Interview with Jonathan McPhee – Part II

The following is the second part of an edited transcript of an interview with Jonathan McPhee, Music Director of the Boston Ballet and Guest Conductor with Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra at its upcoming October 14 concert entitled Modern Dance. The interview was conducted by Uyanga Boldbaatar for Pro Arte on September 27, 2012.

UB: What music or period of music moves you the most? What other chamber music do you know and love?

JM: I’m partial to 20th century or later music. I think there is some terrific new stuff going on. I bought the score to Daniel Catán’s opera “Florencia” that I heard about a year ago, because I was so impressed with it. He was from, I believe, Mexico. There is a whole generation of new and exciting composers: for example, Jennifer Higdon, I just did a piece by her, and Michael Gandolfi, who has roots here in Massachusetts. There is a lot of exciting new stuff that is going on. The trouble is that there is a wide gulf between new music and where our audience is. Most musicians really like trying new pieces- being the first person to try and put it all together is very exciting.

In general, performances/concerts tend to have the classical repertoire, but you rarely see a new composer’s works. Why do you think that is?

It’s really simply economics. You have a couple of things going on here. In fact, this is something that a lot of us are musing about. For about 25 years, everybody has been saying that classical music is dying, that the audiences are getting older, that they are dropping off. There are studies that give you demographics of your audience, and it’s funny, I had an “Ah-ha!” moment this summer after looking at them for years. If you look at enough decades of data, the odd thing is that you see the exact same thing going on over the years. You’ve got 60 and 70 year old people in the audience, and then you have a smaller group of 40 and 50 year olds, you get almost no people in their 20’s and 30’s. Then, there are the youth concerts. Fast forward 15-18 years and you still got the same proportional numbers by age groups, so what happened? The older people should have disappeared and there was no one in the younger age groups, yet the curves look the same, so I’m beginning to think there is something else going on in here.

Of course, traditionally in the music world, when an organization is under pressure financially, the 1st thing you cut are your youth programs. In reality that is actually the last thing you should cut. So in these attendance graphs, are people starting to attend concerts in their late 30’s because they were exposed to concert when they were school children? I’m worried that without kids being exposed to classical music in these youth concerts, they will not think to come back to the concert hall in their 30’s and 40’s. That’s just a theory of course. If you could find a group or a locale where they dropped the program, does it really affect the curve at the other end 30 years later? I don’t know. Of course, people are moving around, which makes it even harder, but the fact is, the audiences are coming to concerts in at their 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, or the concert halls would have been totally empty years ago. We’ve also been reducing the educational music programs in schools, so people know fewer and fewer classical pieces. If you look at a concert program, and you don’t recognize a single composer on it, or a piece, chances are you’re not going to buy a ticket, and you can’t fault somebody for that, really.

The League of American Orchestras, collects repertoire and data. It’s interesting to see how the repertoire has shrunk, on average, to the pieces that have name recognition. It’s more and more difficult to get boards to sanction putting new music in, when the marketing department says: “I need something to sell, give me a Beethoven symphony”. There’s a huge table that the League has got, and I keep abreast with all this stuff. They show the composers that are played the most, Beethoven is right up there of course, and Brahms and Tchaikovsky. Stravinsky’s a little further down, because there’s a lot of different Stravinsky stylistically. You don’t find too much later Stravinsky on a program, you only find the ballets, which were his first big approachable mega hits. So, it’s a challenge to get new music on a program, although there is so much good music out there.

To get back to your original question, my tastes are very broad, I find something exciting and exhilarating in music of just about any period. I do like the rhythm complexities and the color complexities of what’s happened in the 20th century. I love English music: I’m a huge Vaughan Williams fan, and Walton.

Perhaps there’s another link as well. A lot of film music is often orchestral music, so movie goes are actually being exposed to orchestral music when they go see a movie. (“Classical” is not a term I like using, Classical is a certain period his history…)

Yes, and actually at this point, “classical” has a bad connotation to it. People think “classical” is stuffy. So, you’re absolutely right, as far as the movies go. One of the things I remember very distinctly happened during the 80’s. I was the conductor for the Joffrey Ballet and I had 2 orchestras, Joffrey Ballet Orchestra in New York and the Joffrey LA orchestra. When we created the LA orchestra, we discovered the LA Philharmonic was too busy, so the other place to get the best musicians was in the film studios. They sight-read like fiends because they had to do it right the first time when recording. They are quick, they’re just terrific musicians.

A funny thing happened in the 80’s though. There was one year, I think it was ‘85, where the studio musicians were out of work. The movie industry had just decided to go towards the synthesizer rather than live orchestra music. But there was one pivotal movie that changed everything back to live. It was the Sylvester Stallone movie “Cobra”. The director kept saying “You know, there’s something about this that’s flat, I just, it just doesn’t POP.” And the composer said: “It’s because it sounds like every other soundtrack, because everyone is using synthesizer music.” And he said: “ Get out! Really? A synthesizer makes that much of a difference?” “Yeah, it really does.” “Ok, you’ve got the money for one live musician.” So, the composer wrote the cello part, and overdubbed the live cello track with the synthesizer. The movie did well, and that combined with John Williams scores emerging at about the same time caused Hollywood to go through a resurgence of using live music. All of a sudden, it was new and exciting! It was very funny to watch that though, I mean they were thinking it was over, so thank you Sylvester Stallone!

