Photo by Portraits by Gregg
Interview by Jeanne Lesinski
September 8, 2010

This year the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra celebrates its 75th year of making music and the arrival of its new music director, Brett Mitchell. Cause for celebration all around. The young and energetic director talks enthusiastically about his arrival in Saginaw where, as he says,  "Over the next few years, we'll try to make SBSO a truly 21st-century orchestra."

Jeanne Lesinski: What does a musical director do?

Brett Mitchell: The musical director conducts most, if not all, the concerts, but that’s just scratching the surface. The real responsibilities start for me with programming, deciding what is going to be played on each of the concerts we present throughout the year. That’s the gist of the musical responsibilities, but it’s also to be an artists' ambassador for the community who presents all the arts not just music to the community of Saginaw. Bring in all the arts as much as we can. I have such a varied background with music; it wasn't primarily classical until about 10 years. I grew up with pop and jazz. So, there’s a relate-ability factor that comes with the job.

JL: How did you audition SBSO for your needs?

BM: True, whenever you’re being interviewed for a job, you’re also interviewing your possible future employer. Most of my work and the symphony’s work was done before hand. I was looking at Saginaw, Bay City and Midland, looking to see how I could make a contribution. It had to be somewhere where my particular skills and talents could make a contribution to the community. Looking at the orchestra where it is and the high quality of the musicians, great board and community support combined to assure me that the orchestra is in a healthy place now, and it’s time to take it to another level. Everyone is eager to get to that next step. During my week there it became clear to me, and to them too, that this was the right relationship to take the SBSO to the next level.

JL: When you look out from the stage at the audience in the Temple Theatre, whom do you see?

BM: The nice thing about SBSO is that it’s a much more diverse population that attends our concerts than a lot of orchestras. The perception is that it’s more older, well-to-do people who come, and we certainly have a share of them as well. A big chunk of our audience is moms and dads in their 40s looking for a way to have a fun night out. Lots of people in their 20s and 30s are coming too. I don’t know if that’s a Saginaw thing, or if it has to do with breaking down barriers. Maybe someone young on the podium helps. That’s a really heartening thing for me about Saginaw.

I would say that people in their 30s came to classical music from listening to 70s bands like ELO [Electric Light Orchestra] and Emerson Lake and Palmer. How I came to classical music—and probably other people my age—was through film scores. I think that is the relate-ability for my age. I grew up with Star Wars and films with big symphonic scores. That sound has been in our ears all along. It’s just a matter of taking it from the background to the foreground.

JL: Do you have a guilty pleasure as far as music is concerned?

BM: No. I don't; it's not that I don't listen to a wide variety of music that wouldn’t be palatable to the more classical minded music fan. There’s better and worse Mozart or better and worse Beatles. It’s what appeals, what speaks to you at the time that counts. Everyone thinks Mozart is an unparalleled genius; he wrote 40 symphonies, but we only play 6 or 7 regularly; that’s not to say that it isn’t quality work, but compared to other Mozart works, some are simply better. [Listen to an excerpt of  Mitchell conducting Mozart's 40th Symphony.]

JL: As an accomplished musician/conductor, is it possible to turn off your analytic mind when you’re listening?

BM: Yes. The eventual goal of music is to be appreciated, and if all that you’re thinking about is secondary dominant 7th, etc. you’re going to miss the message the composer wanted to get to the audience. … All composers are trying to convey some message; the more your head is involved in analyzing it, the less your heart is involved in enjoying it. If I’m going to sit down through a symphony, I’d much rather be swept away.

JL: Tell me about the educational initiatives you have planned.

BM: First of all, one educational concert per year. I conducted an educational concert last year with the SBSO. That is something I believe in very strongly. My other position is with the Houston Symphony; there we do a dozen educational concerts a year for about 30,000 kids. 

When kids come to orchestra concerts, they’re not just getting an education in classical music. I view the concerts as an opportunity to listen more critically, to listen more thoughtfully. The way I do it happens to be with music, but you’ll have better critical listening skills in the classroom, and you’ll have better critical reading skills. So, if I can help kids listen to an orchestra, they’ll benefit in the schooling. I’m interested in showing them how to listen to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony; we'll have a lot of interaction. That’s something that we’re going to be doing a lot of in Saginaw.

Opening night of this historic season is Saturday, September 18th at the Temple Theatre. For more information, visit events calendar. Make sure you're in your seat by 7:15 to hear Mitchell's pre-concert talk.

© Jeanne Lesinski, 2010