David Effron is Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of Brevard Music Center, the summer institute and festival in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. This storied camp, in its 69th year, has a fabulous artist heritage, and the period of Effron's tenure has seen a reformed curriculum and fresh economic surge that will be among the hallmarks of his tenure. He'll give up his job in two years – on July 26, 2005, Effron announced that, at the end of the 2007 season, he would retire from the place he first visited as a young pianist in the '50s. We'd had a long conversation in the BMC's Broyhill Administration Building on the afternoon of July 20.
Effron is only the third person to hold the job. He was hired during the '97 season to replace Henry Janiec, who had occupied the position for over 30 years as direct successor to BMC founder James Christian Pfohl. Janiec is still on staff as Artistic Director Emeritus. He conducts at least one concert per season, and the Janiec Opera Company, named in his honor, recognizes his stage expertise.
Effron's regular job is Professor of Music at the Indiana University School of Music. He joined the faculty in 1998, the same year as his first full-time summer at BMC, after a legendary run at the Eastman School of Music that produced, among other distinctions, a Grammy award. The summer of 2005 is his eighth actual hands-on season with BMC, and the fruits of his influence are everywhere. The most obvious are his role as Conductor of the BMC Orchestra, flagship ensemble among seven, and a thriving chamber music series.
He is an old-school musician/conductor of the working class type – gifted, talented, well-schooled, and fortunate, but also a humble, worldly man whose value system places a priority on hard work and education first. He is a smart man who knows enough to chose very carefully among tasks, who understands change (it happens), and works like a tornado. Such is his force-field that BMC Dean Bruce Murray stepped forward in the early weeks of this year's session to take some of the Artistic Director responsibilities off his shoulders.
Effron's musical journey really began following the 1960 B.M. in Piano from the University of Michigan and M.M. in Piano two years later from Indiana University, where he was a student of Sidney Foster. Right away he had a Fulbright Scholarship and was on a boat headed for Europe to study conducting under Wolfgang Sawallisch.
DE: ...We went to Germany on a ship, with some musicians and some not, which was a great experience. When we arrived, the first two weeks were spent just learning the language. We studied eight hours a day and lived with a family that spoke no English. We lived in the culture.
CVNC: What were the highlights of that experience?
DE: Between the time my study program was approved and when I arrived in Germany, Sawallisch had stopped teaching. But I did work for Sawallisch in the opera house, as an assistant. Because Sawallisch had stopped teaching, I had another teacher who was quite good, but after six months the regular conductor at the Cologne Opera House became sick and I was recommended to take his place. I spent one and a half years there, a stroke of luck for me as I had so much to learn. We did the complete Wagner Ring cycle.
CVNC: It seems the path for conductors has always been through piano or violin. Why?
DE: Yes, piano was a prime qualifying element to study conducting. I agree that most conductors need to have a piano or string background. Knowing all the parts is essential. The more you know about the strings the better you can explain how to create a certain sound. People don't talk about that much anymore. The strings form a majority of the orchestra, and as a conductor and educator it is essential –critical! - when speaking to players and students –to know the concept of sound. In turn, the conductor must be able to explain to the [string] musicians how to make the desired sound. The key to developing as a conductor is podium time, to get in the trenches and do it. If you don't have an orchestra to work with, it's a real disadvantage.
CVNC: So your piano background not only played directly to qualifications but also provided a valuable tool to read, understand, and realize scores, in terms of bringing them to life.
DE: I was a decent pianist who loved opera. In my time, to start in the opera house you had to be an experienced pianist. After all, that was the only way to... prepare and hear a score – at the piano. I didn't listen to recordings to prepare works. I never have. I do listen to a recording to understand how another conductor thinks and approaches a piece of music, but not to prepare. When I was studying conducting, you couldn't get into any class if you didn't play the piano well. Times have changed, and that's not always the case now. I was reared and educated under different conventions, and in a different era. The path to conducting was much more elaborate [and] therefore more helpful. You worked your way up as an apprentice. When you finally got to conduct, [you were] prepared. Some conductors today have very little experience. You know – if you're smart, you learn quickly.
CVNC: Is working in the theatre, with pit orchestras, a formative component for 'life in the trenches'?
