Know Your Art: Symphony Conductor Brett Mitchell

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Brett Mitchell. Photo by Jeff Nelson

If he hadn’t found his calling in music, Brett Mitchell—the 38-year-old Seattle native who assumes command of the Colorado Symphony this fall as the organization’s fourth music director—might have made a decent cult leader in another life. He’s self-assured, charming and prone to expounding on the virtues of classical music with such singleminded fervor that, listening to him, one feels the urge to run out, buy a bassoon or cello and start logging practice hours. He also has a knack for leading large groups of passionate people—a talent that has made him one of the most successful and sought-after young conductors in the country. In his short career, he has served as associate conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, assistant conductor of the Houston Symphony and assistant conductor of the Orchestre National de France, as well as a handful of other equally impressive titles. Now he’s bringing his considerable ability to Denver, kicking off his four-year tenure with a season featuring a diverse array of performances—from Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” to the score of “Jurassic Park.” We sat down with Mitchell to ask about life on the conductor’s podium.

Did you grow up with classical music? Actually, no. I come from a family of a lot of wonderful people, none of whom are musicians. When I was growing up, we didn’t really have classical music in the house. The only thing we had was an LP of (Vladimir) Horowitz that my mom owned and a cassette with “The Nutcracker Suite,” by Tchaikovsky, on one side, and “Peter and the Wolf,” by Prokofiev, on the other. That was it.

So you discovered classical music on your own? Exactly. I was in high school when I started composing and conducting. During my sophomore year, the high school band took a trip to Disneyland, where we saw a nighttime show called “Fantasmic.” At the time, the sheet music for that show hadn’t been released, but my band director, whom I’m still very close with, said she wanted to play some of those songs. She knew I had a good ear, so as we were going through the show, she had me write down the music that I was hearing on a paper towel. Then I bought the CD, and over that summer, between my sophomore and junior years, I transcribed the music and arranged it for my high school band. It was at that point that the band director said, “Why don’t you just conduct it yourself?” I was 16. It was the first performance I ever conducted, October of 1995. I still remember standing backstage, shaking like a leaf.

Then you studied music in college? Correct. I got my composition degree at Western Washington University because I thought I wanted to score films. About halfway through college, I decided I wanted to conduct instead of compose. When you’re a composer, most of what you do is alone. Being a conductor, you get to work with your colleagues in the orchestra, the chorus, and then you get to play for thousands of people. It’s much more social. That’s why I made the switch. The solitary part of being a composer just didn’t do it for me.

What abilities does a conductor need? Communication skills, definitely. Group psychology is an enormous part of it. Leadership, of course. If you looked at my bookshelf at home, most of what you would find would be music books and books on leadership.

What about the people who say, “Classical music is boring—it’s not for me”? Part of the issue is that when people think of classical music, they think of music by—and I mean this with love in my heart—Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann. And that music actually takes a little bit more effort to get inside of, because it gets played on classical radio like background music. Now take Mahler, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky—those boys weren’t writing background music. Their music is intended to grab you by the throat. So when people say, “Oh, classical music is boring,” it may just be that their entrée into classical music was not the best. Frankly, Bach and Haydn and Mozart wrote a lot of music that was designed to be background music; it was music for rich people to eat dinner by. But that’s not the kind of thing I’m interested in programming and conducting.

How do you hope to make the Colorado Symphony’s 2017-18 season unique? It’s really important in life—whether you’re on a date or conducting an orchestra—that people be themselves. There’s nothing worse than pretending to be somebody you’re not. So long as I remain genuine and authentic in who I am, I think I’ll bring something new to the table.

What drives you, artistically and professionally? When I was a little boy, during the days I had a caretaker named Janet who looked after me. One morning, my mom was getting ready to take me to Janet’s house, and we were listening to the radio. A song came on that I’d never heard, and it hit me really hard. “Do we have a record of this?” I asked her. This was around 1982. She told me we did, so I said, “I want to play this song for Janet. It’s so pretty.” Rather than argue with a 3-year-old, which is never a winning strategy, my mom drove us to Janet’s house and we sat together, the three of us, grouped around the record player, and listened to Barry Manilow’s “Mandy.” I was as happy as could be. I tell this story a lot because I feel it illustrates exactly what I do today. I find music that I love, and I share it with people. Whether that’s two people in a living room in Seattle in 1982, or 10,000 people at Red Rocks in 2018, it doesn’t matter to me. I do what I do because I feel impelled to share the music I love.

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