Weilerstein and Phoenix Launch a New Collaboration
Sunday, November 27, 2022
On WCRB In Concert with Phoenix, the Boston-based chamber orchestra welcomes Music Director Joshua Weilerstein in a program of works by Bartók, Golijov, Beethoven, and much more.
Joshua Weilerstein, conductor
BARTÓK Romanian Dances
Myroslav SKORYK Melody
Osvaldo GOLIJOV Night of the Flying Horses
Florence PRICE “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes,” from Five Folksongs in Counterpoint
Gabriela Lena FRANK “Coquetos,” from Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout
BEETHOVEN, arr. Gerber / Weilerstein “Save Me from the Grave and Wise”
BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92
This concert was recorded at New England Conservatory's Jordan Hall on March 27, 2022 and is no longer available on demand.
In an interview with CRB's Brian McCreath, conductor Joshua Weilerstein talks about the program and its roots in folk music, as well as the role Phoenix has played in Boston's cultural landscape since it was founded by Matthew Szymanski in 2014 and how that role is growing and evolving. To listen, click on the player above, and read the transcript below.
Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath with Joshua Weilerstein, who is now the new Music Director for Phoenix, the chamber orchestra here in Boston. Joshua, thank you for a little bit of your time today.
Joshua Weilerstein Thanks for having me.
Brian McCreath This is the opening of a new era for Phoenix and kind of for you, too. And I'm interested in how you perceive Phoenix in its own life trajectory. You've known Matt [Szymanski], the founder of Phoenix for a long time. Where have you perceived this orchestra to be, in the Boston landscape? And then, what are your ambitions going forward with Phoenix to change that, to evolve that, in a way?
Joshua Weilerstein Well, Matt and I have been friends for forever, basically. And Matt had this idea to create an orchestra. And, you know, something that I think a lot of conductors dream of doing. And he just went ahead and did it. And so we'd been talking about this idea for a long time. And when Matt started Phoenix, which funnily enough, my wife actually was sort of responsible for the name "Phoenix," because we were reading Harry Potter at the time and the "orchestra reborn." And suddenly my wife just said, "Oh, Phoenix, like the bird, you know." And so it popped into our heads and Matt ran with it. And so, you know, it's been something that we've talked about so much.
And I think what Phoenix was capturing in Boston was a group of people who loved music and were interested in classical music, but weren't necessarily comfortable coming to the formal concert experience. You know, everybody feels a certain way. We all know the foibles and the issues with the concert experience in classical music, and Matt really wanted to informalize that experience, and not to make it casual. I think there's a difference between "informal" and "casual." And Matt really found that balance. So the venues were less formal. You were able to have drinks during the performances, you were able to react to the music that you were hearing, you were able to mingle with the musicians. Matt would say he didn't reinvent the wheel, but he tried to put together all of these ideas that have been kind of percolating among musicians. And so I think for a long time that's been the role of Phoenix as the sort of, as a gateway to audiences who might be interested in a different kind of experience with classical music.
And I think now that I've arrived here, we want to just grow that side of it, keeping that informality, keeping that friendliness, keeping that approachability while also making the orchestra just sound like the best orchestras in the world. You know, one of my models is the Aurora Orchestra in London, where I live. They are an absolutely amazing group. They play some of the best concerts in all of London. And yet their venues are completely different. They don't play at the Southbank Center very often. They play places you wouldn't expect an orchestra to be. And so that's part of what we want to do, is have a combination of the sort of traditional concert experience with something totally different and unique.
Brian McCreath And your own experience, you've worked at the New York Philharmonic, you've worked with the Chamber Orchestra of Lausanne, and you guest conduct at major orchestras everywhere. How did those experiences inform that path forward for Phoenix with you?
