Meet the New Conductor of the Chicago Philharmonic

We have eight questions for Scott Speck, the orchestra’s first new artistic director in 23 years. He wants to perform for you—yes, you.

photograph: courtesy scottspeck.org
 

Already the musical leader of the Joffrey Ballet, the Mobile (Alabama) Symphony Orchestra, and the Muskegon-based West Michigan Symphony, Scott Speck was named the new artistic director of the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra last week, replacing Larry Rachleff after 23 years on the podium. Speck, 51, also co-authored Classical Music for Dummies, Opera for Dummies, and Ballet for Dummies.

You’re no stranger to the Chicago Philharmonic because you conduct them for Joffrey performances, right?
I’ve conducted the Chicago Philharmonic in two different capacities. I guest-conducted at them at Pick-Staiger [Hall], most recently last April 22nd. Then the Joffrey hired the Chicago Philharmonic as their official orchestra, for whenever the ballet needs live music in the pit. I’ve conducted them in that capacity about 40 times. One of the things that appeals to me [about the CPO job] is to work hand in hand, since this orchestra plays for the Joffrey. And it’s very unlikely there will be [separate] concerts at the same time.

Do you plan to take CPO programming in a different direction?
Every conductor has different ideas about programming. I would like to put my stamp on the programming to the extent that it’s in harmony with the orchestra’s goals. For example, I’m a big fan of modern American music, and I’m sure some of that will show up on programs, [also recognizing that] what this orchestra does so well and with so much love is dig into the masterworks. Those masterworks, those warhorses will remain a steady part of the diet.

Do you think you’ll bring the Joffrey to the Chicago Philharmonic instead of the Philharmonic to the Joffrey?
It’s definitely a possibility. The only question is space. Even one dancer needs ten feet square. It’s a matter of how much you could fit with a large orchestra on the stage.

Do you have other collaborations in mind?
There are so many Chicago-based groups of fantastically high quality. A group like Eighth Blackbird—I’ve worked with them before, with the orchestra in Michigan, we co-commissioned a piece called On a Wire, by Jennifer Higdon. It turned out fantastic. I’ll try my darnedest to work with them eventually.

What distinguishes the Chicago Philharmonic as an orchestra?
The hallmark of the Chicago Philharmonic is that they are a true community of musicians. It’s a musician-run organization. It started as a way for Lyric Opera musicians to play above ground and have concerts of their own. [The players are] part of the governing body of the organization, so unlike other orchestras, there’s no separation between management and musicians—an especially important point at a time like today, with the work stoppages across the country.

But it’s a lot more than the governance and makeup. [Where] people all have ownership, the musicians all feel such incredibly intense psychological responsibility for the music-making process. It’s almost as if they’re reading each other’s minds, connected to each other’s nervous systems. They might look at each other and move and breathe together in a way you don’t often see in American orchestras.

What distinguishes you as a conductor?
I have been—or was—an extremely studious conductor. It totally dominated my thirties. I don’t remember my thirties. It was a lost decade. I spent that whole decade studying scores. Now, I hear something and think, wow, I know that piece. Why? Oh yeah, because I gave up six months of my life to learn it. [Sometimes I thought,] while studying a Mahler symphony, in that amount of time, I could read 12 of Shakespeare’s plays—or just goof off. Now I’m past the stage where it’s internalized. I spent a whole decade on the mountaintop trying to learn it, now I can bring it down to the people. A teacher at USC, where I got my master’s degree, Daniel Lewis, said it takes 30 years to become a conductor: Ten years to acquire effective technique, ten to learn the repertoire, and ten to be the one who makes the music. Conducting is not a profession you go into for instant gratification.

How do the Dummies books fit into your career?
I have made it my life’s mission to spread the good word about classical music in a way that erases the us-versus-them feeling. 97 percent of people never go to classical concerts, because the classical-music world—which is totally to blame—in the 20th century put up all these barriers: you have to dress a certain way, you can’t clap between movements, you have to understand the music or else you’re not going to enjoy it. One of my great joys is to tear down these barriers.

How do you get past the first step?
I think I read this in Wine for Dummies, which was the first noncomputer Dummies book. If you really want someone to enjoy a wine, you just say, “Hey, taste this.” That’s similar to how I feel about classical music.

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