Music Feature Print



A Conversation with Keith Lockhart about Brevard Music Center

September 5, 2008 - Brevard, NC:


I interviewed a very busy Maestro Keith Lockhart by phone, about his professional obligations, the past season at Brevard Music Center and his hopes for its future.

CVNC: What exactly does the Artistic Advisor of the BMC do?

KL: As the Artistic Advisor I basically do the same job that was done by my predecessors Henry Janiec and David Effron. The reason for the change in title had to do with the fact that the traditional model for Brevard has been to have the Music Director conduct the entire summer — i.e., work the entire season — but I wasn't able to commit to seven straight weeks because of the Boston Pops, so we had to come up with a title that was reflective of my still having artistic control over the organization without being there 24/7.

CVNC: I read that you were at BMC two weeks this summer and conducted four concerts. Is that correct?

KL: Yes, I conducted the opening concert with Yo-Yo Ma and then a concert of Viennese violin music with Robert McDuffie.  Then I was back in the fourth week to conduct the TSO, the young artists in the high school. That Sunday I appeared with the BMC Orchestra to do Carmina Burana.

CVNC: While you were here, your schedule must have been really frenetic.

KL: It was ridiculous! I'm glad I like my work because it was insane. And perhaps if I were advising somebody whether that was a great way to start, I might have advised against it, but I had a wonderful time. The problem was, of course, the conducting alone involved five hours of rehearsal a day, but it also was about trying to get involved and established — trying to see as many things that are going on at the Center as possible. It's important that I have an opinion about how these things are or are not working, and so I was going to the concerts every night, I was going to rehearsals, I was running around on campus talking to people. I think being there all seven weeks might actually be easier.

CVNC: I would think so. This sort of leads into my next question: is it likely that you'll return next season for a similar length of time, or longer?

KL: What our goal is, both from the Center and from myself, is to slowly move that time up. Next year I will probably be there close to three full weeks. I might have to run away during the middle of one week for 24 hours, but my goal is to be at Brevard at least half-time, a half-time presence. Of course, what you have to understand is that I'm involved every day in the running of the Center when I'm not there. I'm basically on the phone constantly with Bruce [Murray] or with John Candler making decisions, proffering opinions, settling disputes, doing all of those sorts of things; and I should say also that when they asked me about being Artistic Director I was very upfront with them. I said, you realize I can't do what has been done in the past. I just don't have that many weeks. They said yes, we do realize that. But ultimately, one thing that has happened as a result of this is that we've had a great influx of guest conductors to the Brevard campus. Because part of the idea at a Festival like this is to get people to see what it's like to work under a good number of conductors and ideas. Really, I think it makes the orchestra a much more exciting thing. I would not want to be there doing the same thing every single week.

CVNC: While you were here, what were some of the highlights of your experience?

KL: Oh, there were so many! I think the success of bringing Yo-Yo [Ma] in, both for the kind of excitement it built around the campus, and also for the time he spent with the students. You know, he basically came in, got straight off a plane and went to work talking to our students, having them play for him. So, it was real involvement by one of the world's great artists, of course, which is exactly what we'd like to do — expose people to these kinds of influences. That was one of them. However, the Mahler might have been the biggest one — it was certainly the most tiring one.

CVNC: You know, I reviewed that concert, and I was watching you closely, of course, and toward the end when you were taking a bow, it looked like you were relieved and quite overwhelmed emotionally. Was that true?

KL: Well, I think there's nothing more inspiring to a professional musician than seeing what can happen with a group of young people. This was a huge mountain for them to climb — a monstrous mountain — and they did it. To have been in the center of that, and to have been a causatory force, and then having what I hope will remain the ultimate musical experience of their young lives is so thrilling! It is reinvigorating, and it does make you remember why you went into music. A lot of times for people in the profession, we get so busy doing it that we kind of begin to forget why we did it.

CVNC: I understand that totally!

KL: Yes, I do about 140 concerts a year, and if every one of them was as emotionally draining or emotionally meaningful, for that matter, as that concert, you'd wear yourself out.

CVNC: Well, we certainly don't want that! How would you assess BMC's potential in the coming years? What visions might you have for its future?

KL: I wouldn't have taken this job if I didn't think we had the chance to really and truly do something extraordinary at Brevard, and that's what my coming there was all about. The fact is that not only do I have a great love for the place, but I think I also have a better understanding than most people about what it's been. I was a student there in 1974 and 1975, and I actually attended my first concerts there 40 years ago this year, because my grandparents moved to Brevard when I was eight years old. So I've been involved in some way with the Center for more than half of its existence and for most of my life. Having said that, I think that Brevard has done so many things well over the years,. and the list of truly wonderful performers that have come out of it or been influenced by it — my fellow alumni — are proof of that. And what I see (it's obviously hard to put your vision in 25 words or so...) is that a place like Brevard has two missions: one is an educationally-oriented mission and the other is a performance-oriented mission. It's not like a school where we don't sell public concerts and we just teach people for seven weeks. I think Brevard is ultimately an educational institution. Brevard's mission is to provide inspiring experiences to young artists to help them make tough decisions about their careers, to help them decide if they've got what it takes to succeed, and the performances are a result of that, but [they do] not overshadow the educational work that goes on. I'd like to see it move forward and happen in that direction, rather than be a performance institution that incidentally does some teaching.  

