David Danzmayr has completed his first full season as the music director of the Oregon Symphony. It’s been quite a ride for the 42-year-old maestro–and for the orchestra, which endured a pause of 573 days because of the pandemic. The orchestra’s invigorating mix of standard repertoire and new music – buttressed by its Creative Alliance of composers and performers and Danzmayr’s ebullient leadership – has helped to rebuild attendance at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, although it might be a while longer before it hits pre-pandemic levels.
So, with the Danzmayr era underway, we peppered him with a few questions.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and flow.
Oregon ArtsWatch: What were some of the highlights from your first season with the orchestra?
David Danzmayr: The opening night concert with Mahler’s Second Symphony was terrific. Just the fact that we were on stage after 18 months of not playing in front of a live audience was great! It was wonderful to hear the orchestra, which was still playing at an amazing level.
I was personally enamored with the performance of the Sibelius First Symphony. I loved doing the Beethoven Ninth at the end of the season when the orchestra might have been tired, but they still gave everything. This orchestra plays with real emotion and a great sound.
I loved doing the contemporary works, starting with Kenji Bunch and moving to pieces by Gabriel Kahane, Gabriela Lena Frank, and others. But I come back to the orchestra’s terrific sound and high performing level.
I like our programming. It’s a great mixture with American music, neglected American music, European standards and newer works as well. We can give audiences different perspectives. In our second season we are proud to continue to do some world premieres and other new works. That shows the diversity that is out there with living composers. We will support Portland composers. We added Andy Akiho to our Creative Alliance and will continue to strengthen it.
OAW: How does the Creative Alliance work? Do all of you get together on a Zoom call and hash out things? Or do they give you ideas and then like a football quarterback, you pick the best ones and toss them to the orchestra?
DD: I like the sports analogy! Everybody on the Creative Alliance has their own role. They have their own ideas and contributions. Our Creative Chair Gabriel Kahane is very involved and lives in Portland. I speak to him fairly regularly. We will perform a new piece by him once a year. It’s a big commitment and collaboration so that the audience gets to know him and his work. He also has a creative input in different formats like our open music events. Nathalie Joachim was a recommendation that he gave to us. He is a great resource for us. Of course, I always make the final decision on artistic matters. I have to take responsibility for that.
Akiho, who is a part-time resident of Portland, is one of our Creative Alliance partners. We will do one of his pieces next season, and we are looking forward to commissioning pieces from him. We have added Xavier Foley to our alliance, and we will play a couple of his pieces with him. His passion is to bring the double bass to communities, such as kids in schools.
We did an open music program with flutist-singer-composer Joachim. Violinist Simone Lamsma, our artist-in-residence, will perform with us once a year. We have Jun Märkl as our principal guest conductor, and he comes two or three times a year to lead the orchestra. We complement each other well because his style is different than mine, and he likes French music and some composers that I don’t do so much. We did two of Gabriela Lena Frank’s pieces this season and will do more next season.
The Creative Alliance is not set in stone. It’s a very flexible arrangement. People will shift in and out as we wish and as they wish. The audience will get to know the alliance members, but it will change over time and not get stuck with always the same people.
Some ideas come from the orchestra as well. Foley was recommended by Braizahn Jones, our assistant principal bass. I am open to ideas, but I assess them with President and CEO Scott Showalter and our VP of artistic planning Charles Calmer. You can’t accept every idea, even if they are good ones, or you will end up with a horrible mish-mash.
OAW: With Calmer retiring from his position with the orchestra, how is the search for his replacement going?
DD: We are in the advanced stages. Charles was kind to give us his notice early. This is one of the hardest positions to fill, because you need a person who is extremely knowledgeable about orchestral repertoire and how orchestras work. He or she must also be able to work with the music director, which is not always easy, and with an executive director. And this person must also function in a leadership position when the music director is guest conducting or unavailable for some reason. I can’t make every small decision because my time is limited. So this position requires a huge skill set that includes great communication skills and the ability to be a colleague with the music director and the executive director. We will be meticulous in our search for the right person.
OAW: You did some guest conducting this past season with orchestras in Cincinnati, St. Louis, Atlanta. How does the Oregon Symphony compare with these other orchestras?
