Interview with Jonathan McPhee – Part I

The following is 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: As you already know, Pro Arte is a cooperative orchestra. In rehearsing with a cooperative orchestra, what do you expect?

JM: I’m not expecting that it’s going to be that much different. For me, one of the key things about having musicians involved in the actual organization, is that the orchestra owns the orchestra, and I already have an orchestra like that: Lexington Symphony. In fact, in Lexington, the orchestra votes board members in, which is exactly opposite the way most orchestras run. There is a lot of upheaval in the orchestra world today. An interesting development in the Milwaukee symphony is the fact that their co-principal trumpet, Dennis Najoom has just been elected President of the Orchestra. Musicians who have an intimate knowledge of the business of music as well as the knowledge of the business of running a non-profit may be major contributors to the solutions.

I think the more involved musicians are with their orchestra, the more the balance stays on what you’re doing: the musicians, the product that the musicians are putting out, the repertoire they’re doing, and who they’re serving in the community. Those are all questions that I think musicians should have a say in, instead of just being told to show up on Tuesday, sit down and play the piece we told you to play and leave. That involvement also makes the job more gratifying. I think another indicator that that level of involvement within the organization is important is when you look at — there was a study done a few years ago, in the London times where they listed jobs according to best job / worst job. String quartet was right at the top as one of the best jobs, symphony players were one notch above prison guard. I had a good laugh looking at it, but when you look at the difference between the two groups, a string quartet decides what they’re going to play, when they’re going to play it, where they’re going to play it, why they’re going to play it. In a symphony orchestra, you don’t have that. And to a certain degree, the bigger the orchestra, the more it has to be managed because of the size of the organization and what it does in the community, but I think the more musicians are involved in their own organization, the better it is for everyone. They have a vested interest and they don’t feel like they’re, you know, a nameless “I am 2nd bassoon”. You’re not, and you have your own links to the community.

What has been your connection to the music scene in Boston?

I’ve been music director for Boston Ballet for 26 years. I came here from New York, I’ve been in the business since 1979, when Martha Graham and George Balanchine launched me into the world of dance. The Boston Ballet is actually the second largest employer of musicians in the city, second only to the Boston Symphony.

I’ve been involved in different parts of the educational side of things in Boston: Young Audiences for example. I’ve been involved with them as an artist/performer for a number of years; we created the Boston Ballet II program partnering with Young Audiences about 11 years ago, and I’m on the advisory board. In fact, we have a meeting tomorrow morning.

Oh, WCRB. I’ve been very actively involved with WCRB for my whole time in Boston, before it became part of WGBH. And I was on kids’ classical a lot. Music, music and dance, so mainly related to the musical dance scene.

How do you view the program?

I think, first of all, all of these pieces are very visual. The Márquez is actually named Dance No. 2, and it’s based on a dance form that comes from Cuba, although I don’t think it was meant to be choreographed. All of the other pieces, the Copland, the Respighi, even the Introduction and Allegro have been choreographed. And of course, Appalachian Spring was commissioned for Martha Graham. There’s a connection all the way through this whole thing. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge funded the commissions for both the Respighi and the Copland. So there’s a very tight knit circle there and the orchestra did a great job in selecting this repertory.

What is your artistic goal with this concert? What would you want the audience to listen for?

All of the pieces are very rich in imagery. Which is I think where you got the dance theme from. So not only are they rhythmic, but they are harmonically rich. There are many different voices in there, because you have different nationalities represented as well. The thing that stands out for me in all four pieces is that they have a very strong color sense. Now that sounds like a funny thing to say, you know, blue, red, orange, green, but each piece has got its’ own sound world that’s very unique. Copland’s a very American sound, the Respighi — exotic, just as exotic as the Botticelli paintings in richness of color. Ravel is unique in his own way, color wise. Now of course, the Márquez, that’s another whole other flavor right there. So it’s a very rich meal, in color, dance and rhythm. I think anybody who comes is going to have a really good time.

Have you had experiences with any of these works before this concert?

Actually the only one that’s new to me is the Márquez, which I’ve heard, but never conducted before. I have the closest ties to Appalachian Spring, because of my work over a decade with Martha and her Company. We met totally by accident. She happened to come to my last concert at Julliard, which was the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. She was about ready to leave in, I think, four-five weeks on a state department tour of Europe, and they needed a second conductor, so they hired me. I went right back to my old stomping ground, which was London first. Then, we finished up with 6 weeks at the Met. Mr. Balanchine saw me there and invited me over to New York City Ballet.