CVNC: Do you have any specific programmatic or educational initiatives you'd like to see enhanced or implemented?

KL: Yes, we made a huge number of curricular changes this past season. These were things that were not, generally speaking, visible to the public, except perhaps the changing of the college orchestra. One of the things I realized coming there is that we were, as often happens in these things, overworking some of our students, pretty much into the ground, while under utilizing other ones, and that's about the balance of enrollment, the numbers you're trying to get. It's also about the curriculum that you set out for them, but you need to make sure that, if the focus of this place is education, you just don't stick students in five ensembles and expect them to perform in all of them at a high level. They need time to assimilate the lessons they've learned from playing in those ensembles, time to practice, [and] time to go and sit under a tree and think about their futures in music, for that matter!

CVNC: Yes, and not become uninspired due to fatigue!

KL: I believe Brevard has a niche it can fill as well or better than any other place in the country. I think for one thing that it can be the premiere place for pre-college musicians to get a very high level experience and taste of what it's like to be in the profession. I also think that it can remain a very small, focused, and excellent place for older college and pre-professional students to get their training. The smart thing to do, I think, is not try to double the size of your college program and get into direct competition with Aspen and Tanglewood and those places, because that would take an incredible amount of resources and, frankly, might take away from some of the things that make Brevard special: the smallness of the place and the nurturing, the direct contact between faculty and students — those are the things that had inspired me and what I'd like to see stay.

CVNC: You conduct everything and anything, according to Bruce Murray. Is there a particular repertoire to which you feel closest?

KL: (Laughs) Yes, his appreciation of the program is a little bit embarrassing. There is repertoire that I'm close to, actually. I am very much a generalist — you have to be as a conductor. It's not like a soloist, where you can say, well, I don't really like playing the Stravinsky Violin Concerto, and therefore I'll leave it out of my repertoire. But I'm closest perhaps to the big-league romantic orchestral statements — the music of Mahler is very special to me. I'm also a big fan of the early 20th century and the creative influences of Stravinsky and Bartók. But, when you come right down to it, I do love it all!

CVNC: Is there a repertoire that you've somehow neglected but plan to explore in the future?

KL: The funny thing about this is that it's hard for me to think of a repertoire I've neglected. I haven't done any of the Bruckner Symphonies, but I'm not a big Bruckner symphony fan. They don't really speak to me. Generally, as a conductor, if there's something you can't fall in love with, you should leave it to the people who do love it.

CVNC: Your term is almost up with the Utah Symphony, and we're wondering what else you might have planned?

KL: (Laughs) Isn't this enough?

CVNC: (Laughter) I thought so, but I didn't know if you thought so.

KL: My term as Music Director with the Utah Symphony will wrap up with this next season. In fact, I leave on Monday to go to Utah to open that season with Garrick Ohlsson playing the Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto on the first half. I've loved my time there. It's been really transformative to be a music director of a major league symphony orchestra with the number of concerts and the amount of repertoire you have to cycle through. All of that is very important in — well, I used to be a young conductor, and now I'm a middle-aged [conductor] — a conductor's education. The basic plan was that I felt a decade plus in Utah with a couple of years of laureate yet to come was enough, and basically it's been exhausting to have two full-time jobs for the last decade. I've been in Utah 17 weeks, which is a third of the year. And so what I hope to do — and I'll be turning 50 right after I finish my tenure — is to not run around on the fly so much as I've done, but to focus. I'd love to do opera, and I've had the opportunity to do a few over the last few years, but they chew up a lot of time in the calendar. Each one is a five-week commitment as opposed to a one-week guest conductor's job. So, I'd like to do more of that. I'd like to do more guesting — my international guesting especially has pretty much completely gone away, because with the jobs in Utah and Boston, there just haven't been any weeks left in the year to put anything together. And, of course, I'd like to use more of the time to focus on making Brevard the greatest place it could possibly be.

CVNC: Of course, that's music to our ears. Is there anything else you'd like to offer in the way of news, or anything else in general?

KL: Wide-open question! Brevard has been an extraordinary place for 72 years now; I think we can make it even more extraordinary, a cultural jewel in this country on a national level. A lot of people in western NC know of it, but it's kept its light under a bushel, and that's one reason why it's stayed pure. It can strive to be a big national player, and I think we can keep the energy, the small focus, the nurturing, the individual contact between faculty and students — all those things. I think we can keep all those things and still push the excellence level up every single year, in terms of the students we draw, the faculty we attract and retain, in terms of the people we bring into the campus, and I'm fully committed to doing that, and I hope that everybody in NC perceives the change and loves the Center even more.