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INTERVIEW
Interview with Crafton Beck


1. Mr. Beck, this is your ninth season with MSO. Could you share with us some of your most memorable moments during these nine years?

It's actually my tenth season, and they have really flown by.
Appropriately enough, I feel like we've done our best playing in recent years. Our performances of Ravel's Daphnis e Chloe, Stravinsky's Petrouchka, and last week's Don Juan all stand out as recent example of this. Looking further back, one of the first great evenings we had together was in performance of Tchaikowsky's Fifth Symphony. Of course, some of our most memorable moments together have been off the main stage: a couple of absolutely perfect spring Pepsi Pops evenings with a full moon coming up over the reservoir comes to mind, as do candlelight concerts in Vicksburg, a standing-room-only packed house in Grenada, our Star Wars concert, and other happy memories.

2. Would you describe how different you find the orchestra now from nine years ago?

Although change in personnel has been thankfully minor, the orchestra has continued to develop in many ways. We have grown together over these recent years technically and artistically. I do believe that the overall sound of the orchestra has changed, which is, of course, something far easier to experience than to describe. It has to do with resonance, better intonation, having a better acoustic shell on the Thalia Mara stage, and a sort of settling-in process which has occurred through the years: we have grown to rely and trust one another and that has a lot to do with the sort of sound we produce. I have personally learned so much from my colleagues, which, in turn, has enabled me to do my own job better, and I have watched principals and section players alike settle into ever more difficult repertoire with ease. Having said all that, the most essential characteristic of this orchestra has always been a sort of indefatigable spirit that rises up and binds us together in performances, regardless of circumstance. Not all orchestras have it. I am not certain where the Mississippi Orchestra came by it, but it is probably a simple sum of the personalities that make up the orchestra today - and to some extent the character of all the people in the orchestra who have brought us here. This characteristic has only grown with time.

3. What do you think about the audience? How did the audience change or developed its taste, interests criteria etc.?

Quite honestly, our audience has surprised me since Day One. First and foremost, it is an audience which has presence (I can always feel they are right with us) and which has passion (they so readily express their appreciation). Again, not all audiences are like that. But the audiences we play for in Jackson and throughout the state almost always respond immediately, directly, and with passion and feeling. In more recent years, it has actually been our audience which has specifically requested more adventuresome programming, in the way of contemporary and lesser known repertoire. This is extraordinary, and would be extraordinary anywhere, whether in Europe, New York, or here. And, further, every time we have actually performed one of these works, such as the Concerto for Percussion by Joseph Schwantner or Gambit by Esa-Pekka Salonen, the audience has responded on their feet! This continues to impress me and inspire me. And, of course, it must be doing the same thing for everyone else on stage as well. I would like to add one more thing: through the years we have explored any number of things, and with rare exceptions these are embraced by our public. Mozart by Candlelight was just an idea a few years ago and has now become an annual favorite. The same can be said for our annual Baroque concert and, more recently, the orchestra's commitment to perform annually in the extraordinary acoustics of Tougaloo Chapel on the Tougaloo campus. These are just a few examples of how passionately our audience has responded to our programming.

4. One look at the programs from the past several seasons shows that the orchestra overcame big challenges-Beethoven, Mahler, Hindemith, Richard Strauss etc. This season the challenges are even bigger-the opening with Don Juan-Richard Strauss, Wagner, then 2nd and 3d symphonies by Beethoven, later Mahler 2nd symphony. So, what is in store for all of us next? Could you reveal some of your plan for the Season 2010-2011?

It tends to be in my own most quiet and solitary places that I review where the orchestra repertoire and programming should proceed. As you might guess, barely a day passes in which a subscriber, an orchestra member, or a friend or passerby at a restaurant does not make a programming suggestion to me. Every one of these goes into my programming file. At this moment I have a separate file in place for each of the coming three seasons, which takes us through 2013, with repertoire, thematic, and guest artist suggestions. And, of course, both the musicians and the managing board of the MSO have Artistic Affairs Committees, talented and creative folks with whom I meet multiple times each year to construct future programming. So, that's the process. The result is a specific Long Range Plan. The 2009-2010 season happens to be the third season of our current three-year plan, adopted in the spring of 2006, which laid out our mutual goals for repertoire, programming, and guest artists. The details of this plan are based on a gentle blend of "what our audience is ready for/hungry for," "what the orchestra is ready for/hungry for," and what we can afford! So all that is background. To answer your question, next season represents the beginning of a new cycle. Without going into specifics, since we are only in the planning stages, there is some big twentieth century repertoire by folks like Bartok, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich that has not been performed here in years, if not ever, and we are looking at those works. Our template also includes at least one annual performance of a major choral work with orchestra, and there is likewise some tremendous repertoire there. We also have any number of wonderful solo artists on our "wish list," and each season makes a couple more of those dreams come true.