DE: Stage works encompass a lot of things the symphony doesn't address. Having done a majority of my work in the opera house early on... – that was a big advantage when I crossed over to symphony. Since there are so many elements in the theatre, you must have awareness. I think it's harder to go from being a symphony conductor to an opera conductor. That's why in the European system, as of the 1960s and 70s, all conductors began work in the theatre. That's the method people learned. [Today] there is no method. On the other hand, it's very surprising to me – I've seen conductors who have no experience get up there and do really well. I wonder why I wasted my time [chuckle].
It should be noted here Effron is acutely aware of how times change, and the system under which he developed no longer exists. He doesn't feel badly about it – it was simply a different time. That was then, and this is now.
Upon the completion of the European experience, a Rockefeller Grant helped him transition back to the U.S., where joined the New York City Opera. He would remain on the conducting staff for eighteen years. For seven seasons he was also head of the opera department and conducted symphony concerts at The Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Along the way, he served as head of the Merola Program in San Francisco and Artistic Director of the Central City Opera in Colorado. Then he spent 21 years as head of the orchestra program at the Eastman School of Music. This is blue chip background, the kind that creates legends.
CVNC: So what do you do in real life?
DE: It's a good question. I'm beginning to have a real life. I didn't have a real life for many years. I do a lot of reading – about 70 books a year, mostly psychology and history. I like restaurants. Ultimately, I'm going to retire... – what am I going to do? When you're a musician in an executive position, you don't have time to do other things. I think I'm an interesting person, but when you ask me what I do in real life I don't know what to say. I love to travel and spend time with my family. I'll write my autobiography for my children, not for anybody else. When you're on a whirlwind 24 hours a day, what happens when the merry-go-round stops? I love people and could be very happy being a travel agent [laughter]. I also love sports – baseball. My wife and I grew up together and come from simple backgrounds, at least socially and intellectually. We go to sporting events together. I don't think I'll set the world on fire in another area.
CVNC: Who were your influences from youth?
DE: My college piano teacher, Benny Dexter [a graduate of the Juilliard School who taught at Michigan], was the first one to reach me, and he gave me some good tools as a pianist. He built my technique and made it a very comfortable thing for me. My second major teacher in college, Sidney Foster, was a big influence not only musically but also personally. He had a great outlook on life, great humor. Of course working with Sawallisch was an influence on my life.
My students influence me. If you get to know students, you get to know how interesting they are, with their curiosity and diverse backgrounds. I'm very lucky to work with advanced students. They're interested and smart already, [so] you have to keep on your toes. I form very important bonds with my students after graduation. They have their own careers. I love them. Maybe a third of the orchestra here are faculty and former students. I'm one of those teachers who can make the transition between student and adult. I had a teacher who never understood I wasn't anymore a student once I was 35 years old.
CVNC: How has the music business changed, and how have corporate objectives helped or hindered the work?
DE: The business element has become superimposed on the artistic objective over the last ten years or so. Many conductors feel that their time should be used only for score study, learning, and working with the orchestra. Some conductors don't want to deal with the business end of it, fund-raising, interviews, going to parties. The role of the conductor has changed a great deal; there are now many non-musical responsibilities. Realistically, it's the future of music. The [conductor's] presence is really important to get people interested in classical music again, to fill the concert halls. The public must have access to the conductor. The balance is just now being explored. My study time and music come first, but I feel it important to be involved and meet people, so I organize my time. One has to be in a position where one can control it. Europeans resist the most, but it's changing in Europe too.
With a repertoire of over 100 operas, and equally at home in the symphonic literature, Effron has conducted in Europe, Taiwan, Israel, Mexico, and Canada, as well as throughout the United States. His numerous CDs include a Grammy-winning recording of Aaron Copland's A Lincoln Portrait with the Eastman Philharmonic and John Corigliano's Pied Piper Fantasy with flutist James Galway. The National Federation of Music Clubs named him Musician of the Year in 2003. Amid all the traditional opera and symphonic repertoire, Effron maintains in interest in contemporary composers and works.
CVNC: Does composing interest you?
DE: Composing has no interest for me. Those are very different kinds of folk.
CVNC: What about contemporary works? Do you enjoy - and conduct – new music?
DE: I've conducted a lot of contemporary compositions and worked with a lot of composers. Right now, I'm preparing a world premiere opera by Ned Rorem, which will be presented in late January.
