—David Handel, candidate for Music Director of the Longmont Symphony
By Peter Alexander
Each of the four candidates for music director of the Longmont Symphony Orchestra will conduct a concert during the 2016–17 season. When each candidate visits Longmont, I will take the opportunity to introduce him with serious questions about the job of a music director, as well as questions that help introduce each of them to the reader. I hope this will give a clearer picture of the strengths of each candidate.
The second candidate, David Handel, will conduct the orchestra on Saturday, Jan. 28. The following works are on the program: George Frideric Handel’s Overture to Music for the Royal Fireworks, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with violinist Geoffrey Herd, and the Symphonie Fantastique of Hector Berlioz.
Here are his answers to the questions I asked:
PA: What attracted you to the Longmont Symphony?
DH: There are announcements of these music director positions, and you don’t apply if you’re not interested. And the first thing to do is to investigate the orchestra. I had not heard about the orchestra before, so I investigated online, and I was impressed. And what most impressed me was when I looked for them on YouTube, and I was surprised that a community this size had an orchestra that performed on that level.
The LSO clearly possesses a professional mentality and level of accomplishment, but with a community spirit. I can only imagine that this is due to Robert Olsen’s leadership over 34 years, and the human qualities of the LSO musicians. [Because of] my background and considering my passion for orchestra building, to say nothing of the unique demographics of Longmont and the combined communities’ potential for growth, I thought that this might be a good fit.
How do you think about programming for a community orchestra? What would a season of the LSO with David Handel look like?
It’s precipitous to give you a clear idea. I think before you can structure a season you really need to dig your hands in and get them dirty and get to know the people, their preferences and the different elements in the community.
When you program a season, you really want to be thinking about what’s the makeup of that community. Otherwise, there’s no way you can achieve being relevant to the community and participate in a dynamic dialog with the contents of the community. So that’s essential. I would say that that the role of an orchestra in its programming is to reflect the values of the community as a whole, just as it is to open doors and windows to the rest of the world.
The programs I’ve seen of the orchestra in past years has been very traditional, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all— you don’t want to alienate the public. But at the same time, you want to provide an opportunity to the musicians in the orchestra, because they do it because it’s their passion, and to the public, because they’re thrilled to appreciate the art of members of their community. So you want to achieve the right balance between opening doors and windows, and performing what people in this community love.
There have recently been alarm bells for classical music and orchestras, especially the larger orchestras that have had serious budget issues and labor disputes. Do you think that these problems will affect community orchestras as well? And if not, what do you think are the challenges for the smaller orchestras?
I think that’s a really interesting question, because I think that in the United States, the community and regional orchestras are really the future of live classical music. They can be more flexible, in terms of the number of programs they present in a year, in terms of making decisions about institutional priorities.
Second, if you look at the enormous orchestras, like the New York Philharmonic, which probably has a $100 million dollar budget, or Buffalo Philharmonic, which has a barely $10 million budget, the issues that they confront of maintaining a staff adequate to meet the needs of the administration are just insane in relation to what an orchestra does. By way of example, the Chicago Symphony up until the 1950s had an administrative staff I think of just five or 10 people. Today, their administrative staff is larger than the orchestra, just to find the money to sustain themselves. So those kinds of organizations are perceived as unhealthy. But of course they can continue on, some better than others, because there is so much wealth concentrated in that community.
On the other end of the spectrum, the community orchestras, which can perform on a very high artistic level, don’t depend on such enormous budgets. They are also linked to the community on a human level—in other words, it’s not just 90 musicians onstage in a city of 10 million people. It may be a community of 100,000, and 90 people onstage that they’re going to see in the restaurants and cafes and diners in their community. In that sense, I think regional and community orchestras are better positioned than the big corporate orchestras.
How do you balance and prepare for the various aspects of the conductor’s job: the musical requirements, the social demands with the public, and the diplomatic demands with contributors, the board and musicians?