Joshua Weilerstein Well, I think we try to take what we love about the traditional concert experience, which is, of course, the music and this sort of sense of, there is something sacred about this music. But you can sort of discover the sacredness of the experience rather than have it imposed on you. And I think, you know, I love going to New York Phil concerts. I love going to BSO concerts. But I know a lot about music. I've been around music literally since I was born. And I think that for people who might feel intimidated by the experience of a BSO or New York Phil or Lausanne Chamber Orchestra or wherever-in-the-world concert, this is just a chance for them to shed that. And, you know, for me personally, I think a lot of the accepted wisdom about what a concert is like is actually not really correct. I think a lot of people have misconceptions. You know, people think they have to get dressed up to go to a BSO concert. You don't. I've gone to many BSO concerts in jeans, and I didn't get any dirty looks. So, you know, there are misconceptions about classical concerts that every great orchestra has tried to overcome. But we started from the point of view of, okay, this is already informal. And so there's none of that misconception that we have to overcome.
Brian McCreath So, you just mentioned that you've been around music literally since you were born. Your parents both teach at NEC [New England Conservatory], really amazing musicians in their own right. Your sister, an amazing cellist in her right. It's so fascinating to me that you see through all that. You see through these perceptions and these conventions of the formality, because you've lived within that formality, in a way. How do you attribute your transparency in seeing through all this stuff surrounding the music, to see through it to the center of the experience? How did you begin thinking that way?
Joshua Weilerstein Well, one of the things that helped me was when I started traveling, when I was conducting. I would, you know, have a score open on the plane or in a cafe or whatever. And somebody would see it and they'd say, "Oh, what are you what are you doing?" And I would tell them, I'm a conductor. And, you know, I can't count the number of times somebody said, "Oh, I love classical music, but I don't, I just don't understand it." And so that actually was part of the inspiration for my podcast about classical music. And so, when I started the podcast, I would read the scripts for the analysis of pieces to my wife, who is a wonderful cellist, but she stopped playing the cello and she now works for a domestic violence agency. And so she is surrounded by non-musicians all the time. And so her mind now goes to, what is somebody going to think when I say this piece is in sonata form? To me, as you said, I've been around this, I've been in the bubble for my whole life. Sonata form is part of my language. But to 99% of the world, sonata form is another language that they don't know. And so she would say, okay, but what does allegro mean? You know, what does forte mean? What does piano mean? You know, all of these things that I never thought you would need to explain. And so she gave me that perspective, you know, to always be thinking, what is the perspective of somebody who doesn't know what they're walking into?
And so we don't want our goal to be denigrating the goals of the great major symphonic orchestras, because I think a lot of them are trying to demystify, let's say, the experience. But I think we are really focused on knowing what somebody who has never seen a classical concert is thinking when they walk in the door. And that is a very different experience for musicians.
Brian McCreath And I have to think that some of those airport experiences, and by the way, the well-regarded podcast is Sticky Notes, yes, a really, really lovely podcast, something like 140 episodes now. You've been doing it for quite a while. And I've got to think that that's informed in the same way and that some of those experiences you had meeting people in your travels really led to some light bulb moments.
Joshua Weilerstein Oh, yeah. I mean, I think a lot of classical musicians really bristle when people say, "Oh, I love classical music. It's so relaxing." You know, because in my mind, I just did Beethoven [Symphony No.] Seven today, we were rehearsing, which is like the wildest, you know, Bacchic frenzy of a piece. But for a lot of people, it's not that. And I think we have to, we want to serve our audience. And that doesn't mean to play them relaxing things, necessarily. And it also can mean to say, you know, by the way, this isn't supposed to be relaxing. This is supposed to evoke a different emotion in you. And people are so open, as long as you reach out to them and not try to say, no, you're wrong, you're listening to this wrong, you don't understand. And they're like, "Yeah, I don't understand. I don't understand what's happening. So help me!".