Appalachian Spring, of course, it’s one of her big war horses. At that point, no one outside of seeing the ballet would have heard the version that we’re doing today, which is the full complete ballet. There was a small published suite that he (Copland) put out, that said: “original 13 instruments”, which is… not quite accurate. And there was a lot of missing music in there that’s in this ballet, which is terrific stuff, like “Preacher’s Dance”, which was completely missing from the other one.

And I think it was the second year I was conducting for her (Martha Graham), when Aaron Copland came to the performances. Backstage, discussions developed to have Mr. Copland conduct a Gala in NYC with the Company performing Appalachian Spring, and he said “Why don’t you do the rehearsals for me, and I’ll just come in and do the dress rehearsal.” So after that, he frequently had me conduct orchestra rehearsals for his performances of the ballet. He actually became a good friend, and of course, Martha introduced me to Leonard Bernstein as well. My composition teacher at Juilliard was David Diamond, so the three of those guys, together with Gian Carlo Menotti, Samuel Barber, and William Schuman, were the composers through the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s in New York, so I feel very fortunate to have plugged into that crowd.

I have a good visual memory for dance and, I can tell you practically every step of what goes on in the music. In my copy of the score, which is at the point where it is so old that I’ve finally had to retire it, has margin notes of things that Aaron would say, or Martha would say in rehearsals, how this section came into being, and how they had thrown in an extra repeat here because she needed something. In fact, even when I worked with Agnes de Mille on the revival of Aaron Copland’s Rodeo, I was witness to the same kind of thing. Copland came along to rehearsals while I was working with her. We’d get to a section, and he’d say, “Oh, that’s the section I didn’t write, Lenny wrote it.” And I went,“What do you mean?” And he said, “Well, you know, the piano solo, tatatata dum dum”. He said: “I didn’t write that, Bernstein did. He was there in rehearsal when Agnes got stuck and she said, ‘You know, I need a little section here, like a silent movie thing.’” And Lenny sat down at the piano and ripped off this sort of honky tonk piano thing, and they kept it. And sure enough, in the original score, there’s a 2-page insert in his handwriting. But he is never credited in the program. So, you know, I feel like I came in at the right time to catch up on some of these really creative ventures. And back then, in particular, there was a lot of sharing. I mean, that circle of friends, Diamond, Copland, Bernstein, Schuman, Gian Carlo Menotti, and Barber, they all hung around together in the East Village. It was a very rich time in music, dance and theater.

How do you see the conductor’s relationship between himself and the orchestra?

Boy, that’s another complicated question. The conductor’s role is, well, it’s a communication role. I mean, obviously, the conductor brings an interpretive picture. However, a good conductor is also open to what goes on with the individual players. And every orchestra’s has it’s own memory, the worst thing you can do is to inflict totally 100% of your own ideas onto the memory of something that’s there. So, there’s a give and take within that communication process as well. If I did a Beethoven symphony with Hamburg Philharmonic in Germany, it’s going to be different than if I do it with Lexington Symphony here. The orchestras have a different training, they’ve got a different sound. Hamburg’s got, history all the way back to Beethoven, a history of playing his works, like Mahler and the New York Philharmonic when Mahler was the music director. So, there are things to learn from the collective memory of an orchestra. There are things that you discover with the individual players that, sometimes, it’s best to get out of the way and let them do it. On the other hand, it all has to make sense at the end of the day, so that’s the part that the conductor manages.

You have actually anticipated the next question: as a guest conductor, how might that view shift?

The ballet orchestra and I have known each other for 26 years, there’s a very definite hand print that is part of their memory that doesn’t exist with an orchestra that you come in as a guest conductor. You have to think quickly how to put the whole thing together. As a guest conductor, walking into another orchestra’s traditions, the fastest way to get an orchestra to turn against you is to go in there and say: “No, no! That’s not right, don’t…”. And then they’re like: “We’ve played it that way for 35 years”. Ok, sorry.

Pro Arte is an orchestra that has been playing together for a long time, do you think that would make the rehearsals go smoother, as opposed to working with let’s say, a new orchestra, or would it make things more difficult?

Well from the players I know from Pro Arte, you’ve got some of the top players in the city, some of the top freelancers. Which means you’ve already got a collective ensemble technique. They know a lot of repertoire, they’re used to putting things together very quickly in different circumstances with different conductors. So I am anticipating a very quick and sort of pliable group.

Yes, that would be a lot different than coming in to an orchestra that doesn’t have either the experience or the breadth of repertoire. For example, if you were to walk in with this program in a very high level college orchestra, it would take an enormous amount of time to get it right, because even though they have the chops and could (snaps fingers) play it like that, getting the style, getting the breadth and everything else without that collective experience — a college sophomore, junior or senior just doesn’t have 20 years of playing experience. So, I think this kind of ensemble really has two parts to it. They may play together in Pro Arte a lot, but they also play in the larger community of Boston’s musical scene and do everything from opera and ballet to symphony and pops.

