Daniel Meyer has had a transitory relationship with Kentucky. Namely, he's mostly seen the Commonwealth while passing through en route from Knoxville, where he was once the assistant conductor of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, to his family home of Ohio. So, when hot browns came up over lunch at Dudley's Tuesday afternoon, he wasn't familiar with the Bluegrass State's No. 1 comfort food.
But when it came time to order, Meyer dove in, ordering the Downtown Debbie Brown, Dudley's variation on the Hot Brown, and in true Kentuckian fashion, he promised to eat light for dinner.
This week, Meyer has been getting a heaping helping of the state he used to just pass through as he is the fourth candidate to to succeed George Zack as music director of the Lexington Philharmonic. Friday night, he'll conduct the orchestra in Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, Antonin Dvorak's New World Symphony and Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto with soloist Sara Buechner.
Meyer's current gigs include resident conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony and music director of the Asheville Symphony Orchestra. During our lunchtime chat, in between bites of ham, turkey, cheese, etc., Meyer talked about his career, passion for music eduction and desire to settle down. Here's a lightly edited transcript of our interview:
Q: What attracted you to Lexington?
A: I’ve always had an interest in Lexington because I used to drive by it all the time. I used to be the assistant conductor of the Knoxville Symphony and my family lives in Ohio. I have family in Cincinnati and Columbus and Cleveland. And I’d always drive past Lexington in order to get to Knoxville.
I knew about the Philharmonic, and I knew about its reputation and I knew it was a beautiful community and I knew about the connection to UK School of Music, which is really highly regarded. These were all factors that made this an interesting spot. Not to mention that my wife (Mary Persin, photo, right, courtesy of the Biava Quartet) and I are newly married and looking for a place to put down some roots and start a family, somewhere with a decent airport, where we can get to the places that we need to go, because she’s a performing artist, too. She’s a violist in the Biava String Quartet. So, we’re looking for a base of operations. Right now, I have residency in Pittsburgh and she has an apartment in New York City, so we’re looking to consolidate our efforts.
Lexington had a lot of interesting potential.
Q: Driving through, have you had any chances to stop and look around?
A: Just superficially. Nothing substantial.
Q: How did you get interested in music?
A: My mother was a music teacher in public schools. She taught K through six outside of Cleveland. She started all of us singing when were old enough to sing. I’m the oldest of four kids and we all took piano when were in kindergarten or first grade, and we could take up another instrument when we were in third grade. I took up the violin. My sister took the flute, my other sister took the cello and my other brother took the violin.
So music was always a fun thing for us. It was a passion, it was an extracurricular. It was a fun thing to do. But I don’t think any of us thought about making a living from music. I certainly didn’t. I went to Denison University as a pre-law major. But I was a music minor, because my advisor said, ‘You can get all of your lessons for free if you’re a music minor.’ I said, that makes a lot of sense. So I continued my violin and voice and piano lessons and I got involved in the college choirs. I was a composer too. I was writing music and I got a chance to conduct my own choral piece.
The choir conductor stopped and said, ‘Daniel, do you like what you hear?’ and I must have wrinkled my nose or something, because he said, ‘Well, why don’t you come down here and try it yourself?’ So, I sort of sheepishly got out of my seat and went down and stood in front of my colleagues and started waving my arms around. And they were singing my music back at me, and I said, ‘This is it, this is what I want to do.’
It was my light bulb moment.
I went to Cincinnati Conservatory for my masters degree. Then I went to Vienna, Austria, to study for a year and a half as a Rotary Scholar. Then I went to Boston University to start a doctorate, and it was during the second year that I got my first job in Knoxville. So, I suspended my doctoral studies, because there’s no better way to learn than to do.
It was a great position for me because it really helped me bridge the gap between learning at a conservatory and talking my way through a rehearsal. I really learned to use a minimum amount of words to elicit what you need and what you want out of the orchestra, and that’s not an easy thing to master. I’ve spent my whole life on that quest. Musicians might agree that the optimal rehearsal is one where don’t have to open your mouth to say where you’re starting and show everything you want with your hands and eyes and body gestures.
. . .
I think it’s kind of intentionally difficult to become a conductor, which is a good thing, because there are few positions to be had. You have to develop a thick skin and a steely resolve to pursue this. It’s a difficult career from a lot of standpoints, not the least of which is to stand up in front of a bunch of professionals and say, this is the way I think it ought to go. It’s an intimidating thing and a humbling thing.
