Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Lucid Culture Interview: Maestro Dorrit Matson of the New York Scandia Symphony

Dorrit Matson conducts one of New York’s most pioneering and exciting symphony orchestras, the New York Scandia Symphony. Maestro Matson managed to find the time during a whirlwind of rehearsals for their upcoming May 28 performance at Trinity Church to shed some light on the orchestra’s adventurous history and bold mission:

Lucid Culture:  Does the orchestra have a specific mission?

Dorrit Matson: The New York Scandia Symphony was founded by me, in 1988, after I had been working for some years as a free lance conductor in New York. It appeared to me that among all the wonderful concert programs offered in New York City, there were almost none representing Scandinavian composers. When I was able to program music from Northern Europe it was so well received by the musicians. We started the programs in Symphony Space, St. John’s Cathedral, then in Merkin Hall for 3 years. And when it was time to move to a larger space, Alice Tully Hall was economically not within reach. We were then invited to Trinity Church, based on one previous performance in St. Paul’s Chapel.

We have never missed out on presenting a concert season, not even in 2001-2002 after 9/11, when not much else was going on in the downtown area. The Scandia Symphony therefore has a valuable mission: to showcase the music of Scandinavian composers, thereby educating the American public with enlightening and creative programs, and also preserving our own heritage and culture.

LC: You’re from Denmark originally. What differences have you encountered in the world of music here, by comparison to the scene in your native country?

DM: The American orchestras are wonderful to work with. In general, I think they are more efficient and positive compared to European orchestras – especially the freelance scene in New York is amazing. Even with an ensemble that does not play together more than 3 to 6 times a year it is possible to achieve an excellent sense of ensemble among the players, and the sound is often more clear and brilliant than many of the orchestras in Europe. Here the musicians are trained to play in orchestras whereas in Denmark it is often something to do if a solo career is not possible. This changes the attitude and work ethic.

LC:  From your point of view, what are the pros and cons of playing so much material that’s virtually unknown to American audiences?

DM: The musicians find it challenging to work on repertoire that they have not played so many times before. They often express delight and passion for the Nordic music, hearing and imagining the landscapes, colors and culture of these countries as they work on it. The audience is also attracted by the beauty of Scandinavian music, so that is why our venue is most often filled to capacity.  I feel that there is still so much music that needs to be heard, much of it over 200 years old and never performed the US, so there is not a problem finding sufficient quality music to fill the programs.

LC: It seems to me – please correct me if I’m wrong here – that the conventional wisdom is that if an orchestra isn’t at Lincoln Center, or Carnegie Hall, or the 92nd St. Y, you know, the old-guard sheds, that the performance is necessarily second-rate. However, as you know from experience with this orchestra, there are other equally outstanding ensembles playing the most unlikely places. How do we counter that kind of old-fashioned thinking?

DM: It is really very difficult to counter the conventional idea that if you are not at Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall then it must not be the very pinnacle of performance.  Scandia has, for example, never been reviewed at Trinity Church in The New York Times; other critics have been difficult to attract to Lower Manhattan. However, once our publicist has managed to have them come in once, they seem to come back. Trinity Church does not pay for advertising in newspapers, so that may make a difference as well. I think it takes a long time and much effort in terms of marketing and PR to change the assumption that a concert that has no admission fee could be worthwhile attending.

LC: You have an all-star cast to rival any other orchestra in town. Where do you get your performers?  

DM: Most of our woodwind and brass players have been with us for almost 20 years, since the orchestra’s inception. At the time most of them were newly graduated from Juilliard and now they are, of course in prominent positions like the Met and others. The string section has changed over time and is now settled. I have had very good advice from the principal string players when making selections or calls for contracting. It is a very complicated issue to build a string section.  I am pleased that Scandia has for some reason turned out to have a “all-star cast,” I believe this is why the musicians like to come here and are so committed to perform at their best every time they go on stage. It is the kind of untold and unwritten agreement among musicians that they perform excellently that forms much of the identity of an ensemble. And then, as a conductor, you naturally trust every one of them and this then reflects on them and the performance as well.

LC: Your home at least for the moment is Trinity Church, downtown, where you frequently play free Thursday lunchtime concerts.

DM: Yes, it has been a long time in Trinity Church. It took a few performances before we all adjusted to the venue. There are so many obstacles in the room since it is a very challenging acoustic environment. It takes a very well articulated group of musicians to play there or otherwise the clarity is nonexistent. Our musicians are so experienced that they make a sound judgment in terms of both distance and balance, often at the first rehearsal. Over time, I believe we have all found ways to turn the obstacles into assets and I think that the church room in the end has contributed to form Scandia’s unique sound and therefore its identity.

So there had been a value and growth in process during all this time. We have also been able to record 4 compact discs, all regularly heard on many radio stations. The CD’s are really the ultimate means of preserving Scandinavian music and cultural heritage. They do not perish with time.