How would you balance your dance and music experiences for this concert?

I don’t think there’s really a balance. (chuckles) Obviously, whenever I do a piece that is a standard classical piece of music that has been taken on by the ballet world, I will conduct it differently for the ballet than I will not for ballet, because I know where the problems are. And again, it depends on the choreographer. Mr. Balanchine, for example, was an excellent musician. He was a very fine pianist. He approached choreographing from a musician’s standpoint. Now that meant that his musical tastes in creating the ballet were impeccable. He didn’t do non-musical things, because he was so musical. It also, however, means that he has a very specific musical interpretation that will work with the steps. So there’s not a lot of room to move as a conductor. You learn his version of the music that will work with his choreography. And you can see it when it is right: it locks when you hit the right track. I was fortunate enough to work with him for two and half years before he died, and you can tell, when you hit that magic mental track that’s he’s on, it looks fabulous.

One really good example is Serenade for Strings. The first time I ever conducted that, I was a last minute substitute for Dance Theatre of Harlem, it was at City Center, on 57th St. I was at the time, conducting for Mr. Balanchine, and he’s the one that recommended me, because they had lost the 2nd conductor. Arthur Mitchell, the director, contacted Mr. B and said: “I don’t know what we’re going to do, we’ve got a 6 week season and we’ve only got one conductor, and we’re not going to make it.” And Mr. Balanchine said: “Well, there is this kid that’s working with me right now and… ” So he threw me right into it and I crammed the repertoire like crazy, and Serenade for Strings is something that all conductors know. I got to the rehearsal with the dancers, and first of all, the last two movements were flipped, which was kind of weird. So it goes 1, 2, 4, 3. And the tempi for particularly the “Yumpum pum pum, puddle uddle ahmpum / Yumpum pum pum, puddle uddle dum” was so slow, I had never done it that slowly in a performance, nor had I ever heard it that slowly. I couldn’t bring my musical training and experience into line with what was needed for the dance. I also knew that Mr. Balanchine wouldn’t have done something musically in bad taste, there had to be a reason. Anyway, I got to ask him in the elevator: “Can you walk me through this and just tell me, why is that movement so slow?” And he said: “Well, you know, everybody plays this like the speed of light, because it’s very impressive and the orchestra’s always zipping off, and it’s exciting, it’s great, but at it’s root, Tchaikovsky is folk music.” He said that if you slow it, instead of doing it in one, like we do, “Yumpum pum pum, puddle eeyah pum pum / Yumpum pum pum, puddle eddlum.” He goes (slower), “Yumpum pum pum, puddle eeyah pum pum / Yumpum pum pum, puddle eddle Dhum.” There’s a different rhythm pattern that comes through, because you get these cross rhythms, only at that tempo, and he choreographed those. “Yumpum pum pum, puddle eeyah dum pum / Yumpum pum pum, puddle eddle Dhum / Rhum pum pump um Bah ddle / lum pum pump um bahddleLuddleAhm.” — those three beats that go across right there.

So, that was the beginning of my really understanding. Once he told me, I was fine with it and it didn’t feel bad to me anymore. It made logical, musical sense. I could lock in and the dancers were much happier, because it was physically impossible for them at our normal musician’s speed. Take a Bach Goldberg interpretation on piano. You can hear a wide variety of interpretations. You hear Glen Gould’s, which is idiosyncratic and wonderful, but it’s very, very different. So, if you put Mr. Balanchine in that mold, then you can see how there is an instance where I did have to adapt music to dance. In a straight concert, there is only the music.

I think dance gives a conductor two major opportunities. One is you really get to learn your technique, because where else can you do 30 performances of a work, or 12 Rite of Spring‘s in a row, or, you know, Firebird, Petrushka, all those war horses, and do them again, again, and again… And, do it again and again with different orchestras when you’re on tour. So, you really learn the piece inside out, the communication in each section, and you get a facility technically in being able to communicate, sometimes with little or no rehearsal at all. As happened in Germany a couple of years ago, in Hamburg, the conductor actually was taken to the hospital, so they looked for anybody who knew at least two of the three works on the program: Rite of Spring, Prodigal Son, and a lost Diaghilev ballet by Tcherepnine. I didn’t know that one, but I knew the other two. So, they flew me over for that and I had literally, one hour and a half with the orchestra for a 3 hour and 15 minute program. And it went well. You learn your craft well in the ballet pit.