. . . Musicians expect you to stand in front of them with a firm conception of how it should be shaped and how it should be paced. They may not agree with that shaping and pacing, but it’s a lot better to have that firm conception that they can accept or reject, rather than let it congeal on its own.
The performance that I think any good conductor would want is one that really reflects his or her own conception or grappling with that piece’s challenges, whether it's technical challenges, emotional challenges or just making a piece that was written 200 years ago sound alive today.
That’s why I’m never bored of the repertoire. I can’t wait until I conduct the New World Symphony for the 45th time, because by then, maybe I’ll have something to say about it. (laughs) It’s part of the journey. Rehearsing this piece with this orchestra at this time and performing it on Friday night is a step in all of our journeys as artists and maturing as communicators. That’s our job. Music doesn’t exist on a page. It exists when those notes on a page are rendered into thoughts and emotions and events and reminiscences. That’s what music is. It’s a performing art that needs humans to consistently breath life back into it. We can’t hang it on a wall. It has to be rendered by performers that feel the charge of making this art relevant and inspiring.
Q: One of things that is interesting about your concert is you have a very familiar program -- two works that fall into that, “you know it, even if you don’t think you know it,” category. Do you like having familiar works to audition with?
A: I try to pick at least one big romantic work. First, I want to work with all of the musicians. I want to see how they play a piece of standard repertoire. The hope is you come to an orchestra and they already have an opinion about how to play that piece and they have a style. Then your job is to mold or adjust that style.
To have to reinvent the wheel each time is frustrating and difficult. So you pick repertoire where people are comfortable with the notes already. Then you spend your time shaping and interpreting, rather than rendering or regurgitating. So, that’s why I try to pick pieces that are familiar.
Q: How did this concert come together?
A: The soloists and concerto were a given, and then I came with proposals, and they came back with counter-proposals.
A lot of it has to do with what the orchestra had played recently. A lot of it had to do with what Maestro Zack would like to play in his last couple of seasons.
There are a lot of different pieces of the puzzle that have to fall into place before the program crystallizes. And along the way, there are compromises made, and that’s how a program emerges.
Q: How did your career progress from Knoxville?
A: My position in Pittsburgh actually required two or three years of professional experience. So, it was good to have had experience in Knoxville with conducting and programming, because in Pittsburgh, you were expected to jump in and start doing the job . . . You’re conducting 25, 30 concerts a year. So, I came with some degree of experience and expertise, not to say that I haven’t learned a tremendous amount working with that staff, because they are so dedicated and professional.
I never thought we would have two or three meetings on one children’s concert, making sure the flow is right and the pieces are right and that the theme is something that captures the kids' imaginations and would appeal to teachers.
We actually have to market now to the schools, because we’re competing against No Child Left Behind, and no teacher wants to give up lab period or a two-hour math lesson because they know their kids are going to be tested on this stuff a couple of weeks down the line. So, it’s almost like you have to state your case for why they should take their kids to the symphony.
Q: So, you’re having to market against core curriculum.
A: Exactly. But I would argue that music and the arts are core curriculum. I would also argue that No Child Left Behind is a complete disaster. Schools that are in charge of educating children now are realizing that the Greeks had it right and that music and art and mathematics and politics and rhetoric are all part of the same development process of developing and cultivating the whole person. They say, “Well, our kid is having trouble in math, so let’s heap another three hours of math on them. It’s completely wrongheaded, because that’s not the way kids think and not the way they learn. Also, it says nothing about inspiring the kids to want to wake up in the morning, get on the bus and come to school.
The best learning happens when you’re engaged and inspired to learn. When you have things forced down your throat, it may stick for the test, but the next day, it will pop right out of your head. So, music and the arts are integral to learning experience and inspiring kids to want to come to school and to think imaginatively, creatively and not just regurgitate what they learned, but process the information they’ve been given, and make something of it.
I hope we haven’t lost a whole generation of creators, because of the way we’ve treated education . . .
Q: Where do you see classical music in America today?
A: I think it’s a lot more vital and more connected to Americans today than it was, say in the '50s and '60s, when composers were forced to write music that was so intellectual and impenetrable you weren’t taken seriously if your music was understood after a first hearing. The pendulum has swung the other way. Composers think about their audiences, they write for their audiences. They incorporate pop and jazz and rock and hip hop into their own music. It’s no different from what Brahms was doing. He was using Gypsy street tunes and Hungarian dances. And audiences knew immediately what was going on. And they didn’t stick their noses up. They relished that and clapped.
