Coping with catastrophe

Eugene conductor, composer and music professor Brian McWhorter on how the pandemic is affecting musicians — and how they might respond

By TOM MANOFF

Musicians who have worked with Eugene conductor/ composer Brian McWhorter (and I’m one, though briefly) will attest not only to his high level of musicianship, but also to his creative and theatrical energies, which inspire colleagues and audiences. McWhorter is music director for Orchestra Next and Eugene Ballet, and in 2006 joined the faculty of the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance. 

He’s just started a new podcast that features some of the Orchestra Next musicians in performance and in dialogue with Eugene community members.

Brian McWhorter. Photo by Glen Waddell.
Brian McWhorter. Photo by Glen Waddell.

Hailed as a “terrific trumpeter” by The New York Times, McWhorter specialized in contemporary classical music during his years on the New York City music scene, performing with Sequitur, Ensemble Sospeso, counter(induction, Ne(x)tworks, Tilt Brass, Elliott Sharp’s Orchestra Carbon, and Continuum. As a member of the brass and percussion sextet Meridian Arts Ensemble from 2001-2010, McWhorter performed, commissioned and recorded some of the most demanding and progressive music ever written for brass. Meridian’s album Timbrando – a collection of Latin American contemporary works – was reviewed (by me) on NPR’s All Things Considered.

After returning to his native Oregon, he was co-director of Beta Collide and also performed with Third Angle New Music, Oregon Symphony, Oregon Bach Festival, Eugene Symphony, and Oregon Mozart Players.

McWhorter has been a featured soloist at the Festival of New Trumpet (New York City), Church of Beethoven (Albuquerque), Jornados de Creación Música (Mexico City), and at Bargemusic (Brooklyn). He worked extensively with brass chamber groups including the Oregon Brass Quintet, Extension Ensemble, Manhattan Brass Quintet and the American Brass Quintet.

Brian McWhorter. Photo by Dusty Whitaker.
Photo by Dusty Whitaker.

A native Oregonian who grew up in Portland, McWhorter has a Bachelor of Music degree from University of Oregon and the Master of Music degree from The Juilliard School. He held teaching positions at the Manhattan School of Music, Louisiana State University, East Carolina University, and Princeton University. Since a performance injury restricted his trumpet playing ability, McWhorter has focused more conducting, composing, teaching 

In a time when classical music is struggling, McWhorter’s voice is particularly relevant. In this interview, he addresses how the pandemic is affecting musicians, the ups and downs of the first artistic responses to the shutdowns, and how it provides an opportunity for a much-needed rethinking of classical music.

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ArtsWatch: The arts are undergoing a catastrophe. But have there been any useful revelations for you amidst this unprecedented disaster? 

McWhorter: First of all, I just want to underscore something you just said: the arts are undergoing a catastrophe. The performing arts sector, specifically, has been squashed. And, as with any tragedy, I think there are also revelations. 

Performing artists are missing the opportunities that they had to perform. They’re really missing these in a way that brings tears to my eyes even now. And I know something about this – when 9/11 happened, there was a terrifying 4-6 month period of no work for many performing artists. When Katrina happened, work started to come in a bit more quickly but it took much longer for it to get to pre-Katrina levels. All of these disasters were terrible on their own, but there is a profound pain that comes from not playing. 

Today, we have a situation where almost all performing artists are feeling that pain. They’re doing their best to put on a happy face for their social media videos of their living room expressions of “hey, I’m still here” or whatever, but I think we’ll look back on this year as something far more devastating than we otherwise let on.

It’s also a little weird that performing artists are missing performing so much. Do you remember 2019? Do you recall any performers that were happy about the field? Everything was screwed up. Homeostasis had set in, and everybody knew it, but nobody could figure out how to break out of it. Programming was dull, performance practice was homogenized, morale seemed at a near all-time low, pay was embarrassing if not negligent, companies were folding, and even the [American Federation of Musicians] pension plan announced that it will become insolvent in a few years. 

Now, I totally get that performers want to be back on stage doing what they were born to do, but I also think that our nostalgia for 2019 is less of an indication of “how good it was,” and more “holy moley, this is a catastrophe.” I can only hope that we don’t merely try and recreate what was happening in 2019.  