LC: Was part of your decision to play to an audience who might not, either due to unfamiliarity or lack of income, be a crowd who frequent the big, expensive concert halls?

DM: I am actually proud of being able to serve all audiences and offer a full size symphony to explore and enjoy, also for people who otherwise would not be able to afford the experience. Our entire purpose is to reach people and we never know what the music may bring to an individual at that certain time. But humans have at all times needed and sought the message of music in their lives, so this will be true of the future as well. So I believe, even in these challenged times that we have a mission as musicians.

LC:   I know you play frequently around the New York area. Any plans to expand beyond the immediate vicinity?

DM: Scandia has been ready for some time to move to a midtown hall and I hope that we will soon be sharing our programs with audiences in midtown in one of those prestigious and expensive places. That is in the plans. More immediately, the Scandinavian Music Festival in Fort Tryon Park, Billings Lawn starts on June 7th and continues on Sundays in June at 2 PM.

LC: While marketing research puts the age of the average Lincoln Center concertgoer in his or her sixties, your orchestra’s fan base seems to draw from pretty much all age groups. Does it surprise you to see so many young people at your concerts? To what can you attribute this?

DM: I am not sure but that is good. Maybe many of these young people come from jobs at Wall Street? I know, however, that Scandia’s programs have always attracted a very diverse audience.

LC: Of all the pieces your orchestra has played, I understand that a staggering ninety percent are US premieres. Do you intend to continue to premiere new works here, or is there any plan to popularize certain favorites?

DM: It just so happens that many of these Scandinavian compositions, fine masterworks, have never been performed in the US – or in New York. I believe that one of the compositions on Thursday’s program, C.E.F Weyse’s Symphony No. 6 is an example of a US premiere of a 200 year old composition. I must say that the Scandinavians themselves have not done such a profound job of promoting their own music, among other treasures, so that has something to do with the fact that so much of the repertoire in unknown.

LC:  Much has been written about the difficulties of women in music in general, and in conducting as well – in particular I’m thinking of Marin Alsop’s well-publicized struggles with the Baltimore Symphony. Are there special challenges that you’ve encountered, and how can a woman in your position overcome them?

DM: Unfortunately, a number of women conductors involve themselves and the fact that they are women in a traditionally male dominated field when they are afforded the opportunity for promotion and good public relations.  Instead, we should mostly focus on the job itself and the symphony orchestra, as fascinating as it is. If we are sufficiently involved in our performance there is really not any need to be consumed with whether we are a minority or to focus on trying to overcome the barriers. Not to say that those do not exist, and that it will still take some time before there are as many women as men in the field of conducting, including with major orchestras.  Anyway, how would I know if a desired position or opportunity is not made available to me because I am a woman, of foreign descent – or maybe I did not know enough influential people, or had sufficient connection to the money that too often seem to determine how issues are handled and decisions are made?  By the way, I often hear that the musicians feel that it is refreshing to have a woman on the podium…

LC:  What do we have to look forward to at your next concert, May 28, 1 PM at Trinity Church? I see that you have Friedrich Kuhlau’s The Robbers Castle Overture, the US premiere of Gunnar Berg’s Hymnos, Johan Halvorsen’s Suite Ancienne and C.E.F. Weyse’s Symphony #6 on the program…

DM: The concert on May 28th will feature music from the Danish Golden Age, meaning the classical, early Romantic music that was based much on the Vienna School of composers. Also Johan Halvorsen, a Norwegian composer who is not heard too much, but deserves to be presented as one of the masters of the classical era in Norway.

LC:  Of all of these, do you have a particular favorite, or favorites? If you could conduct the work of one or two (or a handful) of composers, who would that be and why?

DM: I have many favorites: Carl Nielsen is one of them – and I love Jean Sibelius.  I have a passion for Gustav Mahler and would like to conduct especially his Symphony No. 2, “The Resurrection”.

LC:  How about you personally? Plenty of conductors are composers as well. Are you one of them? What is your instrument, or instruments?  

DM: My instrument is piano. To prepare myself to become a conductor, I was fortunate to receive solo lessons each week for one year in one instrument from each section of the orchestra. This was part of our training at the Royal Danish Academy of Music.  The strings were the most complicated, of course, but all were very necessary in order to communicate with the orchestra.  The voice studies – and singing – is also really important, especially to improve the breathing with the winds. To adapt to this way of producing – sustaining – the tone and the sound – as in the string instrument as well – was so important, especially for a pianist, or percussionist. Sooner or later, the vertical as well as horizontal movements are applied to our conducting gestures and our perception of the entire concept.

The New York Scandia Symphony plays next at Trinity Church, downtown on May 28 at 1 PM. The concert is free; early arrival is advised.

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May 27, 2009 Posted by | Culture, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment