Effron to Retire from BMC –
A CVNC Insight Interview: Life in the
by Roger A. Cope
Brevard, NC, July 20-26, 2005. David Effron is Artistic Director and
Principal Conductor of Brevard
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
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
CVNC: Does composing interest you?
DE: Composing has no interest for me. Those are very different kinds
CVNC: What about contemporary works? Do you enjoy - and conduct – new
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
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
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
CVNC: Perhaps. I first noticed it when you conducted Barber
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
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.