It’s sometimes necessary to restrict certain things: An interview with David Danzmayr

Talking music with the Oregon Symphony’s new Music Director

With over twenty years at the Oregon Symphony, Carlos Kalmar gave his farewell to Portland with the final cancelled season and their Grammy nomination. He will be joining the faculty at the Cleveland Institute of Music as the Director of Conducting and Conductor of Orchestras to train the next generation. The Symphony found an up-and-comer in David Danzmayr to take his place as music director for what will hopefully be a long tenure. 

Danzmayr comes to Portland via Austria. In Europe, he won a conducting scholarship with the Gustav Mahler Youth Symphony, where he studied under the greats Claudio Abbado and Pierre Boulez, and served as chief conductor of the Zagreb Philharmonic in Croatia. His work in the U.S. includes his tenure at the Illinois Philharmonic and with ProMusica Chamber Orchestra in Columbus, Ohio.

The Oregon Symphony concert he conducted as an unofficial audition was one of the highlights of the last season: Stravinsky’s Firebird, Colin Currie’s performance of the Akiho Percussion Concerto, and Ives’ Three Places in New England. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more difficult assortment of pieces from the repertoire for a young conductor. The Concerto is especially notable, a new work of staggering polyrhythmic complexity that Danzmayr handled with ease.

danzmayr
David Danzmayr.

The question is: what does it mean? Will Danzmayr’s conducting style differ radically from Kalmar’s? Looking through reviews of Danzmayr’s conducting, critics have praised his handling of the repertoire and his technical proficiency in fairly vague terms. From my listening, I’m struck by some of his bold interpretations. For instance, note how in this performance of the Blue Danube he savors the accelerando as the dance slowly builds momentum up to the climax. For one of the few classical works to gain massive cross-cultural popularity, he gives new life through his masterful conducting. He achieves a similar effect in this excerpt from Mahler’s First, letting each of the woodwind melodies pop out from the string texture like the bird songs they are evoking.

The circle of conductors is quite small and elite, as it remains such a specialized subject that it still needs to be taught one-on-one. As such, it’s no surprise that Danzmayr has run into former Oregon Symphony conductors before. Kalmar met him when David was a young man, and asked if Danzmayr was related to the composer Wolfgang Danzmayr. He said “yes, that’s my father.” Danzmayr also took part in a competition where James DePriest was judging. If nothing else, this says that he is of the same milieu of top-tier conductors the OSO has enjoyed for decades. 

The role of the conductor is a complex one. Danzmayr describes it well, and in a pretty humorous way in this video. Conductors don’t just get in front of a hundred musicians and wave their arms around: they guide the musicians in interpreting and shaping the music and help define the identity of the organization. As much as we love Kalmar’s dancing and swaying at the podium, he has moved on. This provides a chance for a new personality to rise to meet our orchestra and guide us into the future as it grows and gains more national recognition.

We wanted to get to know Danzmayr better and understand how his personality will guide the course of the symphony. So we sat down and spoke with him about the future of the Oregon Symphony, his background and his thoughts on music more generally.

Danzmayr’s answers have been condensed and edited for clarity and flow.

The a-ha moment

There were many of these moments throughout my life and career because music just generally grabs me emotionally. The first time as a kid hearing The Firebird I just got really addicted to the piece. When my mom needed peace and quiet she’d put the headphones on me and put on The Firebird, or The Magic Flute, or any kind of pop music. I was only three years old. There was an extreme response from me to that piece that completely sucked me into orchestral music in general.

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I remember the time in Austria when I first learned the score. I didn’t want to ruin the piece for myself. When you analyze and learn a piece you get a different perspective, and I wanted to make sure that I don’t overnalyze it and don’t lose this magic experience for myself, what this piece means to me. 

I conducted The Firebird with the Oregon Symphony. It was the fifth time or so I did the piece. Charles Calmer and I were smart with what we wanted to do with the concert. When you come as a guest conductor it’s between you and the artistic administrator to shape the concert. He knows what they need in the season, what pieces have been played before and you [as a conductor] know what you’re good at. On my first program I conducted the Brahms First Symphony. Charles and I haggled and discussed and traded pieces and ended up with programs that both sides would enjoy. 

