When the Eugene Symphony picks a new music director, it’s a big deal. After all, the Symphony famously picked Marin Alsop early in her career, and Alsop has gone on to be the music director at the Baltimore Symphony. But the track record doesn’t end there. Under the system that was invented – and has now been spread around the music world – by Eugene lawyer Roger Saydack, our small-city orchestra has hired Miguel Harth-Bedoya, now music director of the Fort Worth Symphony; Giancarlo Guerrero, now music director in Nashville; and current music director Danail Rachev, who has brought summer concerts and new directions to Eugene during his time here.
One of the final stages of this season’s music director search begins this week as French Canadian conductor and musician Dina Gilbert comes to town to lead the Symphony Thursday night at the Hult in a program devised half by the hiring committee, half by the candidate.
During her time here (which began on Friday), Gilbert is meeting with the search committee and the musicians, but also board members, donors, students (college and elementary), the Eugene Symphony Guild, media people and, who knows, probably all of the dogs and cats of Eugene as well.
I could feel their strength and musicality, and I want to build something with all those musicians.
A couple of the rehearsals are going to have more attention than rehearsals usually do as well (The Eugene Review will try to attend at least one). Soloist Elena Urioste, who will be playing the Korngold violin concerto, will appear several times with Gilbert this week as well as conducting a free (and open to the public) master class at 4 pm Tuesday, Dec. 6, in the Hult Center’s Studio.
Gilbert is a 31-year-old conductor who came to the big city from a small town, where she had studied piano and clarinet and tried her hand at conducting. She fell in love with music, especially conducting, and pursued that with laser focus.
While she was getting her doctorate, she founded a new-music chamber orchestra that is still going strong. That orchestra, Ensemble Arkea, has run a contest for composers for five years, and now it’s working with the Montréal Opéra on a project called “Opéra de Rue” (“street opera”) made by and with people in Montréal who don’t have housing.
Gilbert spent three years as assistant conductor to Maestro Kent Nagano at the Montréal Symphony Orchestra (OSM) and has guest conducted in many, many places, including the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and orchestras in Romania, Estonia, China and Germany.
Gilbert, who prefers in-person interviews, kindly adapted to our schedule and spoke with us via Skype last week from her home base in Montréal. Here is a condensed, edited version of that conversation.
Suzi Steffen: What had you heard about the Eugene Symphony before you applied for the music director position?
Dina Gilbert: The first time I heard about it was because I met Giancarlo [Guerrero], who was conducting the OSM. I went to those rehearsals, and I met him, saw his energy, saw his work. He was really generous about giving me his itinerary to become a conductor, how he came to be a conductor that is having such a great career. The Eugene Symphony is a really good orchestra, he said, the best regional orchestra in the U.S. He gave such a great impression of this experience he had, the opportunity to work with this orchestra and build this ensemble.
I could see that it’s important for him to live in a city and build a relationship with it; that’s his idea about how to be a music director these days. It’s getting back to let’s have a balance; let’s have a great concert, and yes, let’s build projects, not just do so much as fast as possible. I also spoke about it with Maestro [Kent] Nagano. So I was really feeling attracted by this position. When I saw the process, how it was going, I was honored to be part of the three finalists.
SS: Yes, how was that first trip to Eugene when you were one of the semi-finalists?
I met with [the search committee and others], and talked to 14-15 people. I felt like we had everything on the table so they could feel our personality, and they can choose what they need now. It’s about finding the right match to what the orchestra needs at this point.
The big challenge for [musicians] is reminding people that taking the time to go in the concert hall is to live in the present moment and experience something big with somebody else.
SS: You have, I think, already met with some of the Eugene Symphony musicians. What is your impression of the orchestra after that?
DG: We three finalists had been invited to go to Eugene, where we had to introduce our program for a full year. Some musicians were part of that committee. Then we all conducted a few movements from the Soldier’s Tale, of Stravinsky. It was fantastic; I had 30 minutes with [the musicians], with only a small ensemble.
I could feel their strength and musicality, and I want to build something with all those musicians. The horn did the part of trombone, so the musician had to be ready for reading and changing the key! They were curious and open to rediscover the piece, though of course they had [at that point] done it many times.