DD: Fortunately for me, the Oregon Symphony is a fantastic orchestra. It compares very well with the orchestras you mentioned. It’s an extremely balanced orchestra with very few weaknesses. In addition, the orchestra is very willing, very eager – a real joy to work with. We are very respected throughout the nation. Wherever I go, we get a lot of enthusiastic complements from the musicians there.
OAW: Are there some pieces in the upcoming season that you have never done before but you are really looking forward to doing?
DD: I’ve never done Kevin Puts’ The Brightness of Light, which will come up on our first concert of the season. I am also looking forward to doing Andy Akiho’s steel pan concerto, Beneath Lighted Coffers and Gabriel Kahane’s The Right to Be Forgotten. There’s also Tania León’s Stride, which the Oregon Symphony co-commissioned. The season has a lot of new works!
It’s difficult to find a traditional piece that I haven’t done before. I have done Mendelssohn’s Fifth Symphony, the Reformation Symphony, a few times but not in several years. It is such a gorgeous piece. I have never done the Mahler Four and Five together in a season. That is something I really wanted because I think that they belong together. I think that the audience will hear how they are connected to each other.
OAW: It must be difficult sometimes to get the score to a new composition.
DD: For world premieres the challenge is to get the score from the composer. I would be lying if I said that they always meet their deadlines. Sometimes the publisher insists that they cannot send the score more than two months ahead, because of various restrictions. Our librarian Joy Fabos is fantastic at getting me the scores as early as she can.
I like to learn new scores during the summer, if possible. During the season, it is more challenging to learn a new score. I might have to study while on the airplane or the hotel room. I am a score-learner. I am meticulous about that. That’s why I never fill my season to the brim. I want to be really prepared before I go in front of an orchestra. With the Oregon Symphony, we do a lot of new music and several will be new to me. So, I have to sit down and study. If you are a movie director, you have to know the script inside and out. That takes a lot of preparation.
OAW: Do you have your own library of conducting scores?
DD: Yes, I have my own library. I mark my scores.
OAW: Your library must be getting pretty big.
DD: It would fill at least ten boxes. I am moving my family to Portland this summer, and I am nervous about the scores. The insurance does not cover the work that I have put into these scores. I have put in a lot of hours of work, and that is extremely valuable to me.
When I was a music student, I could go to a music store in Salzburg or Vienna and get a full score. If the didn’t have it, I would just order it. Now, you can get scores through Amazon and Educational Music Service or other online places.
OAW: Does the orchestra have some recordings coming up?
DD: We are considering a lot of pieces, but we haven’t made any firm decisions yet. We have to look at the market and make smart decisions.
Right now, we are focusing on getting people back into the hall for our performances. We have also invested a lot of money in livestreams, so we are concentrating on that and looking at expanding that experience.
I remember talking with my brother twenty years ago. He is a computer scientist, and he said, “Look you artists have to get used to the fact that CDs are dead. DVDs are the last medium, and Blue Ray will not take off. Everything is going to be online. The whole copyright idea needs to change. The whole idea of recordings needs to change.” I argued with him that as an artist, I don’t like people putting everything online for free. He replied, “That’s just how it is David. The world is changing and you need to use the new technologies for promotion and focus on the live experience, because that is the unique thing that you are doing that can’t be replicated.”
Now it is twenty years forward from that conversation, and it turns out that he called everything right, and I have to eat my words. So now I am listening to albums online on streaming. I have read that classical music is very popular on streaming platforms. A recent article said that classical music is the fourth most popular genre on streaming. So, there is a market there. It is a tool to bring music to people that way. Livestream is one those new tools. You can live far away from Portland and watch a concert. I do want people to come to the concert hall and get the live experience of a performance. So, we are focusing on how to get people to come into the concert hall.
OAW: Are you composing any music yourself?
DD: A couple of years ago, I would have said that I can’t because it is another skill. But at the moment, I have some compositions that I would like to pursue eventually. I just don’t have the time. My kids are twelve and fourteen years old. I am a single dad with full custody, and being the music director of the Oregon Symphony and the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra in Columbus, Ohio, I have my hands full. But who knows, one day it might happen.
I have written a book in German – a modern retelling of some of the Grimms fairytales – and a friend of mine is going to illustrate it. I wrote it during the first two months of the pandemic. I needed a project. I am always busy. So that is what I decided to do.