5. Mississippi's audience knows you as a musician fond of not just classical music, but popular music as well. We remember the impressive shows with the "Star Wars" soundtrack and the music from Chaplin's movies. Has Broadway and Hollywood always been in your interest?

It is not possible to be a professional musician today without embracing every genre of music, and this may true in America more than anywhere. Certainly, an American conductor needs to excel in all these various styles in order to succeed in a competitive field and in order to lead his own ensemble with integrity and responsibility. That said, I came extremely late to pop music. I was an extraordinarily focused, if not limited, classical musician right up through graduate school. The entirety of my training was classical in nature. Of course, having grown up in rural Arkansas, pop music like rock-a-billy, country, and (as a clarinetist) traditional band music (marches and the like) is in my bone marrow, but "Yankee" pop stuff, like Broadway, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, or the Hollywood repertoire was an unknown to me until I entered the professional world and learned it on-the-run. That said, "pops" is by definition the best music emerging from our culture, be it TV, movies, film, or Top-20, and as such, comes easily and naturally to most all of us. It's always a treat to do this repertoire. It's like Strawberry Shortcake. Of course, it's the filet I live for.

6. Two years ago, leaving Chicago Symphony, Daniel Barenboim cited increasing "non-artistic" demands being made on music directors of U.S. orchestras to expand audiences as key factor in his decision. What do you think about conductor's role in fundraising?

The simple fact is that no one can represent or even speak ABOUT the product better - if not as well as - the music director. And it is for this reason, I believe, that it should be an essential part of the music director's job to not only perform but to be a VOICE FOR the music and the art form. This is true not only in fundraising, but in the full range of activities which gets a conductor/music director's voice into the community.

7. Do you think programming should be entirely conductor's duty and privilege?

In my experience, some of the best programming ideas have come from the outside. It's analogous to the power of brainstorming: multiple creative minds are always more than the sum of their parts. Did I just mix metaphors? Anyway, our product - our line-up of solo artists, our repertoire, our thematic programming, the choice of our venues… would be nowhere as rich if I were trying to do it all myself. That said, to quote George Bush, there can only be one Decider, and the final decisions will always rest on the Music Director's shoulders, as it should be. There has always been a great flow of creative ideas since I came to the MSO, and there has always been consummate respect and support for whatever I have finally come up. Both are a blessing as I see it.

8. In season 2007-8 MSO performed several concerts with the choirs from all the Mississippi Universities. Would this kind of collaboration with local academic groups continue?

I came to the MSO with the desire to collaborate across the board with not only the various choruses - professional, children's, collegiate, etc. - around the region, but also with theatre and dance groups as well. The only requirement has been that they can bring a consistent high level of performance to the table. Through the years we have performed with just about every college choir in the state, the Mississippi Girl's Choir, the Mississippi Children's Choir, Mississippi Chorus, Mississippi Massed Choir, with three professional ballet companies, with clogging troupes and even square dancers! Specifically, 2007-2008 collaboration was not only a stated goal of our own Long Term Artistic Plan, but also a stated goal of the Mississippi Arts Commission. There were long-term discussions before and since to continue to bring these sorts of collaborations back to the stage. They naturally bring a new audience to the MSO, and they open up repertoire possibilities and introduce us to venues we would never see. They also bring invaluable performance experiences to the choruses and companies with whom we collaborate.

9. In one interview Sir Thomas Beecham said that the first time he stood in front of an orchestra he realized that this is a monster with hundred heads and if he wanted to survive he need to subdue it. How do you approach an orchestra?