CVNC: Any favorites – or compelling memories?
DE: What comes to mind are two composers I really enjoyed working with. First, John Corigliano, who really knows what he wants. Some composers can't explain the things they want. The better ones can – they have thought about it and can explain the sound they want. The other composer I really like a lot is [Alberto] Ginastera – and his three operas. He was a very gentle soul, a gentleman. He had an incredible passion in his compositions. Usually music reflects a composer's personality. This is one of the quietest men I've ever met, but his music is really loud, bombastic.
Luckily, I've performed a lot of music by great composers. The way I work is to go from the composer to me, rather than from me to the composer. I'm preparing Mahler's Sixth Symphony [for the BMC finale on August 7, which I haven't done in twenty years. When I'm finished, I'll know I was in the midst of something really great. That Symphony is overwhelming. I'm a big fan of Mahler. Hopefully, he's going to lead me to do some justice to his work.
CVNC: I noticed a few times you've conducted without a score. Do you prefer that?
DE: I generally conduct without a score, but less so in the summer because its so hard, with all the [schedule] pressures, to learn and be responsible – and with everything that goes on here, it makes it difficult, so sometimes I use a score. Actually, I give a better performance without the score because I'm unencumbered. Fortunately, I've never made a mistake while conducting from memory [knocking on wood]. You hear the music a little bit differently, at least I do. I was educated to know everything by memory, to be so well prepared for all the responsibilities – to cue and interpret.
CVNC: A conductor once told me he spent a majority of his time scanning the orchestra for musicians who were lost, waiting for guidance. Do you find that to be true?
DE: Oh, no. I don't know who that conductor is and I don't want to know, but I don't do that. A good conductor doesn't need to. If you are doing your job well then you have everyone's attention all the time in ways that relate to the music. Eye contact keeps everyone on the same page, so everyone is with you the whole time. Sure you look at a section when an important entrance comes up, but not because they are lost.
CVNC: You have some funny conducting movements with your hands. Like this [making a contrary motion like washing a window at shoulder height], and I'm wondering what that means?
DE: No, I don't do that? I don't have any strange motions! Sometimes I do this [a rapid motion like shuffling papers on a desk palms down], which means 'You're too loud, get softer right now.' Is that what you mean?
CVNC: Perhaps. I first noticed it when you conducted Barber of Seville, and my sightline may have exaggerated the actual motion. Do you have any problem being understood by the musicians?
DE: Not that I know of.
CVNC: I have also noticed that sometimes you simply stop beating time – you don't wave the stick, and you stand and listen to the orchestra. Is that because you believe at that moment they don't need any input from you?
DE: Yes, absolutely. It's a trust, really. I tell my students, 'If you can get up there – with preparation – and just... let it go, you have to trust the orchestra.' We should never get the impression everything is totally in our [the conductor's] court. These are musicians too. Sometimes I don't conduct at all and just let them go. That's my way of saying 'I trust you.'
CVNC: Let's recap when you arrived at Brevard Music Center.
DE: I was hired after the summer of '96. They did a really good job in their search, and the transition was done in a classy way that I haven't seen very often. I began work here in 1998. I conducted in '96, like an audition.
CVNC: How has the "product" changed since then?
DE: First you need to understand, the music business has changed since 1996. Since the business has changed, the method of putting on a festival has changed. We do a lot more national and international recruiting than has ever been done here before, much more marketing emphasis on our recruiting – posters and fliers [are] sent to every possible school in the country. We have more advanced students now.
The other part of it is that we've expanded our programs. A higher caliber of student means higher level of performances. I started a chamber music program, upgraded the opera....
I think this festival will grow and grow long after I'm gone. I think it important to still have an emphasis of camaraderie, with positive competition. People feel safe here. We don't have any nastiness. It's the only place I've worked where there is no nastiness. Everybody who comes in here – like Jon Nakamatsu, Bill Preucil, and the Díaz Trio – says a lot of nice things. They remark at how friendly [it] is here. That kind of atmosphere makes music-making better. It's what makes us unique. If I've contributed to that, then I think it's a personal achievement. The first couple of years were no picnic, but that's long gone. I think I've put my stamp on it. Every year it gets better. It's quite a good feeling. Everybody will tell you that, if you ask them.