by Matthew Bieker
Photography Courtesy of Classical Tahoe
Classical Tahoe, now in its sixth year, brings a world-renowned conductor from New York’s Metropolitan Opera to Incline Village for three weeks. Here is the backstory on the man who wields the baton.
Let’s start with your background in music. How long have you been conducting at this point? When you first approached classical music, did you know you wanted to be a conductor?
I’ve been making a full-time living in music for 46—going on 47—years. Perhaps longer than you’ve been alive!
Only by about 20 years [laughs].
That’s great [laughs]. I grew up in Chicago and…I was taken to a rehearsal of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, which was the official chorus of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I won’t bore you with all the details, but I was accepted as the youngest person ever in the history of the Chicago Symphony Chorus—I was a junior in high school.
Why, when I went into music, did I decide to be a conductor? When I was a kid, in grade school, many of my friends’ parents bought them a 32-box of crayons. And my parents, being very practical people, only bought me the basic 12 colors. I was always so jealous that these other kids could draw in so many more subtle colors and had a much bigger palette from which to choose. I was not good at art, but I still wanted to paint with a broader spectrum of color, and that in essence is what the orchestra gives me— as opposed to a single instrument.
I really enjoy that metaphor of you wanting to paint with more colors. Reading about the upcoming festival, just looking at the variety of nationali-ties of the musicians performing, the nationalities of the composers who’ve been chosen, it really does seem that classical music and, specifically, this program have a way of bringing people together.
It’s absolutely true. Music, and particularly classical music, has no boundaries. (An) example: We finished our season last year in Tahoe playing Beethoven’s fifth symphony, which everyone has heard a million times. (But) people leapt to their feet and just started cheering wildly. And many of these people were not experienced in classical music, but the impact and this power of this work of Beethoven, which he wrote hundreds of years ago, still reached people in a very powerful way.
When I put this orchestra together for this festival, every single person is hand-picked. We bring 17 players from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, arguably the best orchestra in the United States right now, if not the world. Eight of them are first-chair players—principal play-ers—in the Met Orchestra. The rest are principals from LA Philharmonic, San Fran-cisco Symphony, Seattle, Dallas, Toronto, Vancouver…And they come up to Incline Village for three weeks, (and) 98 percent of them return every single summer. This will be our sixth season.
In the six years that you’ve been con-ducting the Classical Tahoe festival, what have you noticed about (its) progression? Are more people com-ing to watch than in previous years? What is your plan for the festival going forward?
We wanted to bring something unique and special to the summers up at the lake. Where people could have a wonderful time enjoying the beauty of the lake and hiking and boating and all of those things, and then be able to come and immerse themselves—just come and sit in this acoustically designed tent on the campus of the college, and hear classical music played at the very highest level.
Our audiences have increased year after year after year, our donations have in-creased—we’ve been in the black for our first five years, and we hope and expect this year to be the same. I’m very optimistic about the future of the festival, and my commitment to it long term is firm, as are our musicians.
I work at the Metropolitan Opera…(and) I have so many people in the orchestra…who are part of the festival say to me, “Joel, we can’t wait for the summer, we are so excited about it, we can’t wait to come back out there.” And the ones who are not invited come up to me…and (say), “Oh, you’re the guy from Lake Tahoe. If there’s ever an opening, please consider me.” We’re getting requests from top musicians to come play this festival.
It sounds like the perfect confluence of beauty of setting and beauty of artistry.
It’s true, you just come up and hear any program…this summer, Matt, and you’ll get everything I’m saying.
Sounds like a great time. Thanks so much for speaking with me today.
The April/May 2017 issue featured a Q&A with Coach Ian Russell of the Reno 1868 FC. Read the article HERE.