Hmmm. Great question. Difficult to express. It's difficult because it is subtle. I am a different sort of conductor from most of my colleagues, and I am aware of that. Implicit in the Beecham comment is the issue of Power, and that has, quite simply, never been the focus for me. I don't mean it to be a pejorative when I say that many people go into conducting for power. I don't mean just the power of (supposedly) being the one who stands in front and tells everyone what to do, but also the sheer power of GETTING to be the one to stand in front of a Mahler symphony! But, again, that was never it for me. The best way I can describe it is that conducting has been the area which has brought me the greatest artistic and personnel challenge. Early on I discovered that few areas in the arts expose a personality or an artist "for exactly who they are" quicker or more completely than when a conductor steps on the podium. Most orchestras can assess the character and musical abilities of a conductor before they even raise their arms. And so, I learned early on that (a) conducting represented an ultimate, lifelong challenge for me and (b) in order to succeed as a great conductor, I would necessity have to conquer any number of personal demons and to perfect my ear and musical abilities with a vengeance. My experience through the years has only backed up and deepened this approach as being the right one—for me, at least. By definition, my role is social: it is my job to bring people together - to be a sort of catalyst in bring audience and orchestra together, certainly - but, more importantly, my key role is to bring together the various personalities, abilities, energies which make up the fifty to hundred players of the orchestra- to do whatever it takes to bring them into a whole. For me this is not about power. When I try to conquer a situation, it always seems to polarize it and make it worse. For me, artistry is about honesty, integrity, leadership, showing the way, motivating through inspiration more than snapping a stick. The days of the autocratic conductor - of the Toscaninis, Fritz Reiners, George Szells, and, yes, Thomas Beechams - is long gone. We live in a different world. Globally, the nation state is a concept of the past, and world is flatter, smaller; the whole of society is ever more diverse and qualitative. It is only inevitable that our social systems - including the social system represented by a fifty- to a hundred-piece symphony orchestra - should evolve, too. I have never succeeded at subduing an orchestra. When I have tried, I have always failed, which means I failed my colleagues and the music process. When I succeed, it is almost always when I am working honestly and humbly.

10. How is MSO doing in this year of recession?

The MSO is doing as well, if not actually better, than ANY orchestra I know. This is for many reasons. First and foremost, unlike many orchestras, we went into this recession in superb fiscal shape… after years of balanced budgets and even healthy budget surpluses. Second, the MSO has as strong a board and management team as I have EVER seen, and every side of the team has worked closely together to create a wise and conservative fiscal plan for the current season. Third, the MSO is in many ways the perfect size orchestra to weather this sort of fiscal environment: smaller orchestras lack the resources; larger orchestras have far greater exposure - larger payrolls, greater dependence on government and corporate funding, etc., so that when budgets need trimming, the stakes are high. Finally, certain sectors are being hit more directly in this economy, and Mississippi is less directly affected by most of these. For example, the impact of American auto industry collapse is having a catastrophic impact on the arts throughout the Midwest, including my own orchestra in Ohio.
In short, the MSO is in as good a financial condition as most any of the arts organization in the U.S., and it has done everything in its power to capitalize on its assets.

11. Would you tell us more about the regular guy Crafton Beck?

The regular Crafton Beck. I tend to be a loner, but am blessed with terrific friends and magnificent large family. I'm the oldest of six kids. Love to read, interested in philosophy, sciences, history, politics, work in the yard, go to movies. Since college days, conducting itself has introduced me to a very active lifestyle: I do lots of yoga, swimming, jogging, stretching, karate, etc.

12. What other forms of art are you fond of? What are your favorite authors?

I love literature. I love painting. I love dance. If I could choose three more lifetimes, they would be: actor/dancer, gymnast, poet. My favorite American writer today hands-down is Mark Helprin. Magnificent mind and poetic genius. Historically, I have long enjoyed Pat Conroy's novels, such as Beach Music. Another favorite these days continues to be the novels of British writer Iris Murdoch. I am reading Proust right now, too.

13. What movies do you like?

Movies are quite simply guilty pleasures. I reach for them as an escape, to get away from my own head. As such, it's the one place I tend to go more for fluff than thought. I loved "The Reader," but I I can watch Harry Potter five times. Two magnificent documentaries (of all things!) I heartily recommend to anyone are "Helvetica," and "Wonders Are Many." But I will return to "Fried Green Tomatoes" or "On Golden Pond" time and time again.

14. Favorite sport?

Favorite to watch: football. Favorite to do: swim.

15. Your favorite ways of relaxation?

Reading, sleeping on my front porch swing, long walks with my dog.

16. Your favorite dish?

Chicken enchiladas!