The Phoenix Symphony has lined up Daniel Meyer of the Asheville (N.C.) Symphony and Erie (Pa.) Philharmonic to guest-conduct a program of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 6, Theofanidis’ “Rainbow Body” and Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2 with pianist Chu-Fang Huang.
When we caught up with Meyer to talk about his first performances in metro Phoenix, he also shared his thoughts on conducting in general.
Question: Could you talk a bit about the program you’re conducting here?
Answer: Even though Dvorak’s Sixth Symphony isn’t as well-known as his Eighth or Ninth, it’s still a kind of quintessential Romantic symphony where I can really get a chance to hear how the orchestra plays and they can get a chance to hear what I do with a standard work. That’s important to me, when I make a debut with an orchestra, is to do a work where I really get a chance to rehearse and dig behind the notes. It also gives me an opportunity to get to know how the orchestra interacts and how they respond.
Q: Do you consider this concert an opportunity to get to know the orchestra in the event that you would be considered a candidate when Michael Christie leaves at the end of the season?
A: It’s an interesting business. You’re always being evaluated, and you’re likewise evaluating ensembles because you never know what kind of relationship you may have down the road.
Q: What would you bring to the role?
A: I feel like I understand what American audiences are looking for in a classical-music experience, and I understand the kind of interaction that a modern maestro has to make with his audience. I also have European training, so I know how some of the conductors that I idolize really dig into the work itself. It’s not a matter of what you do in your dimly lit studio at home. It’s how, when you get in front of the orchestra, you unlock these symbols on the page and make the emotional and spiritual content of the work come to life. It’s amazing to me how many conductors are just happy with the orchestra playing together. For me, that’s kind of base level. Once you arrive at that, then you have to make the music come alive for the audience.
Q: When you talk about digging into a work, is that just from studying the score and listening to previous performances?
A: It’s probably a combination of accumulated knowledge. Like you said, part of it is reading the score. Part of it is learning about the lives of the composers. Part of it is investigating the historical context. Thinking of Beethoven without thinking of the revolution and Napoleon and all that was happening in Europe at the time, you’re not able to completely comprehend what that music is about. Similarly with Dvorak, the Sixth Symphony is so important to Dvorak because it launched him as a famous symphonist. This was him making a bit of a homage to Brahms and celebrating that famous friendship they had. But it also says, “I’m here. I should be writing these wonderful kind of Viennese-style symphonies.” But Dvorak couldn’t help but to interject rhythms and dances from Bohemia into his music.
Q: Why do you think Dvorak’s Sixth Symphony isn’t as well-known as some of his other work?
A: In the United States, in particular, the New World Symphony gets so much attention because of the fact that Dvorak came here, founded a music conservatory in New York and actually told American composers how he thought they should be writing music, which is specifically to interject their music with Americanisms. He said, “You have this rich treasure trove of influences. You should incorporate this in your music.” So he kind of tried to point the way with that symphony. And its title, the New World, means that it gets played a lot more than the other symphonies. But frankly, I think the Sixth Symphony is so filled with joy, it’s so beautifully and expertly written. It really is Dvorak trying to write a Brahms symphony. And I think he’s really successful at it. But at the same time, it’s also unmistakably Dvorak because it has those wonderful Czech melodic and rhythmic influences that no one composer could have quite put together or assimilated into this gorgeous, joyful symphony.
Q: Did you choose the other pieces in the program as well?
A: The Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2 was the given. And that’s a young soloist with whom I have never worked before, so I’m really looking forward to collaborating with her. She chose that work. And then I wanted to complement it with a contemporary work, and Chris Theofanidis is a wonderful Greek-American composer who has really gotten a lot of attention in the past couple years.
Q: What drew you to that piece?
A: It’s so colorful. It really shows off the orchestra. He was listening to a lot of Hildegard (of Bingen) at the time, the medieval composer. And there’s this beautiful chant melody that he took from a sequence of hers and he actually incorporates the chant into the music. You can’t miss it. So you have this kind of old medieval-church influence, but you also have this idea of the rainbow body, which to my understanding is a completely Eastern idea of how souls are absorbed into this brilliant light at the end of life and just continue as this kind of life force and energy that gets transferred back into the cosmos. So he’s really mixing Western and Eastern spiritual ideas into this enormously colorful piece.