And, you know, the podcast that I, you know, when I started it, I thought I'd have ten episodes and, you know, a few hundred people would listen. And I get messages from literally all around the world. It's been downloaded in 140 countries. It's been over 3 million times. People are really eager to learn about this and they want to understand. And so to just give them that chance to come inside. Look at something like Vox, the Explained series, which explains concepts people don't know anything about. And people gobble that up because we want to know, we're a species that wants to learn and wants to know. You know, Bernstein would always say that he knows everybody's born with a love of learning and it never leaves them. They just have to access it. And that's what I think we're trying to do.
Brian McCreath So some audiences in this, these parts would know you as a violinist from your time in Boston. And I wonder where that instrument and that pursuit plays into your life right now. You're a busy guy. And I wonder, how much does it take to keep up with the violin, or is it kind of like now a curiosity that you leave on the shelf most of the time?
Joshua Weilerstein Well, I love playing the violin. I mean, when I'm conducting, I miss the violin. When I play the violin, I miss conducting. I don't really play much professionally the violin anymore. When I'm at home, I practice every day just to keep in shape. And my wife and I have started to work with an organization that works with Holocaust survivors in London to perform for them, you know, from time to time. So, and actually during the pandemic lockdown period in London, I picked up the clarinet. So I'm learning klezmer clarinet. And so, you know, this is something that I just love doing on the side. And, you know, if I get a chance sometimes to do an encore, you know, a Bartók Duo with a violin soloist or something. And one of the pandemic projects I did was I recorded all 44 Bartók Duos with 44 different violinists from around the world. I just sent a million emails out, and this was in the first, those first couple of months where nobody was leaving their house. And so we did it all by, they would send me their recording, then I would fit my part to them. And that was, you know, that kept me busy for months. And I loved doing it. And, you know, I put it up on YouTube and everything and that. So the violin is a very important part of my life, not necessarily part of the professional life, I would say.
Brian McCreath Sure. And yet nevertheless, that experience informs how you even deal with an orchestra. I mean, it has to, and your understanding of what the people in front of you are having to go through.
Joshua Weilerstein Absolutely. I mean, the gesture, you know, just the way I conduct is informed by my violin playing, for sure. And the things that I know I can say to a violin section, you know, about a bowing or an articulation, I know what's possible on the instrument. That's actually one of the main reasons I picked up the clarinet was to try to get to that point with wind instruments as well. You know, to get some idea of what they're dealing with, and the breathing, and the way they think about phrasing, which is totally different from a string player. But yeah, the string playing knowledge, and I've talked with violinists who say, like, they can feel when I'm giving a downbeat, like the bow is coming down on the string, which is great, because that means we can communicate much more easily.
Brian McCreath Absolutely. So your first program as music director for Phoenix, unfortunately, after an aborted first attempt, right, because of the Omicron surge. But here we are in Boston, and you have this really fascinating program. Beethoven Seven is the anchor, the second half. But man, what a set of pieces to begin the program. Walk me through Bartók and Golijov, these other composers that you've assembled to precede the Beethoven.
Joshua Weilerstein Yeah. So I think, when we came up with this program, Beethoven was at the center. I wanted to do a Beethoven symphony with the full orchestra. And one of the very little known parts about Beethoven Seven is, the last movement is based off of an arrangement of an Irish folk song that Beethoven did called "Save Me from the Grave and Wise." Beethoven was asked by this British guy, I think his name is George Thompson, to arrange dozens of Irish folk songs. And the theme that Beethoven chose for this song called "Save Me from the Grave and Wise" is [sings]. And so that became the last movement of the symphony. And so I thought, you know, Beethoven doesn't get a lot of credit for this folk music influence. So we decided to do, like, a folk music suite from all over the world for the first part of the concert. So we have Bartók's Romanian Folk Dances. We have Osvaldo Golijov's amazing Night of the Flying Horses, which uses Jewish folk music, and also Roma folk music as well. We have the Gabriela Lena Frank, Leyendas, the "Coqueteos," I think it's pronounced. I've always had trouble with that, which is, you know, Peruvian. We have Florence Price's Five Folk Songs in Counterpoint, which is really fascinating. She takes these very well-known songs, and then she really transforms them. And it's like she's pulling from all these different sources like it suddenly sounds like Brahms, it suddenly sounds like Debussy and it all sounds like her, which is just great.