Do you have a pet charity project, a hobby, something you like to work on when you are not conducting or arranging?

Wow, pet project. Time is a problem.

Groups like Young Audiences offer such an important service to the educational community. They have ahundred or so top flight artists, musicians, dancers, actors, storytellers, period storytellers, and historical figures. Young Audiences is a group that carefully chooses the programs that have educational value for young people, and books them with schools all over the state and beyond. I think they are an underutilized resource that I wish people were more aware of. Yes, they need funding; everybody in the arts needs funding.

When I came out of Julliard, I was working with Lincoln Center Student programs that had a similar model as Young Audiences. They would put together a menu of programs that were offered to the school systems in the five boroughs of New York City. We would do a 2-day seminar at Lincoln Center and all the teachers from the member schools would attend. They would watch demos of different groups and they’d decide “Ok, we’re going to order that one, and that one.” The groups that had the most orders were the ones that toured the next year. Young Audiences is similar, they don’t actually do that formal bring-everybody-together phase, but the artists are paid with the fees that come to Young Audiences from schools. The schools have less money to work with these days and it puts pressure on what kinds of groups you can get out to the students.

In the end, what people have to realize is that it’s not enough to teach children the basics: reading, writing, and arithmetic. They need to have cultural underpinnings, so that they put history events in perspective with art and with music. They need to have programs that help bring history to life and that’s what Young Audiences does. It needs support to overcome the challenges of not enough money in the school systems, so that’s probably my pet project at the moment, trying to see if we can help them.

What is the last book you read?

“Unbroken”, I just finished it a couple of weeks ago. Hillenbrand wrote it, the same author that wrote “Seabiscuit”, about the race horse. She’s a great writer and “Unbroken” is a true story about the Olympic runner Louis Zamperini. His first and only Olympics was the one that was hosted by Hitler, just prior to World War II. His whole life is an amazing story. He gets, of course, launched into the war, gets shot down in the Pacific and becomes a p.o.w. Through all of the challenges, his spirit remained unbroken. It’s a hard book to read in that it’s gut-wrenching, but it’s uplifting too. It’s a great book.

If you could meet any historical figure from the past, who would it be? What would you say to them?

I think Abraham Lincoln would be the one I would go for. Although, I’m going to revise that. I think Teddy Roosevelt. I read the trilogy on Roosevelt by Edmund Morris before reading “Unbroken”. He really was an amazing president, an underrated president.

What music do you listen to outside of classical music?

I have pretty broad tastes. I have trouble listening to classical music in the car: it is a good way to get a speeding ticket, because I get sucked into it. I’m not totally up on the new music the kids are listening to.

I went to the Royal Academy, first in London, then to Julliard, and both colleges actually had a fair number of rock musicians that came out of them. I was in the same class as Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics. Carl Palmer of Emerson Lake and Palmer was at the Academy, Elton John attended RAM a little before my time there. Billy Joel was ahead of me at Julliard. A lot of the best rock musicians are actually classically trained, so there’s good stuff going on there. Jazz? I have a few jazz albums, and friends who are jazz fanatics. Actually, my brother manages a group called The Roots, they’re on Jimmy Fallon. He’s managed them for 9 years, so I get all the new Roots albums. They are actually classically trained, which probably most people do not know.

What is in your refrigerator right now? What is your favorite food?

Wow, that’s an interesting question. Lots of fruit. Gee. Milk. Tons of different kinds of mustard, I’m the only one that eats mustard in the house. Dijon, Chinese mustard, brown spicy mustard…I like mustard. OK, nothing terribly interesting in there, I have to admit.

You’ve shared a lot of interesting stories from your career so far, but is there an anecdote, something funny you could share with us?

I need to write a book, I’ve actually started bits and pieces. One of the things about working in the theatre is there is such a wide variety of weird things that will happen in a ballet pit that would never in a million years happen to you on a concert stage. Not only do you have the usual thing of objects coming off the stage, everything from fog to arms and legs and fruit, but you also have a different perspective on the audience. People in the theater audience sometimes have no clue what I’m doing in the pit. I’ve had people tell me to stop waving my arms because I was impeding their view, to somebody leaning up and tapping me on the shoulder in the middle of a performance and saying: “What’s that guy playing over there?” [lightly] “We’re working here you know”.

Some really horrible, funny horrible, things as well. I remember one performance in New York. Somebody had had too much to drink during the intermission. They were in the front row, and, well … what do you do when you’re on a ship and not feeling well? You grab the railing… yeah. Except they hit the percussion section… [Laughs] That was gross. Everybody ran for the back wall, and the percussion instruments! They went everywhere. Luckily it was about 3 minutes before the curtain in the last ballet of the evening. Things happen. But, it’s fun.