By John Allison, Opera Magazine, Jan. 2016
Getting With The Program
Justin Brown knows how to craft a program. In his six years as music director of the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, Brown has infused the ensemble with his love of new music and gained it a reputation as an adventurous presenter of contemporary music. During Brown’s tenure he launched the ASO’s composer in residence program; the ASO has performed works by Elliott Carter, George Crumb, John Adams, and Peter Lieberson and won a first-place 2009-10 ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming. In 2011, the ASO and Brown won ASCAP’s highest award: the John S. Edwards Award for Strongest Commitment to New American Music. The ASO recently released a recording on the Bridge label of three commissioned works by Paul Lansky, whose Shapeshifters will be featured by the ASO when it comes to Carnegie Hall this May as one of six orchestras in the Spring for Music Festival highlighting innovative programming by North American orchestras.
SymphonyNOW recently chatted with Brown about his programming ideas, working with composers in residence, and the connections he hears between new music and masterworks from the classical canon.
Leah Harrison: At what point in your conducting career did you become interested in contemporary programming?
Justin Brown: When you’re a freelance conductor, you have very little control over programming. I started my career as an opera conductor, but even there I gave world premieres, for example Judith Weir’s Vanishing Bridegroom. And I was lucky enough to work with Leonard Bernstein and conduct his music. And then as a freelance orchestra conductor, of course you have very limited opportunities because as a guest conductor, you’re always negotiating material. When I came to be a music director I thought, “Okay, here’s my chance.” I could really build this into being a pillar of what I’m trying to achieve as a music director, and that has really worked wonderfully well in Alabama. I think it’s taken people in the music world by surprise—that in what is thought of as a very conservative state, we’ve built ourselves a reputation for pushing the envelope.
Harrison: Is there a difference between playing music by someone you know, like a composer in residence, and someone canonic?
Brown: In the case of a composer in residence, there’s a very real sense of being part of that creation. To confer with the composer, getting them to know the musicians and what kind of orchestra they’re dealing with, and then being able to have an in-depth discussion about what the piece is, what might work. I’ve been very fortunate that the composers we’ve worked with have been of a very collaborative mindset. Having said that, I think I always set out when I’m conducting anything, to try and put myself inside the composer’s head. That’s the only way I can approach it. I think the composer is what it’s about. I’m not a composer myself, and I’ve always been in awe of those people. There’s some astonishing gift there that enables someone to start with a blank piece of paper and write something that can change people’s lives, or become a deeply memorable melody or piece of music—in non-classical music as well. The idea that someone can come up with a tune that everybody is going to know is just an astonishing thing. Being a re-creative musician, there’s absolutely no question in my mind: we’re secondary people. There’s no better way of approaching music than to try to get inside the mind of the composer. One almost has to approach it uncritically. If you’re going to perform a particular piece of music, you have to love that piece of music or otherwise you don’t have a hope of getting it across. You’ve got to become invisible.
Harrison: Do you ever program a concert without a work from the classical canon on it?
Brown: Absolutely. In Alabama, we played a concert that began with George Crumb’s Haunted Landscape, then the world premiere of Paul Lansky’s Guitar Concerto With the Grain, which is on our new CD, and then after we played John Adams’s My Father Knew Charles Ives. We finished with two Ives pieces; it was football season down south, and I thought, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. We played Ives’s Yale-Princeton Football Game, a two- to three-minute piece; then we played his Variations on “America.” Apart from the fact that everybody knows the tune “America,” there wasn’t a single “known” work on that program. And of course they all thought I was crazy initially, but it had an internal logic, and it was a lot of fun.
Harrison: Tell me about the ASO’s May 10 concert at Carnegie Hall.
Brown: We’re playing a Paul Lansky piece, Shapeshifters, which is on the recording we just did. Paul was our first composer in residence, but this piece predates his residency. It was his first orchestral work ever. He’s widely known and admired as a writer of computer music, and had only recently started writing for humans! He’d written some chamber works, as well as the computer pieces, and I thought his was a really original voice. The idea came along that we might commission him to write an orchestra piece, and it ended up being Shapeshifters, which is a concerto for two pianos and orchestra. It’s very exploratory, from many points of view. What I loved about working with Paul is that you sense that joy of creating sounds. He’s approaching the orchestra as a newcomer, and it was like he had a new box of toys. The hallmarks of Paul’s style are all there. In this wonderful way, they transformed into real time.