I’m the music director of two orchestras, and balancing those demands obviously is critical. I would say principle number one is that you’re not a politician, and by that I mean you’re not there to manipulate and you’re not there to articulate any political perspective. Your group of people, whether it’s the board, the orchestra itself, or the public will have people from every segment of the political spectrum. As the face of the organization, it’s not your job to take a position and suggest that your values reflect the public’s values, the orchestra’s values, or the board’s values.
The number one priority is artistic excellence, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a professional, semi-professional, or amateur orchestra: all of the people who are performing on stage, every one of them wants to participate in a magical, artistically rewarding experience.
Also part of the balancing act is that your job is to be able to synthesize the values of the board of directors, the musicians and the community, and intuit a vision for the organization, from day one looking five years down the road.
Another element is that to conduct well, you need to somehow be a natural leader. There are all kinds, but you have to somehow have that capacity of persuasion. One of my teachers coined a phrase: the impulse of will. Beyond this part (waving his arms), which is traffic management, you have to be able to project what it is you want. That goes to the rehearsal and the performance, just as it does to the board meeting.
And being a music director means being in some way a brother, an uncle, a father. I can’t tell you how many weddings and funerals that I’ve been to, and that’s been tremendously rewarding for me.
About you, now: Where did you grow up?
I’m from Buffalo New York, until I was 16, and then I went to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I loved it there. I just had wonderful teachers.
Did you come from a musical family?
Yes and no. I’m an adopted child, but I know my biological family. They are all artists—painters and singers and composers. My biological mother taught painting, and they were beatniks! They were crazy people, so I’m glad they offered me up for adoption. I had the most wonderful (adoptive) parents you could dream up. They don’t have a musical background but they are music lovers, so I had the good fortune of having a subscription to the Buffalo Philharmonic from the time I was 10, and started violin at 6. They supported every artistic interest and instinct I had.
Who are your musical mentors?
There are a lot of them, but the main mentor was Kurt Mazur, since I served as his assistant conductor. That made a huge impact on me.
Also [violinist] Ruggiero Ricci. At one point my father wanted to put his foot down and say, ‘David, Handel cannot be a musician!’ [laughs] You need to do something serious.’ So I picked up my bike, got on a greyhound bus. I called Ricci and said, this is my situation. He said, ‘Come stay with me,’ so I stayed with him, and the great thing was I had lessons all the time! Then Ricci called my father, and my father felt it was good counsel. He understood.
An additional mentor was Gustav Meier, recently deceased and the dean of conducting teachers in the U.S., a former Bernstein assistant.
Are there any other conductors whose work you especially admire?
The list is long. Wilhelm Furtwangler—his interpretive mind was always working and was very creative. Leonard Bernstein, of course. Colin Davis, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Riccardo Muti—a lot his repertoire is very exciting. Carlos Kleiber of course.
Moving on to some less serious questions: Do you have a favorite food?
I am a foodie, but it’s not just one favorite. I like lots. I love Mexican food—who doesn’t? I love French sauces, I love Russian food. You don’t see many Russian restaurants but its really, really tasty. My wife is from Turkmenistan, a central Asian country, so I like central Asian cuisine. I like sushi. I’m an omnivore.
I eat out on the road, and I love culinary adventure, but at home I love to cook. I think that every conductor thinks of himself as a chef.
As you know, Colorado is an outdoor recreation state. Do you have a favorite activity outdoors? Or are you too busy shut up in your studio studying scores?
I suppose my two favorites are skiing and canoeing. So when you asked about why the Longmont Symphony, that’s a perk.
Do you follow any sport or team?
You know I really don’t follow sports, but if the Buffalo Bills are playing or Michigan is playing, then I take an interest. That has more to do with loyalty than a particular interest. Otherwise, I love baseball, in part because the rules of the game allow for human nature—stealing bases! And because the pitcher’s role is so dynamic. And the rhythm of the game, fast, slow, fast.