What happens when a performer comes off stage from a show? They sit in front of the mirror and think about what they just did. It’s the post show blues that all of us in the industry know so well. And, by far and away, the best antidote for these blues is remembering that you have to shake it off and get ready for next week’s show. Now, imagine that the post show blues are hitting everyone and there are no shows coming up. Imagine that these performers are struggling getting their unemployment (because they are), that they don’t have the chops to compete with Netflix (because they don’t), that they’re wondering if they should gamble any further with the arts or explore another career, and that they’re wondering why they put up with such awful working conditions for such little pay in a field that lured them in with promises of fortune and fame but left them high and dry during a health crisis. Imagine all these performing artists sitting in front of a mirror reflecting on their careers, wondering what they’ve been doing all this time. 

Am I getting too far afield with the question? I guess I mean to say that one of the revelations for me right now is that I think all of us in arts administration are going to need to do better by the performers we employ. Why? Because I think they’ve had it, and I don’t blame them. 

From Catastrophe to Opportunity

McWhorter: But let’s talk about casting and programming for a second. My biggest hope for the performing arts industry (particularly in the classical arts) is that this moment will be the wake-up call that many of us have been waiting for. For years, even decades, people have been calling for more diversity on stage, better representation in programming, more sensitivity to the very real issues of cultural appropriation in ballet productions, and audiences are tired of being complicit in these things. They want to support the arts, but they want arts organizations to stop playing everything so damn safe. And I think we’ll see real changes in this realm. The classical arts probably won’t ever be as progressive as television (ha), but let’s hope that the classical arts don’t merely emerge as the regressive art form that we were in 2019. 

ArtsWatch: Many artists are turning to internet presentation in lieu of live performance. In my opinion the response has been somewhat tepid. Is it possible that pushing internet material will turn off audiences?

I agree with you that there has been a tepid response. But I don’t blame the content or approach. I think the main reason the content we’ve all put out online has been received with a ‘meh’ – especially in the classical arts – is because we were woefully behind in cultivating that audience for the last quarter of a century.  

The internet is the primary ‘stage’ for performing artists right now. Unwittingly, we’ve all become content creators for these social media stages, and we’ve been trying to boost everyone’s confidence (even our own) for what we hope will return in 2021. And let me be clear: the internet is a repulsive stage, but we’ve all played on worse stages. 

I think one of the amazing things about the internet is how it seems to have a certain equalizing potential. For audiences with “discerning tastes,” they don’t really want to see videos produced from artists in their living rooms–until they kinda do–because they realize how much they miss the performers that they admire. And then it somehow has less to do with the production values and more to do with the artists’ expression. 

Now, we don’t need a ridiculously expensive set or costume budget – no need for hair and makeup that threatens to upstage the performers themselves. What’s important for this virtual stage is the expression. We should have learned this from YouTube years ago, but I think the industry will start to come around this year. (This year is kinda like a big ‘time-out’ for our industry.)

And while I’m not entirely sure what works and doesn’t work for this virtual stage, I would put my money on these characteristics: responsive to social movements, artists who exude agency, artists who aren’t being taken advantage of by their companies, and art with more information. 

What did Wynton [Marsalis] say? The best tone is the tone that has the most information in it? Something like that. That is truth. And a useful truth for us to be engaging in. 

I’m also thinking a lot about the information that these quarantined artists are gonna have to share once they get their basic needs met. I think it’s gonna be an expressive explosion in a year or so. 

ArtsWatch: What have you learned about conducting from leading a ballet orchestra?

McWhorter: I could talk about this for days….

There’s an old joke among conductors – I think it’s attributable to Leonard Bernstein – that involves a ballet conductor moving in a rock steady tempo while the ballet’s artistic director complains that it’s “too fast…now it’s too slow…too fast….too slow.” There’s so much truth to that! Dancers and choreographers are so particular when it comes to tempi and, early on, I couldn’t wrap my head around what they were hearing. They would tell me that something was “too slow” or “too fast” when I was convinced that it was the opposite. There was even a time when I recorded a couple rehearsals to check but something in the back of my mind knew that I was missing the point. 