Avner Dorman was also a composer in residence. We’ll play his 2011 piece Astrolatry, which means the worship of the stars. He’d learned that there’d been an ancient, pre-Christian cult of star worship, a discovery that coincided with his taking a teaching position outside the big city, and he described the sensation of going in the woods and being able to see the stars. You hear this wonderfully at the beginning of the piece: a star suddenly appears, and then another, and these little curly-cues of melody start to appear. Your eyes get accustomed to them, and then the sky is full of stars. Later on, as the piece develops, he imagines this ritual of the star-worshipping cult, and that allows him to create this wonderful heavy beat dance music, in one sense very contemporary, but there’s this folk, dance music edge there.
The finale of Shapeshifters, the Lansky piece, also sets up a very powerful dance beat, and then you begin to understand why we might have felt that Beethoven’s Seventh symphony goes in the program very nicely with these two pieces. It’s the symphony that I think Wagner described as the apotheosis of the dance. It’s obviously more than that, but that’s an element whereby these three pieces seem to me to have this elemental, creative energy. Beethoven’s Seventh doesn’t seem to be telling a story—as the Eroica may be, or even the Ninth Symphony, with its message of brotherhood—it’s about music, and about creative energy and thrust. That’s what binds these three works together.
Maybe I have a different view about Beethoven to the prevailing one. We live in an age where we’ve been through a historical-practice revolution, and that’s been an incredible experience and we’ve all learned a huge amount. The danger is that we end up thinking of Beethoven as some historical figure. Beethoven, to me, is not a historical figure. Beethoven is a living part of our culture. If that wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t be interested at all. I think we play Beethoven because he speaks directly to audiences.
That stuff is just as relevant today, to young people, to people without any musical background, and I don’t make any apologies for putting that stuff together with what I consider to be really exciting music being written today. I don’t see a disconnect there. In the end, an audience is going to have a good experience and come back for more if the performance is passionate.
Carnegie Hall Debut on WQXR
The Alabama Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Justin Brown, makes its Carnegie Hall debut with works by two of its recent composers in residence: Avner Dorman’s Astrolatry and Paul Lansky’s Shapeshifters for two pianos and orchestra, both in their New York premieres. The piano duo Quattro Mani is featured in the latter work. The program, which also features Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, is hosted by Elliott Forrest and Naomi Lewin. LISTEN
Justin Brown “The composer always comes first”
Manfred Kraft met the conductor in Karlsruhe
Orpheus International, July/August 2011, page 101
Justin Brown has been the General Music Director at the Badisches Staatstheater since 2008. At the same time, he has led the Alabama Symphony Orchestra in Birmingham, Alabama. This stimulating dual role has brought and continues to bring repeatedly remarkable performances of contemporary American composers to the theater in Karlsruhe, as for example with the work of John Adams, Elliott Carter and Avner Dorman in the coming season. These composers are in many ways closer to the public than to their German colleagues, who are generally inclined to demand a certain musical foreknowledge. Thus he sees less of a difference in the musicians of either orchestra, i.e. in their cultivated styles, than in the audience and in the private sponsors who are indispensable in the United States.
He definitely views himself as an international conductor, whose British roots do not obligate him to unduly campaign for British music. Of course, he performs the great masters, such as Britten and Elgar, and he also highly values William Walton. Vaughan Williams, though, he regards more as a purely English phenomenon and he doubts that lesser known composers such as Arnold Bax, Arthur Bliss or Hubert Parry will ever make the leap across the Channel. His musical idols are others: predominantly Richard Wagner, but also Leoš Janáček whom he counts as one of his absolute favorite composers, although he regrets that Janáček is often talked of only for his operas and that his instrumental compositions, for the most part, flourish in obscurity. He admires the great humanity in Janáček’s music; he considers him to be the greatest musical humanist next to Beethoven. A deep, emotional and secularly founded love for humanity speaks forth from many of his works. Thus, conducting Katya Kabanova, Janáček’s most grim and desperate opera, is a particular challenge for him. The participants hope that the premier at the Badishes Staatstheater ( June 11th 2011) will bring all of the passion, love and hate undisguised to the stage. Justin Brown is also pleased that, even with the change of theatre management, the production will again be on the program in the coming season. The premier of The Trojans, to be performed in Karlsruhe starting October 15th, will also mark an important moment in his musical experience. His choice of Frederick Delius’ A Village Romeo and Juliet (1.28.12) shows that he also likes to take on less spectacular, but appealing assignments for him as a musician. When it comes to the so-called “Music Director’s repertoire”, he will be conducting Wagner’s Lohengrin starting April 1st 2012—with Lance Ryan in the leading role—to which he will certainly give as much character as to the recently performed Ring of the Nibelung.
