Ryan McAdams, The Second Candidate For Music Director At The Eugene Symphony

By Suzi Steffen

When I meet Ryan McAdams, he’s in between a coffee with a former Eugene Symphony board chair and another interview at Eugene’s local NPR station. He’s meeting approximately 80 other people for interviews and discussions that day alone, and he jokes that the Symphony will start bringing all of the cats and dogs of Eugene to the stage door of the Hult for him to meet. By the time he gets to Thursday’s concert, that may be just about true.

McAdams is the second of three candidates for the Music Director spot, a coveted job among conductors because of the Eugene Symphony’s legendary ability to identify talent and launch a music director out into the larger world (see: Marin Alsop, Giancarlo Guerrero). McAdams, the first-ever recipient of the Sir Georg Solti Emerging Conductor Award, has also won a Fulbright and has conducted so many excellent orchestras and opera orchestras in so many cities that it’s impossible to list (though here’s a link to his bio), but he still appears warm, enthusiastic, and grounded during our speed Q&A.

The program he’s conducting at 8 pm Thursday, Jan. 26, is half of the Symphony’s design and half of his own making – something we discuss below. The pre-intermission portion of the concert includes the overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto with pianist Andrew von Oeyen, and then post-intermission – the part the candidate chose – is Brahms’ Symphony No. 1. Tickets start at $10 for youth 6-18 and students with a valid ID and range up to $60, plus an additional fee from the Hult Center’s ticketing program.

Suzi Steffen: Let’s start with an obvious question, which is, what had you heard about the Eugene Symphony before this position opened up last year? 

Ryan McAdams: The Eugene Symphony is almost a byword in the American classical community for being a place that launches careers of extraordinary conductors. It’s a place where they can hone who they are, what they want to be to a community; they can figure out how to be the kind of leader that they want to be, and they can expand their own repertoire at the same time.

The thing I started to hear as I was gearing up for process is that the Eugene Symphony is really an organization that asks important questions about what the role of an orchestra should be in a community and how that should change over time. There’s a continual process of reassessing:  How to we change? What do we need to do now to be present and relevant?

How does that fit with your interests?

My clearest passion is to figure out how I can serve the needs of the community, and how an orchestra can be a tool for deepening and saturating cultural life. An orchestra is a malleable tool for collaboration in any art form because it’s not indivisble. It can collaborate with anyone of any genre, and it’s mobile in a way a lot of other arts orgs aren’t. When you have a community as artistically engaged and supportive and curious as Eugene is, the organization is able to make exceptional collaborations.

You have already met with some of the Eugene Symphony musicians. What was your impression of the orchestra, or at least that small group of musicians, after that experience?

The impression I had was that they knew exactly what they wanted. They had so clearly defined the role of music director as separate from a conductor. They needed to see deep musicianship and musical acumen, but they also wanted to see someone who was going to be a communicator, educator, politician, evangelist, friend. They knew all the parts of the job. That was a great joy for me because they had done so much research and vetting of me before I walked in the door that I didn’t have to communicate what skills I had or didn’t have. I could come in and be the clearest version of myself. It was such a relief for someone coming in applying to be a music director. [When a committee doesn’t know what they want,] trying to spend time breaking roles apart is an endless process.

You programmed part of this concert and not the other part. Let’s talk about your choice, and what you think of this format.

One of the things that impressed me about this organization was that they made a choice to give all of the candidates essentially the same first half – a Mozart overture and a 20th century concerto. The standard line musicians use about Mozart is that there’s no place to hide. It requires every skill you have as a musician in the most refined way possible. The rhythm has to be so precise, and if one little thing goes wrong, it’s obvious to everyone. It’s the purest, most naked form of emotion I know from any composer. You have to present yourself fully.

Then the Barber Piano concerto, which would be performed more if it weren’t a fiendishly difficult piece. It was written in 1962 and is by one of the quintessential American composers, but it’s modeled off the great Russian Romantic concertos and it’s deeply Russian in its spirit. It has immense, almost searing intensity and great melodic intention. The last movement is one of the most propulsive movements of the 20th century. So it requires care and attention, and it showcases almost all of the skills you need to be a new music advocate as well.

Ryan McAdams
Photo by Lisa Mazzucco, courtesy Columbia Artists Management, Inc.

And your half – the Brahms? 