Learning the score

[In] the video I detail the reality of score learning, and I give it a fun twist, but in essence it is playing the piece on the piano, memorizing, analyzing the structure. I just learned today the first movement of the Dawson Negro Folk Symphony which we’ll play next season. I could tell you what I did exactly: I was playing on the piano and then analyzing and marking up the score. It’s now a structured process, but I think every conductor has a different approach, looking at it from different angles. You listen to a couple different recordings, so it’s a multi-tiered approach. That’s the outset and once you know the piece pretty well then you can go deeper and try to understand it better. 

I’m looking first for harmony, melody and structure. Once I understand that really well, it’s basically a technical analysis, and then understanding comes from interpretation–what’s the tempo, where the tempo relationships are, and then a deeper understanding of why the composer wrote the piece, what different parts mean, how they relate to each other. The first is structural, harmonic and melodic and learning the notes, the print of the score, and things like tempo come naturally out of that. 

It can sometimes be too much. Learning a score from scratch is extremely hard work. I will say, every time I learn a new score, it still feels like a big thing. Luckily now, having conducted for more than twenty years, many pieces like Beethoven symphonies and other standard pieces I’m doing for the fifth time. I still learn them but I’m looking at them on a different level. Learning a score for the first time is still hard. 

That’s the reason why as a conductor you have to be smart and not take everything on all the time. You want to be an advocate for new music, in my case more towards new American music, because composers need an advocate, someone who plays their music, and you want to play the great pieces, the standard repertoire. But you’ve got to pick and choose. If you do all styles, all eras, all countries, it’s easy to have too many scores to learn for the first time and face the danger of having a surface-level understanding. It’s sometimes necessary to restrict certain things. For example, I’m not doing a lot of French music–but our guest conductor Jun Markl is doing French music passionately, he will do more of that French repertoire. 

Programming local composers

I tend to do contemporary music targeted towards where the orchestra is. When I was director of the Zagreb Philharmonia Orchestra in Croatia I tried to push them to play more Croatian contemporary music because that’s part of the task of an orchestra, to be representative of the country and the place. It’s great to play Andy Akiho, we’ll certainly play more of him, and Gabriel Kahane just moved to Portland. Even the composers who we have in our season who aren’t in Portland, most of the contemporary music in the upcoming season is American. I think that’s part of the culture the orchestra is in, and it should be that way. It’s fantastic that Kenji Bunch had time to write this opening piece for us, I look forward to conducting it. 

There are longer-term plans for some Portland composers. Kahane is our creative partner so we will play at least one piece by him each year. I certainly have plans with Akiho and Bunch–there’s three names that are Portland-based. With the West Coast thing, I still see that different parts of America still belong to one compositional voice, if you want it in those terms. We have Brooklyn-born Nathalie Joachim as part of the Creative Alliance and I’m excited to do more from her. I also want to see what we can do in the future in terms of training younger composers.

The upcoming season

For the foreseeable future we will have a Mahler symphony every year. I just love conducting him. It’s incredible to conduct, incredible for an orchestra to play and for an audience to hear. In my approach to music making, it generally doesn’t matter what period of time you look at. I’m fascinated by pieces that evoke an emotional response or some kind of response on an intuitive level, less on an intellectual level. When you look at visual arts, we are used to using our eyes, when you look at literature you use your brain to decipher the words, in poetry they elicit a sort of emotional response. Music is very direct. I tend to like to present music that I think elicits that sort of direct response from the audience. 