How much depends on personality, particularly in a musician, became apparent to the conductor when he assisted Leonard Bernstein. “He did not teach you how to conduct, but Bernstein was a master in showing you how to try and recognize the composer and his intentions underlying the musical score.” That this genius was sometimes accompanied by a certain eccentricity defined the maestro’s particular personality. Most important, and herein Justin Brown completely agrees with Bernstein, is that the composer’s wishes, i.e. his musical intentions, always comes first. Interpretations and concepts from outside should, by no means, be added to the music.
How much importance he places on good partners is evident in a production at the beginning of his career. Interested in collaborating with Nicholas Hytner and Kenneth MacMillan, he took over musical direction at the Royal National Theater of the musical Carousel by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. The premier on December 10th 1992 at the Lyttleton Theater became Kenneth MacMillan’s swan song. The great choreographer died of a heart attack during rehearsals on October 29th. Posthumously, he received a Tony Award in 1994 for this, his last, choreography. That he was able to work on this significant production, that received both an Olivier and a Tony Award, also fills Justin Brown with a bit of pride.
Alabama Symphony takes ASCAP’s “strongest commitment” award for adventurous programming
By Michael Huebner, The Birmingham News, June 9, 2011
The Alabama Symphony’s unswerving dedication to modern music has earned the Birmingham-based orchestra another prestigious award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.
ASCAP’s highest honor for adventurous programming, the John S. Edwards Award for Strongest Commitment to New American Music, will be awarded to ASO and Music Director Justin Brown today at the League of American Orchestras’ 66th Annual Conference in Minneapolis.
“It is a great honor for the Alabama Symphony Orchestra to be recognized with this award, and a great testament both to the creativity and commitment of Music Director Justin Brown, and to the versatility and talents of our musicians,” said Executive Director Curt Long.
A year ago, ASO won first prize for adventurous programming in the Group 2 category (orchestras with budgets ranging from $7.5 million to $15.9 million), alongside the New York Philharmonic (Group 1) and Albany Symphony (Groups 3-4).
Among ASO’s accomplishments in 2010-11 were composer Avner Dorman’s residency, which included his Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestra (Joshua Redman, soloist), Concerto Grosso, “Ellef Symphony” and “Astrolatry” (world premiere, ASO commission). Daniel Bernard Roumain’s “Voodoo Violin Concerto” and Adolphus Hailstork’s “Dream, Child. Hope” (world premiere, ASO commission) were also among the highlights. The League of American Orchestras listed 20 compositions of new American music that ASO performed in 2010-11.
New music programming is supported by Sound Investment, a group of ASO contributors. Composers in residence include Paul Lansky (2009-10), Dorman and Edgar Meyer (2011-12).
Session Report: Anne Gastinel Records Elgar
By Andrew Achenbach, The Gramophone, 2004
“…Sitting in the stalls and observing Gastinel and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Justin Brown tuck into the finale, I was bowled over afresh by the transparency of Elgar’s dappled orchestration and moved by the unexaggerated depth of feeling distilled by these sensitive artists in the closing pages.
Quite apart from a real sense of dialogue, teamwork and mutual understanding (it was no surprise to learn later that both soloist and conductor adore performing chamber music), Brown proved intensely appreciative of the lyricism and humour during the main Allegro ma non troppo (with its delectable echoes of Elgar’s own symphonic study,Falstaff), uncovering a wealth of detail and encouraging some ‘vocal’ phrasing from the woodwind especially.
After spells at the ENO and Scottish Opera, Brown is beginning to make a name for himself on the concert circuit in France, Sweden and Japan. His Mahler interpretations in particular have attracted glowing notices and he has already championed the remarkable Symphony in E (1878-80) by Hans Rott (1858-84) with the Malmo Symphony Orchestra. Brown speaks appreciatively of Elgar’s own recording of the concerto with Beatrice Harrison. ‘I only discovered it a few months ago. His conducting is so full of flexibility, fantasy and poetry — a complete revelation to someone like me brought up on Boult, Barbirolli and Del Mar in this score.’…”