Dancers seem to respond to time in a different way than musicians. They seem to respond to how phrases unfold over time more so than beats per minute. The gravity and shape of a phrase – how it goes up and down – can make a tempo feel too fast or too slow. It’s totally fascinating. Now, when I hear that something is “too fast,” I check my musicality first. I do everything I can to encourage the band to really swing with the music we’re playing. And swing is everything. Nobody on stage (or off) really cares about intonation or articulation – it’s all about the swing – and it is immeasurably satisfying when everyone is swinging.

Brian McWhorter. Photo by Dusty Whitaker.
Brian McWhorter swinging. Photo by Dusty Whitaker.

Put another way: if intonation or articulation or missed notes are distracting, then the swing is not loud enough. 

I’ve also learned to watch the dancers. And I’m not looking at specific moves or moments to try and sync with, but I’m trying to keep soft eyes on the overall vibe. This is harder to explain but I feel like it’s really important in my conducting. 

In terms of the orchestra and the music that we play, I think the beauty of playing in a pit is that, as long as we’re really swinging for the dancers, we can bring a little….irreverence to the show. I love this part of it. There’s something about playing in a pit that allows us to take our gloves off. It’s like we’ve got a green light to add more personality than we otherwise might if we were on stage. And I’ll tell you this: I’ve learned so much about music from having that freedom. Studying the score is important of course, but I would argue that a conductor can learn far more about a piece of music by bringing a little irreverence to it.

OrchestraNext plays The Firebird.

The whole idea behind “dance like nobody’s watching” is to free yourself up and let your whole body have a green light. When Orchestra Next is at our best, it feels like we’re “playing like nobody’s listening.”

ArtsWatch: I can remember a time when musicians were encouraged to play Bach every day as a way to deepen their musical soul. Where is that idea today in a time when performance is so restrictive? 

McWhorter: I hope performing artists are feeding their souls by living the fullest life they can right now and taking it all in. That’s number one. And it’s big. 

In terms of how we interface with our art form to feed our souls… I don’t know what to say except that I have good days and bad days. And the bad days are tough. 

But the good days have something to do with remembering what I love about music. And when I remember, then it’s just a matter of engaging with that love. It used to be that I’d pick up my trumpet and play, But now, since I can’t do that anymore, I find myself turning to the piano more. Even more than piano I guess, is that I’ll just move to music. It’s not conducting really (and it’s certainly not dance), but there’s something so lovely for me when I can just move to music that I hear. For me, this deepens my musical soul.

ArtsWatch: Tell us about your new podcast.

McWhorter: Well, [Orchestra Next] found ourselves without a stage for a season, so we decided to build one. So we started a podcast called “…and the Band Played ON.” We wanted a format that would allow us to feature our musicians and bring in community members to talk about the music. And while we’re only three episodes in so far, it has been really cool. Of course, our musicians are hungry to play and they’ve got a lot to ‘say.’ Their performances have been heartfelt and gorgeous. 

So, once I get a recording from one of our musicians or a guest, I write to someone in the community, and invite them to sit with me, listen through the performance, and then chat about what they heard. And, for me, the experience of just sitting and listening to a performance with someone is strikingly moving. I’ll just say it: I’ve cried in every interview.

Remember listening sessions? Remember just sitting down with a friend or a teacher and listening to music together? Doing this podcast has made me realize how I have missed these listening sessions!

And it has been a real gift for our musicians to hear what someone else has to say about their performance. I got a note recently from one of our musicians who, after hearing the podcast, said that they “had never felt more heard.” Isn’t that cool? I love it. 

Practically, the podcast allows for us to continue employing our musicians. It gives them a stage. And it gives them some feedback from our community. We’ve told them in no uncertain terms, that they can play whatever they want, however they want to play it. It’s their show. 

Composer, author and music critic Tom Manoff was the classical music critic reviewer for NPR’s All Things Considered from 1986 to 2012. He has also written for the New York Times and Eugene Register Guard.

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One Response. Have your say.

  1. Amy Adams says:

    Great interview, Tom – Brian’s insights are worth one’s time.

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