Also, I received some CDs of the Eugene Symphony under the last two music directors before I did the programming. In Canada, not many regional orchestras have that big instrumentation, and it’s definitely not as audacious and bold programming. [It was amazing] to find that quality of orchestra and creativity and idea in not the biggest city ever, to be ahead, not just following what the others are doing.
SS: Does Eugene seem quite small after Montréal? And, of course, what would you like to do as music director?
It’s a great city! I come from a small village; I spent half my life in a city of 30,000 people where the only instrument you could barely play was piano because there were no string players around. I have 5 sisters, and they were all doing the same. My parents were not musicians, so they did not invite us to go to concerts with them. My first connection with the orchestra was when I was a teen, when I moved to Montréal, when I found high-skilled and talented teachers.
That’s when I discovered the repertoire. Usually people get started in music, they have a family of musicians, they’re going to see concerts really young. It’s wild, these kids are 4 or 5 years old, and they see this! I am doing it, having the career I wanted, but I was thinking there was a possibility, an occasion, where I [might have] totally missed this.[Youth music education is] not about making all young people professional musicians; it’s helping them see the possibilities. Me, I need to do music with people. I got to conduct choirs when I was pretty young, I was conducting choirs at the church when I was 14, 15. I got used to being in front of a group. I got used to telling people what to do, how to manage themselves. I really found my way when I was conducting.
SS: When one is a conductor, it seems to me, the work never stops – you’re always learning more, you have to have an intellectual curiosity about all of the music and the history of the music.
DG: Yes, all the time, it never stops, and this kind of curiosity is what I like about this position. I need to work with music but I also need to work with people.
For me, collaboration with other fields, other arts, combined with flexibility, collaboration and innovation will maintain the orchestra over time. It’s a challenge. Challenge is good; I like challenge.
SS: Let’s speak about programming. How do you think yours stands out for this concert?
DG: I have the Magic Flute – we all [three finalists] have an overture of Mozart. I’m really excited about doing the Korngold too – it’s really difficult for the violinist but also the orchestra. The mood of it is a little Impressionist in feeling; there’s a lot of flexibility within the beats, a lot of textures around the orchestra. All of these elements make this concerto really beautiful and really challenging.
For the second half, they asked us to choose a program that was representative of us, attractive to the audience, and also complementary to the [first half of the] program. I thought, let’s go with [Stravinsky’s ballet,] Petroushka.
There’s a lot of character in each section, for many soloists, I’m going to be able to see the personality of each of these players. And I love Stravinsky; I love that piece, I would say that in Montréal, since I’ve been 16 or 17, I’ve been listening to a lot of Russian and French repertoire. There’s something about my personality I feel is corresponding to those works.
Then, well, Petroushka is great, the story is a lot of excitement, but it ends with Petroushka dying. I didn’t want the audience to feel like “Oh, he died and I’m going home,” so I thought, let’s end with something magical, Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. It’s the first time the orchestra is actually going to play this piece! So, there is magic, character, a lot of different things in the same concert.
SS: OK, big final question: Where do you think symphonies will be in 10 years in terms of their place in culture?
DG: I’m wondering! I’m hoping for the best. I think that the orchestras that will survive and will adapt to the really fast rhythm of our society right now. Now more than ever, it’s hard for people to give more than two minutes of their attention to something. We quickly read the title, we click, we skip to something else. The big challenge for [musicians] is reminding people that taking the time to go in the concert hall is to live in the present moment and experience something big with somebody else.
I would say for me, collaboration with other fields, other arts, combined with flexibility, collaboration and innovation will maintain the orchestra over time. It’s a challenge. Challenge is good; I like challenge.
For the Eugene Symphony, I’m wishing everybody’s going to come to discover [who will lead] the orchestra for the next time. This time is an exciting season for discovering different personalities and what the future can bring. I’m positive and optimistic.
The Eugene Symphony, conducted by Dina Gilbert
8 pm Thursday, Dec. 8 (pre-concert talk at 7 pm)
The Hult Center
Tickets: $21-$60 (before Hult Center fees); Students and youth $10 with ID;
available at the Symphony and the Hult Box Office online, and at 541-682-5000
Three-concert “finalists package” is available here; the other two concerts are with Ryan McAdams, Jan. 26. 2017; and Francesco Lecce-Chong, March 6, 2017.