So, we’re getting back to that.
Frankly, some of the best music written for this genre today is American. Some of the best, most listenable, most often performed music today is being composed by Americans.
Q: Tell us about composer of the year (a Pittsburgh Symphony program that focuses on a living composer for a season, usually bringing them in for a week during the season).
A: The composer get multiple performances in multiple venues and multiple concerts. There may be seven or eight pieces by that composer played over the course of the season. The composer comes, talks to the staff, talks to musicians, interfaces with the community and talks to schools, to the degree they are comfortable.
Composers are savvy that they need to be their own marketers.
Q: Who is your composer of the year this year?
A: John Corigliano. I got meet John a few months ago. I had to do a rehearsal for Leonard Slatkin (principal guest conductor of the PSO), who wasn’t going to be able to make it into town. And I happened to be in New York, visiting my wife, and I went over to his apartment to talk through this score, Phantasmagoria, which is a fantasia on his opera, Ghost of Versailles. And we just dialogued about it and chatted about it. He said, ‘Oh, make sure you do this here,’ and, ‘This has been a problem for orchestras in the past.’ It was great . . . It gives me a little credence to know that if I do a little something to Mahler’s music or Beethoven’s music to bring out something that I think is important, that’s part of my charge. Because I have dealt with contemporary composers and made suggestions and had them say, ‘Oh, that is a great idea,’ or, ‘No, I really wanted this to come out.’
That’s part of my development and artist, to realize to what degree I should modify the music or make adjustments, and to what degree should stand in reverence.
There are so many good composers writing good, listenable music today that we kind of have a duty to perform music of our time and keep this art form alive.
Q: How do you see yourself approaching programming?
A: My take on the Lexington Philharmonic is that for most of the audience, this is their primary orchestra. They get most of their classical music from this orchestra. They’re not necessarily driving to Cincinnati or Atlanta every weekend. So, we have to have a consistent commitment to the core repertory. There’d be at least one masterwork on every program. And then, you look for creative ways to highlight or contrast that work. If I’m doing Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, and he is a Bohemian who came to America for inspiration, then, I might look for a piece by an American composer who went abroad for inspiration. Like, I did Dvorak on the second half, and on the first half, I did Gershwin’s American in Paris and John Adams’ Chairman Dances, which is from his opera, Nixon in China . . .
You also look for pieces that help develop ensemble and develop the orchestra. For instance, if I want a more homogeneous sound from the strings, I might program an all-string piece or a piece that I know would be really good for helping developing a string sound to allow them to focus on those issues rather than just focusing on the notes themselves. So, there’s a whole aspect of orchestral building that goes into the programming as well. And then, there’s the feeling of, ‘I have to get this guest artist here, because I know the audience would love this particular musician.
What we’re looking for is a scope, over the season, where there’s diversity . . . and if you are subscribing, you’re going on a journey from September to April or May. Thinking more micro, each concert should be an event unto itself. It should have a scope, a shape, a dramatic curve, and it should have its own interest and -- for lack of a better word -- marketability. People should be able to look at it and say, ‘Oh yeah. I want to go there.’
Q: So, I take it from what you said before that we would be hearing new music.
A: If I think it’s good music and it has some bearing on the rest of the program, by all means. It’s vital to remind the audience that we have people creating music today, and it’s vital and it’s good and it’s well written . . .
Q: What kind of role do you see the orchestra playing in the community?
A: Completely vital. I could imagine each person in Lexington coming to at least one concert by the Lexington Philharmonic, and creating concert experiences that are interesting and creating experiences that are specific to a particular age group or persuasion.
Orchestras are a beacon of excellence. A B+ or B- in music is no good. A+ is the only way to go, meaning all the right notes at the right time with the right passion with the right commitment. That’s why I never tire of music and it’s so interesting to me. Perfection is actually something to strive for, and it doesn’t have to do with a bottom line or sales quota. It’s something that’s higher than all of that. It has something to do with a community of musicians and an audience at the same place and same time being transported, and their lives are changed by the experience.
It doesn’t happen every night. Lord knows we’ve been to enough concerts where that doesn’t happen.
But when it does, I don’t think it can be beat.