As the music director of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony in Ontario, Canada, Edwin Outwater has commissioned work by Richard Reed Parry of Grammy-winning indie-rockers Arcade Fire and conducted a composition by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood. He’s also introduced the Intersections series, in which he’s linked classical music to a variety of other disciplines, from quantum physics to neuroscience and culinary pleasures.
Outwater checked in by phone as he was preparing to guest-conduct the Phoenix Symphony’s final concert of the season to talk about Prokofiev, physics and the intersection of classical music and the indie-rock scene of 2013.
Question: Were you involved in the selection of the pieces you’re conducting for the Phoenix Symphony this week?
Answer: I was completely involved, maybe not in the Liszt concerto but with Prokofiev’s fifth symphony and the piece by Nico Muhly, “Wish You Were Here.” Sometimes, when you’re working with an orchestra, they already have something specific in mind for you to do. In this case, they wanted me to bring music I love to kind of show what I do, in a sense.
Q: Is that, in part, because they’re obviously looking for someone to fill Michael Christie’s position as music director?
A: Absolutely — although you can’t really tell from one program. But it’s toward the end of the season, so I wanted to bring a big showpiece for them, Prokofiev’s fifth. That piece is amazing and so much fun to play. It has really dramatic moments, really intense moments and also very light and playful moments. The whole universe of emotions is contained in that one piece.
Q: You were saying a person couldn’t really tell how a music director would program a season based on one performance. How do you approach that process?
A: It’s a really, really, really, really complicated process. It takes months and months. We’re balancing a lot of different things. A season should contain music that is new and exciting and fresh. The season should have music that is fun. And the season should have music that is familiar. I map it out assuming that you’re going to every concert that we offer. But I also think that if you go to just one concert, it will be an experience in and of itself. The problem with a lot of orchestra concerts is that it’s a ritualized experience. People who go all the time are used to these rituals, and people who don’t go all the time don’t understand them. So moments that kind of shake things up are exciting for the people who go all the time and they put everyone in the same boat in the concert hall.
Q: Could you give an example?
A: I did a concert that opened with a Beethoven symphony and a Beethoven overture. And in the second half, I did Kurt Weill’s “The Seven Deadly Sins,” which probably very few people in my audience had heard, but it’s a big cabaret piece. So at the end of the first half, I had a cabaret artist come in and tell the audience what was coming up. It was a bit of theater. He walked out in the middle of the applause for the Beethoven symphony and said, “OK folks, when you come back from intermission, we’re gonna be in a much dirtier world, so go get a drink.” I love those kind of surprising and strange moments that can disrupt the flow of an orchestra concert as we know it. In a good way.
Q: Your Intersections series sounds interesting.
A: That started as an effort to contextualize an orchestra, which a lot of times kind of exist on their own. There are all sorts of cultural connections orchestras can make but they don’t make them. They just kind of play their concerts in their concert halls. So Intersections began as a way to bridge that, and it’s been an amazing journey the past six years. It’s developed into collaborations with restaurateurs, with Daniel Levitin, who wrote “This is Your Brain on Music.” We did a neuroscience concert called Beethoven and Your Brain, which explained how your instinctive brain reacts to Beethoven.
And the last thing we did was a collaboration with quantum physicists at this institute for quantum computing. We discovered that the timelines for physics and classical music are very similar. Around 1900, the whole language kind of explodes with the discovery of quantum phenomena and also the breakdown of tonality with Schoenberg and the things Stravinsky did with rhythm in the early 20th century. Somehow, the culture caused these incredible things to happen almost simultaneously. So orchestras really do belong in the world of ideas. They’re very comfortable there.
Q: You seem to pay more attention to popular music than a lot of classical conductors, having commissioned a piece by Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry and recorded a Jonny Greenwood song.
A: I think right now in a lot of music, certainly in the indie scene, people are experimenting with orchestras. Nico Muhly is one of the people involved in that scene. He’s more on the classical-composition side, but he’s worked with Bjork and Antony and the Johnsons. There’s this cross-pollination.
A big revelation, I went to a Grizzly Bear concert in Brooklyn and saw the audience sitting and listening very carefully. It reminded me a ton of a classical-music concert, the way the audience was engaging with the music. So it’s been fun to explore. I like how freely people can pass between these two musical worlds. Some have a real talent for it. Some people try and they don’t have a talent for it.
Q: You graduated from Harvard with a degree in English literature. At what point did the goal become to pursue a more musical path than that? Or was that already the goal?
A: Oh, that was already the goal. I was really super into music in high school, playing in five different orchestras my senior year, driving all over. I was crazy. But I did get into Harvard and I felt like that was pretty cool, so I wanted to go and felt like I had more to learn overall. And my musical experience there was really good. A lot of it, I had to create for myself. But I played chamber music with some great people, studied bass with an amazing teacher from the Boston Symphony, conducted the Bach Society Orchestra, which is a student-conducted orchestra at Harvard. So I started conducting in college. And I think maybe this multidisciplinary way of thinking I have now was influenced by being there and knowing a lot of people who were doing a lot of different cool things.