Well, Brahms 1 was a piece that had something important to me – it would allow the orchestra to play something they knew they could play well and that they loved. I wanted to pick a piece where every line was beautiful and that required compete technical commitment but not that one that would overwhelm them with the new. It would showcase them as interpreters, and I would get a sense of their depth and capacity and interpretive abilities. I’m curious about how much are they willing to give? How do they listen to each other? How do they support each other? Every line is so finely wrought.

I wanted to  give the players something deeply meaningful to work with. Then what you get is people with a lifetime of experience with this piece bringing their maturity to it. It allows me to take people’s input and weave it organically into how the rest of the piece is played. For instance, if I hear the oboe player play a phrase in a new way, then two bars later, I can ask the violins to replicate that phrasing. It’s like when you’re making a cake and mixing butter into flour: You can fold people’s ideas into the larger texture of piece. Brahms 1 is something that’s built collectively – it’s really large scale chamber music.

The business aspect of an orchestra at this time can be stressful. Our Opera company just suspended its operation, for instance. How do you think about the business of the orchestra?

What I’ve heard from the board, and I’ve seen it supported by almost everyone I’ve talked to, is that the Eugene Symphony Board is active and specifically involved. The long-range planning is well-thought out, and the financial structure that’s in place is being cared for very specifically. There’s a vetting process in place so they can make sure that what the orchestra wants, they have an avenue of asking how to do it in a way that will be sustainable.

There’s no way someone could desire to take on an arts leadership role if the organization leading them wasn’t extremely well managed. You have to have faith in the people who do this. Of course, it helps if you know how to read a spreadsheet! That’s something that James DePriest, my first mentor, taught me. Every board meeting, he sat down with spreadsheets and was as fluent with them as in Shostakovich. That allowed him to be able to present ideas and accomplish them with a lot of clarity. I know at least a basic layer of what it will take to get there, and I would trust the board and the staff to fill in the shadings of those layers. I think this orchestra feels very supported by the administration.

The more we invest in a community, the more a community will invest in the arts organization. The arts create revenue in the community if we think collectively. The reality is that when arts organizations in communities support each other, the rising tide lifts all boats. Eugene really shows me that this is a place where arts organizations can work collaboratively. I had a meeting with other arts leaders today to talk about the potential for collaboration and cross promotion.

Where do you think symphonies in general will be in 10 years in relationship to our culture? It’s a fraught question at the moment, I know.

It’s the most exciting time to be a music director in America right now. From necessity or sheer creativity, the structures around what an orchestra is are breaking down and being reinvented. In 10 years, we’ll have found ways to serve every part of the community. Part of the job is an opportunity to reflect the community back to itself. Concerts will exist in the concert hall and also out in the community, in a wide variety of venues, sizes, shapes. My hope is that in 10 years, orchestras will have found a way to define themselves as the ideal collaborator and amplifier for any other group or demographic in a culture, that they become a model for the story of the community. That story can be told through collaboration with the orchestra. That is what orchestras are working toward right now. I see no obstacle except will and creativity to do it.

OK, in our last thirty seconds: Tell me what you think about pop culture representations of orchestras? [pause] OK, you know I mean Mozart in the Jungle

I love it so much! It’s such a fantasy that you can’t possibly take offense at any part of the representation. Parts of it are well researched, and then parts are so obviously un-well-researched as to be glorious. Classical musicians are brilliant, bizarre, unique people who live in a community, and they’re as much as part of the place they live as anyone else. I saw that Jackie Evancho, who sang at Inauguration, people on the internet describe her as “a soprano for the rest of us.” That broke my heart because the idea that classical music is leaving people behind – no, it’s at the heart of the community we’re trying to serve. The orchestra is a thing that is for everyone. Anyone who walks into the hall is going to have their own experience, and every one of those experiences is equally valid.

Barber Piano Concerto
8 pm Thursday, Jan. 26
Hult Center for the Performing Arts
Tickets online and at 541-682-5000.


Suzi Steffen

Suzi has been writing about the arts in Eugene, Ashland and Portland for about 10 years. She loves riding her Torker Trike, Momo; going to performances; reading and writing books; gardening; and watching as many films as possible in between everything else. Email her at suzi at theeugenereview dot com.

suzi has 24 posts and counting.See all posts by suzi

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