What you see in the first season is indicative of the direction of the new works. I’m gonna steer it more towards American composers, there are many great living composers in America so that’s easy to implement. We have the Creative Alliance that consists of American Composers, including people like Gabriella Smith, Akiho and Bunch, and from Australia Elena Kats-Chernin

We are trying to strike a good balance between the old War Horses–which shouldn’t be a demeaning way of describing them, they are unbelievable pieces that should be played that people want to hear–and things people haven’t heard before, whether that’s world premieres, or pieces that haven’t been played in Oregon, or doing more of these composers and getting audiences more used to their voices. If you hear them again and again I think you get a sense of a composer’s voice and style, and that’s what we hope for with the Creative Alliance. Audiences would recognize their names and expect how they would sound. 

Women composers of the 2021-22 season

It’s about the quality and trying to find the quality and making quality composers accessible to audiences. I could imagine that if you heard Gabriella Smith for example, most people in the audience would enjoy it, and that will open a pathway for more female composers to get more recognition. It will become much more normal for really young women who are musically talented to think that they can become composers, and the same with conductors as well. With composition, there is nothing inherently male or female–whoever writes a great work writes a great work. And I think we’re blessed now that there are more and more interesting female composers, particularly in the United States. We have real access to a lot of good works by female composers and we should use that. 

I think it’s a natural change. Fifty years ago in symphonies you had all-male groups. The first bastion that broke were strings, where more and more women were hired. Then woodwinds, and nowadays you see where it took a little bit longer, like brass players, percussion, conductors and composers. Finally, the numbers are getting better. We’re still not where we want to be but it’s a long process. It sometimes feels like it isn’t going fast enough, but the trajectory is the correct one. It’s slower than some people might want but we are getting there eventually. 

An outsider’s perspective on American music

I was introduced to more American contemporary music by my teacher in Salzburg, Dennis Russell Davies, and I thought for a long time before I went to America that American contemporary music seemed more accessible than the more extreme stuff in Europe. After the second World War tonality was rejected for development reasons, after Scheonberg’s music people found it difficult to go back. But also for political reasons, because conservatism in musical terms, clinging to harmonies, was seen as being connected to the War in some ways. Composers tried to look for new ways of making this twelve-tone music even more strict, serialism and so forth. In essence after a long period it led to very inaccessible music for audiences, which is a problem obviously. 

It’s getting better in Europe. A lot of the younger generations you can hear they use harmonies, they use more as young people with clubbing and drum and bass, pop music, it’s just normal to mix styles. But America is ahead in the way that composers seem to be free to write what they want to write versus certain kinds of rules they have to follow. For a long time, particularly in Germany and Austria, there was this dogma. You have to avoid harmonies. I was actually told stories by teachers that students would be forbidden to write a single harmony because that wasn’t the style that was wished for. In that way I feel the freedom of American composers. Someone like Nathalie Joachim I feel like she really puts on the page what she wants to hear and what she wants to write. Andy Akiho also writes what he really wants to hear. That’s what I really want to hear. People that don’t shackle themselves unnecessary, people who write the music they want to hear. 

When I look particularly nowadays at twenty-first century contemporary American composers, I hear lots of melodies and I hear lots of jazz influences and rhythmic influences. I also hear more elements of traditional influences coming from the history of the country and that’s very good. That’s something I enjoy. When I became musical director of the Illinois Philharmonic, which was my first job in America, I was the only non-American candidate–and I got the job, so as a thank you to the orchestra community for believing in me I pledged to play a piece of American music at every concert, and I did that at every concert when I was there. 

The idea that a composer shouldn’t be influenced by their environment is a purist idea I never understood. The biggest composers were influenced by what’s around them. You should use the cultural influences that you have!

Join us next week for the rest of the conversation, in which we discuss Piazzola, Golijov, and Metallica.

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About the author

Charles Rose is a composer, writer and sound engineer born and raised in Portland, Oregon. He graduated from Portland State University with a degree in Sonic Arts and Music Production in 2019. His piano trio Contradanza was the 2018 winner of the Chamber Music Northwest’s Young Composers Competition. He releases music on BandCamp under various aliases. In addition to composing, he is a sound engineer for chamber music group FearNoMusic and is an editor of the Portland State music journal Subito.

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