And then we've added, just in the last couple of weeks, we added a Ukrainian song by Miroslav Skoryk called "Melody," which the audience will probably recognize if they watched [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky's speech to Congress. He played a video that featured this music. So then we also found, very luckily, an arrangement of this Beethoven folksong arrangement, an arrangement of the arrangement, by Steven Gerber. And it's going to precede the Beethoven, so to give people an idea of what this actually came from. So it sounds like a lot, it's seven different pieces, but the first six are only about 20 or 30 minutes by themselves because it's all short, little, little bits of things. But, and then we have the Beethoven as the anchor, as you said.
Brian McCreath I have to say that in all the discovery of Florence Price's music, which there have been some amazing pieces now that we've all been able to learn and ever increasing numbers of recordings. These Five Folksongs in Counterpoint, I think might be my favorite. They're so inventive. They're so, not just charming, they take charming tunes, and then really, her imagination is stunning, what she does with them.
Joshua Weilerstein Yeah, absolutely, I think that they are in a way some of her most creative pieces. And my favorite piece of hers is an orchestral piece called Ethiopia's Shadow in America, which is just fantastic. I think it's sort of the distillation of her style into about 13 minutes of music. And so that's great. And these songs are, they're really brilliant. You listen to the original and then you see where she took it. And it's fascinating, you know, where her mind went with those things.
Brian McCreath And Osvaldo Golijov is semi-local. I imagine you've known him for a while. And so tell me about working with him on his music. What's that experience like?
Joshua Weilerstein It's so great because he's so open. And I told the orchestra, you know, one of the traditions about orchestral players is that they like to hear things, whether they're louder or softer, slower or faster, not to get too into the weeds. But, Osvaldo doesn't speak that language. Osvaldo speaks in metaphors, Osvaldo speaks in images. And I told the orchestra that, and that's how we've been working on the piece, "Night of the Flying Horses," which is not a piece that can be called slower, faster, louder, softer. It's all fantasy. And so I talked with Osvaldo yesterday about it, and it's exactly that. He talks about the fire crackling, and the horses flying through the air, and the floating, and all of this wonderful stuff. And what's really great about this piece being on the program is that, when I was in college, Osvaldo took me and my parents to a performance by this Roma band called the Taraf de Haïdouks. They've been close with Osvaldo forever. And they played their own version of Bartók's Romanian Folk Dances on the concert, and it was unforgettable. And it's on YouTube, a version of this, and I highly recommend seeing it. And so we have the Bartók, and then we're going to take the Golijov. And the last part of "Night of the Flying Horses" is a theme that he took from Taraf de Haïdouks. So it's all connected in this sort of very Bostonian, small world way.
Brian McCreath It is. It is. And you know, what you said about Florence Price totally applies to Golijov, too. I mean, he takes something from somewhere else, and he does that a lot, in a lot of his music. And then the result is it can't be from anyone but Osvaldo.
Joshua Weilerstein Yeah. Osvaldo's music sounds like nobody else's, even though, as you said, it's sometimes like kind of a pastiche of all of these different influences. And this is this piece. It's a medley from this film score that he did. The first part is a Jewish lullaby. Second part is the doina, this sort of, he says it's like around the campfire, and the violas play this thing that's supposed to resemble this army instrument, the duduk. And then the final bit is this wild dance that is played by the violins and the winds in this cannon. And it's just, it's really a remarkable, in 8 minutes, what he creates atmospherically is remarkable.
Brian McCreath That's fantastic. Well, Joshua Wallerstein, what a great new beginning. I mean, a beginning for you and for Phoenix. And as you say, for this, what's becoming a really important component of Boston's cultural landscape. I thank you so much for your time today.
Joshua Weilerstein Thanks so much. Really looking forward to it.