy Jones, who is from Seattle. Such collaborations don’t do any damage to the way we play Mozart and Mahler, and I think it’s exciting from an audience perspective because they’re attracting a different mix of people to come to hear the Seattle Symphony. Yes, they’ve come for Sir Mix-a-Lot or Mike McCready, but at the end of the day they’re still experiencing what is most important, i.e. the live symphonic setting, and from there we can hope that they’ll want to hear more of us.
How far has it stretched you personally?
Well quite a bit I must say. To now be regularly communicating and collaborating with these sorts of musicians, I’m finding that they really stretch my imagination of what being a performing artist means in 2016, and equally it gets me thinking about how we can be relevant to as many people as possible within our city.
Another popular series of yours is the late-night Untitled strand in the grand lobby, which allows people to sit with a glass of wine, text, and wander around. How's that going?
We’re now going for a strong thematic focus with this series. We just did one based on Polish music which included a world premiere by Agata Zubel based on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, programmed alongside Lutosławski. The Polish Consul from Los Angeles actually came to that. The next one will be on Russian music.
What about your one-hour rush hour Untuxed concert strand?
Yes, that continues. It’s a wonderful way to offer a shorter version of our subscription programmes, and I think again it’s a very different crowd attending those. Not necessarily all younger, either.
Your education work has grown in recent years. What sort of work have you been doing?
One initiative I’m especially proud of is Link Up, which is in partnership with Carnegie Hall and invites young school kids to actually play alongside the symphony orchestra. We’re currently in the process of revamping the whole of our educational space too, to be much more in line with technology and to allow us to stream concert hall events. We’ve also really pursued increasing our number of community projects, including playing in prisons, and initiatives that help increase our awareness of issues such as homelessness. So we’re trying to reach out to all groups, and this all goes alongside artistic growth and artist excellence, which we mustn’t forget, but I think those two paths of excellence and relevance within the community will always be crisscrossing each other.
Let's move onto recordings, because the orchestra now has its own recording label, Seattle Symphony Media, which despite only launching in 2014 has already won two Grammy awards. What has it meant for you to have your own label?
Well it’s been many things. Firstly it’s been an incredible tool to improve the quality of the orchestra, because when you’re in recording mode everyone continuously gives the best of themselves. Then, people always say that the best way to grow the international profile of your orchestra is either to go on tour or to record, so to have the recognition of the Grammys, and to have our music able to be played all around the world, has been very important to us. Finally I would say that creating our own label has allowed us to release recordings that really reflect our programming, because as you might have noticed we haven’t done a complete Mahler or Brahms cycle. Instead it was very important to me that our recordings reflected the programming going on in Seattle, and this I always see as a combination of going to the art museum and the art gallery. In other words, we’re all more comfortable going to the art museum and seeing the Monet, the Renoir and the Picasso, but what I try to do is to always encourage people out of the art museum and across the street into the art gallery to see what new art is on exhibit too, and then to really feel what the relationship between those two spaces can create. So we have Dvořák’s New World Symphony with Varèse’s Amériques for instance. I also really wanted to do the Dutilleux orchestral works; the orchestra hadn’t played a note of Dutilleux’s music before I arrived, yet they’ve embraced it in a tremendous way, which has now been recognised through the Grammy award and other prizes.
The Dutilleux was also a personal project for you, wasn't it? Because you knew him, and indeed he knew that you were going to record his music.
Yes it was a very strongly felt personal project. I had met Dutilleux in Boston in 2001. I was assistant there a few years later, but in 2001 I had been studying at Tanglewood with Seiji Ozawa and he had invited me to cover in Boston for him. Dutilleux was programmed, he was actually there, and it was the beginning of a real fondness of his music. I tried to see him as much as possible during the years before he passed away, and when I got the music directorship of Seattle I talked to him about this project.
I've rarely heard musicians speak with such admiration and affection for a composer as they do with Dutilleux. Particularly French musicians. Why was he was such a special composer?
Well he embraced beauty, he had a great curiosity for all different vocabularies of music, he was also fond of poetry and literature, and I think that’s why people fall for it. Because it speaks to your heart with beautiful symphonic sounds. He wasn’t a revolutionary composer. He didn’t want to break with tradition, but wanted to embrace most or all of it so that he could create his own voice out of it. He was also a perfectionist. I saw first-hand him revising one of his scores because when I was in Boston in 2001 it was for Shadows of Time which he’d written for the Boston Symphony. I remember sitting next to him and him being so specific about what kind of percussion sound he wanted, for instance. He wrote for percussion with the same detail and attention to the sound as he wrote for violins and flutes.
