Sunday, May 21, 2000

Chamber orchestra's new conductor plans excitement, diversity

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Conductor Mischa Santora was still pinching himself Tuesday, after Monday's press conference to announce that he was chosen to be the fourth music director of the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra.

        The 28-year-old maestro was born in the Netherlands to Hungarian parents. He grew up in Lucerne, Switzerland, where he is a citizen. He has been turning heads in New York, as conductor of the New York Youth Symphony and Juilliard's precollege orchestra.

        This summer, he will return to the Aspen Music Festival, where he was named assistant conductor in 1998. He will begin his chamber orchestra tenure immediately, with a benefit concert planned next month.

        As the news was sinking in, we caught up with Mr. Santora at Memorial Hall.

        Question: Where will you live when you become music director?

Answer: In New York. But I will try to spend as much time in Cincinnati as I can. I'll come in just to meet people, do fund-raisers and meet the community. I look forward to that, because I've already met some colorful people.

        Q: How do you plan to involve yourself in the community?

A: I have some ideas; I'm still in the process of learning more about the orchestra, about its past, trying to figure out future direction. And I'm learning more about the city and all the different things that it offers. One of the things that intrigues me is education. There are lots of other ideas, but up to now, I've spent a total of six days in Cincinnati.

        I want to see museums, and I'd like to get to know more about different neighborhoods. I drove through Over-the-Rhine and Mount Adams. ... Maybe I'll get a CCO soccer team going if there's enough interest.

        Q: What repertoire ideas do you have?

A: We are working that out this week, and hopefully we'll have a fairly elaborate season. . . . It depends upon the soloists. We're talking about having some really great soloists, some established artists and some young people.

        One of the main things I like in programs is contrast. Something has to have some spice, there should be a dramaturgical structure to a program.

        In two weeks in Carnegie Hall, we're doing a new piece, “Midnight Pictures” by Gregory Spears, then Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante with violinists Pamela Frank and Andy Simionescu, and Stravinsky's Petrushka in the second half. I think that's a good program: It's fun, it's engaging, it's diverse, and there's contrast.

        Q: How many of the six concerts will you conduct next year?

A: Certainly five. There is one conflict. But that's pretty good, since I have a fairly full schedule in New York. I'll be happy if I just survive my regular schedule in New York.

        What I really want to do is have a vacation next summer, because I haven't had one in four years!

        Q: Do you have any ideas for building a young or more diverse audience?

A: Yes, without going into specifics, if you can get an exciting season and exciting soloists, and you can get the orchestra excited about it, that's when they'll play their very best. When that happens, the audience catches on.

        If an audience had a really good time at a concert, they'll come back, and they'll probably tell their friends. It sounds simplistic, but I've seen that happen at other places. How to get that, I don't know. Everybody has to try. Educational concerts are good, and I'll have to find out more about the city and areas to look into.

        Q: How do you like to rehearse?

A: I like to really rehearse the important things, and I tend to stop a lot. I think it pays off. Sometimes you have to repeat things until you get the kind of sound you want, the kind of relation you want. But it is a give-and-take.


        Q: You seem very comfortable with many different cultures, having Hungarian parents, born in the Netherlands, and raised in Switzerland.

A: Yes, we moved to Switzerland when I was 2, and I grew up speaking Hungarian and Swiss-German, which is quite different from German. I learned French in high school in Lucerne, which is a little rusty right now. I speak some Italian, and I can rehearse an orchestra in Spanish.

        Because I was conducting in Peru, I had a Spanish-speaking friend put together 40 expressions most likely to be used in rehearsal, which I memorized, such as “the winds are too loud,” “the brass is behind,” “the percussion is late.” It worked.

        Q: How has that cultural diversity affected your musical taste?

        A: I got a thorough music theory education in Switzerland, which I benefit from to this day. I was lucky to have lived in Berlin for three years, and I listened to the Berlin Philharmonic live, the year after von Karajan died. It was basically still his orchestra, with that kind of sound and tradition.

        I went to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, which has a great performance tradition, very old-fashioned.

        Q: How did your teacher at Curtis, Otto-Werner Mueller, influence you?

A: He's a great teacher, my first and only teacher. I studied with him for four years. He's from the old German tradition of conducting, studying things extremely thoroughly, and analyzing everything. It was tough at times, but if I had the choice to go back, and decide whether to study conducting, I would probably choose the same thing.

        I auditioned first as a violinist. I didn't know anything about conducting; I had barely opened a score. I had hand problems, and could not play (violin) for a while.

        Q: Are there other conductors who have influenced you?

A: I would have to mention David Zinman, with whom I did a master class in Zurich with the Tonhalle Orchestra, and I've been working with him at Aspen. I learned a tremendous amount from him.

        I had the honor of seeing James Levine rehearse in Aspen last summer, and that was fascinating. The other experience was to see Daniel Barenboim rehearsing the Chicago Civic Orchestra, another great musician.

        Q: How would you describe your musical mind?

        A: I learn very quickly when I have to; I prefer not to, however. There is something about spending a lot of time with a score. The more time you spend, the more you immerse yourself in the music, the more details will come to your mind, and the more ideas will happen. Can a conductor lead a symphony just by paging through the score of a Beethoven symphony? Yes, of course. But that's not the point.

        Q. How would you describe your personality?

        A: You should probably ask the orchestra that question! (laughs). I think I adapt very much to a situation.

        I love to hang out with friends and family. I love the arts, and I just wish I had more time to go to museums and the theater. I love to read.

        I think I'm open-minded. One of my favorite things to do in New York is walk around the neighborhoods. They are so colorful, and every area is different. It's so fun to watch these weird characters walking around the street.

        Q: What was it like to study the violin with your father?

A: Great, it's a very musical family. My dad is a violinist, my mom is a pianist, I play the violin, and my brother is a cellist. We played a lot together. We certainly got tons of music growing up and going to concerts, the theater and the opera.

        Q: Are you planning recordings and touring with the orchestra?

A: It would be terrific to have some recording opportunities, for CDs or radio broadcasts. This would be more in long-term planning. I think it would be a very good thing for the orchestra for publicity, and it makes the orchestra play its very best.

        There are two kinds of tours. It could be a larger regional tour within Ohio or Kentucky. The other thing is to go to some big place: New York, Philadelphia, Washington or Boston. It has to be the right program, the right soloist, the right publicity.

        Q: Do you have a goal, a mission?

A: It's all of the above; getting in diverse audiences, getting people excited about it. Creating the atmosphere of, this is the thing to do in town.

        It's like looking for a good restaurant. It's one thing to buy the paper and look in the dining area. But if someone says, you've got to go to this Japanese place, then I'll go. That's not to be underestimated.


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