|Mercurio bridges musical and national borders.|
The last time Prague concert-goers saw American composer and conductor Steven Mercurio, he was at O2 Arena, leading the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra on Stingʼs “Symphonicities” tour. Presumably the audience will be a little different for his appearance this week with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, conducting a program of Bernstein, Grofé and Gershwin. Reached at his New York studio before he left for Europe, Mercurio talked about the upcoming concert, working with European orchestras and the demands of being a rock ʼnʼ roll conductor.
How did the concert with CNSO come about?
I did an Andrea Bocelli tour with the orchestra in Italy a few years ago. They were great to work with – people were saying, “Wow, this sounds just like an Italian orchestra!” So we decided to do another project together. Itʼs been a question of finding the right date and the right program.
And how did you decide on the program?
The orchestra wanted an American program, and had a pianist [Marcel Javorček] to play Rhapsody in Blue. An American in Paris, which Iʼve done in quite a few places, is a natural companion piece. They also wanted something by Leonard Bernstein, who was one of my teachers, so weʼre doing his Candide overture. The last piece was the hard one to find, because we wanted to do something else typically American, but not so common. I suggested Ferde Groféʼs Grand Canyon Suite, a very lyrical, very pictoral piece that fits right into a tone poem type of program.
Can European orchestras play American music?
Iʼll tell you what: If I can get a local Italian orchestra to play American in Paris the way itʼs supposed to go, then Iʼm sure weʼll do fine in Prague.
Whatʼs your approach?
If I succeed at these concerts, itʼs because I am able to convince the musicians that their physical participation, their sense of wanting to play, is just as important as playing the right notes. These guys are all super players, their technical ability is more than high enough. But to put the music over, you have to enjoy it. So itʼs a question of encouraging them, and pushing them, and leading them into places where maybe they donʼt normally hang out.
Do you find that orchestras vary from country to country?
Sure, every culture has its strengths and weaknesses. Italian orchestras, for example, are incredibly, incredibly expressive. But they can be sloppy, and not very tight. So you have to slow it down, take things apart, show them the inner workings and be very patient. An English orchestra, on the other hand, reads incredibly well. But between the first and second and third readings, thereʼs often not that much of a difference. So youʼve got to really work with them on expression: That was good, but now letʼs interpret the piece and say something with it, not just be happy with the fact that it was played well.
And Czech orchestras?
They donʼt read as well as the Americans or British, but they give you a longer session, so you have the time to walk through a piece and explain certain things. Thatʼs part of their process – letʼs stay calm, and just move forward. Thereʼs no panic, like you have to accomplish everything in five minutes, as there is sometimes in America or England or Germany.
What was it like to work with Sting?
That was fun, but conducting was only a small part of what I did. When you deal with the pop world and symphony orchestras, there are two models. One is the Boston Pops, where you have a big orchestra and a pop person who is a little out of place, and the music tends to sound gooey and artificial. The other is the Metallica mode, where itʼs basically a rock ʼnʼ roll concert, and the orchestra is a bunch of props. We decided early on that we wanted a balance, where the orchestra and the pop side are really 50-50 partners. That took a lot of time and skill – we were constantly rewriting and rehearsing new arrangements while we were on tour, fixing and changing things so that Sting could keep the basic quality of who he is, while the orchestra could utilize its full palette of sounds.
What was the reaction?
I got lots and lots of letters and e-mails from people saying, “I had never been to an orchestra concert before, so I didnʼt know what to expect. But boy, I had a great time.”
Was that something you were trying to accomplish?
As a conductor, itʼs my job to get people into the concert hall, show them that classical music can be entertaining, and convince them that they should come again. Thatʼs what Bernstein did, and thatʼs the model I follow.
My philosophy is that conductors fall into two groups — inclusive and exclusive. There are some conductors who, if somebody even sneezes, turn around and give them a dirty look, which drives me up a wall. With Bernstein, it was inclusive: This concert hall is my living room, and youʼre my invited guest. Come in and listen, and let me show you why this piece is great.
As far as Iʼm concerned, if people want to applaud at the end of the first movement, be my guest. And if they want to stand up and scream and yell, thatʼs a good thing.
For information about the CNSO concert: http://cnso.cz/files/koncerty/6koncerten.pdf
And more on Steven Mercurio: http://www.stevenmercurio.com/