Your label's other Grammy was for John Luther Adams's multi award winning Become Ocean, which you commissioned yourself. How did that feel? It also prompted Taylor Swift to be in touch?
It was fantastic! When I arrived in Seattle I wanted to have a role commissioning American voices that hadn’t been championed elsewhere, and for them to write symphonic music relevant to the landscape and the environment of Seattle. So who better than John Luther Adams who had spent his life focused on environmental issues? He was living in Alaska at the time of the commission, which was the perfect entry point for us. As for whether I thought the commission would go on to win for him a Pulitzer prize, a Grammy, to be used on the soundtrack to The Revenant….! For me the power of this music is that in a world where we live so fast, doing eighteen things at once, it forces you to just let go, to not listen as if trying to understand it but instead to let the music transcend your emotions. It’s almost like a 42-minute meditation, and the stories about how people have been touched by it go on and on. The communication with Taylor Swift was a very powerful thing for me too. Not because she wrote out of the blue to thank us for the recording and make a gift to the symphony, but because she expressed that she had been touched, and that recording had reminded her of her grandmother taking her to concerts when she was a kid. I think that must be a message to young people, that musicians such as her have also had that experience of going to the concert hall, and we need to make sure we create the environment where everybody feels invited to make that first memory, because one day it’ll come back when they’re moved by something like that.
Returning to the subject of French repertoire, having been Music Director of La Monnaie, you're now bringing opera to Seattle, and we're talking shortly before a concert performance of Ravel's L'enfant et les sortilèges. How important a project is this to you?
I love opera, so bringing opera in concert performance is kind of a natural step for me in the relationship I now have with the Seattle Symphony. Obviously you want to be careful not to create a clash with the city’s opera scene, but I think that there’s repertoire that actually works really well in concert, and we can all really benefit from having that experience of bringing the opera repertoire onto the concert stage.
Another aspect of your Seattle work is as Chair of Orchestral Conducting Studies at the University of Washington School of Music in Seattle. What does that involve?
I have a class of three students, and I actually don’t teach conducting in a very traditional way. When I studied conducting myself at the Royal Academy of Music in London we would have quite technical lessons where we would conduct pianos, but conducting pianos always felt a bit fictional. So, over the past three years I’ve created a student orchestra of 80 musicians with whom my students can work, and thus touch the real sound of an orchestra. I observe them, and then we have debriefing sessions where I will comment on their conducting technique, their time management skills, their communication with the musicians, and of course the technique. Further to that, I feel it’s important for me to create a bridge between the music school world and the arts organisations, so I also have my students come and observe Seattle Symphony rehearsals, and not just the ones I’m conducting but also all the guest conductors. It’s about helping them to have one foot in the music business, in the same way that I had the chance to meet Henri Dutilleux and all the great conductors when I was assistant in Boston.
Moving onto your free time, what do you get up to when you're not making music?
Well first of all I have two daughters at home, so whenever I’m at home not working I try to devote my attention to being the greatest dad I can be, so that’s all consuming in some ways, and I’d say it is my favourite hobby! Reading is a big deal for me too though, because I spend a lot of time alone, traveling and studying. I also have a real passion for tennis.
If you could take just one to a desert island what would it be?
My mood changes every day, but one of the great French books for me is Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, so if I had to take one thing maybe that would be it. Or it would be the one that I’m reading at the moment! Just like scores I try to read the things that help me make all the connections with the things I’m doing at the time.
The countryside's wonderful around Seattle. Do you get out and explore that?
Yes. In fact I’ve been the proud owner of a little boat for two or three years now, and it’s been a really wonderful thing being on the water and connecting with nature. Actually it’s not unlike experiencing John Luther Adams’s music; just being on your own for a while, and disconnecting from all the distractions in the world.
So do you go and sit on your boat by yourself?
Definitely. I actually go and study there once in a while, and there’s nothing better. You turn off your phone and there’s nothing but just the sound of nature. You have no idea what time it is, and you only realise you need to go back because it’s getting dark.
Finally, any thoughts for the future?
Well the future should always be full of more new ideas, more excitement about what can be explored, done and accomplished, so the future for me is what the next big idea for the Seattle Symphony is. Then beyond Seattle continuing those wonderful collaborations I’ve been able to nurture with so many great orchestras around the world. It’s been such a privilege to have this life over the past few years, and I just want to be working hard to deserve to have it for as long as I possibly can.
Interview by Charlotte Gardner