Maestro Sean Newhouse is the newly appointed Associate Conductor of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. From 2005 to 2008, he was Music Director and Conductor of the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra of Los Angeles. He recently made his European debut, conducting the Silesian Philharmonic in Warsaw and Katowice, as a result of being named a major prizewinner in the 8th International Grzegorz Fitelberg Competition for Conductors.
Maestro Newhouse was gracious enough to sit down with "Classics Alive" for this interview.
Have you conducted both youth orchestras as well as professional orchestras? How are they different and what challenges do you find with each?
I have indeed conducted both youth orchestras and professional orchestras - both present unique rewards and challenges. Youth orchestras are wonderful because they take a special joy in the discovery of music, since they are usually playing a given piece for the first time. They have few preconceptions and are willing to experiment; they have a real sense of adventure and incredible enthusiasm. Professional orchestras, on the other hand, while they usually don't have quite the same sense of joy in discovery, given their experience, have the ability to penetrate quickly to the deep musical issues of a work. Their high level of technique and long experience in the standard repertoire allow them to work on a wonderful level of musical refinement.
What is your role as artistic director? Do you make programming decisions, do you choose the musicians who play in the orchestra, do you keep track of the budget, do you sell the tickets?
The role of artistic or music director varies slightly from orchestra to orchestra, but the most important responsibility is to decide what is generally called the "artistic vision" of the orchestra. This is a set of goals and priorities. Some example goals might be: the orchestra will become more proficient in performing contemporary music, or the orchestra will develop a specialty in music of the classical era, or the orchestra will make recordings, or the orchestra will commission new works. A set of these kinds of goals makes up a vision. Most artistic directors also have the biggest say in setting the programming for each season, and often play a substantial role in hiring new musicians. Another important role of the artistic or music director is to be the public face of the orchestra, representing it in the community. Usually, the artistic director will not be directly involved in the more administrative activities like budgeting, marketing, ticket sales, etc.
When you come back to a piece that you have conducted after several years, do you find that your interpretation has changed? Can you give an example?
I'm still quite young as professional conductors go - I've only been conducting for about nine years - and so the number of pieces I have conducted more than once in performance is actually quite small. The orchestral repertoire has so many wonderful pieces in it, and there are so many that I'm just dying to do, so I try to do mostly works that I haven't done before. When I do come back to a work I've done before, it's a real pleasure, because I feel I can start from a deeper level of musical understanding right away. My interpretations do change a little, but not dramatically - I mostly find myself making small adjustments in tempo and pacing, for example, so that the work has a more organic way of unfolding that holds the listener's attention better.
After conducting the same piece many times, how do you keep it fresh?
Truly great music always stimulates you and presents you with new challenges, no matter how many times you've played it. As long as you come to great music with an attitude of constantly searching for a way to present it in a more authentic and compelling way, it will always be fresh.
What is the job outlook for graduating students who want to play in a professional orchestra?
This is a great question. There are many different levels of professional orchestras, but given the large number of graduates from conservatories and university schools of music, these days, competition for most openings is extremely fierce. However, if you have the talent, and are willing to work hard and potentially lose a number of auditions before you win one, there's no reason not to pursue a career as an orchestral musician.
What you should know is that, depending on the level of orchestra you win a job in, you may find it financially necessary to supplement your income with other work (teaching, freelancing, etc., or potentially even a non-musical job). If you are fortunate enough to land a job in a full-time orchestra (there are 18 full-time orchestras in the US), then you certainly wouldn't need to supplement your income. Of course, many musicians find that having a varied musical performing life helps them keep fresh and avoid orchestra burnout.
What is the most important skill for a musician to have who is just starting to play in an orchestra?
There are many important skills involved in orchestra playing - it's hard to single out just one! If pressed, I guess I could whittle it down to two critical skills for orchestra playing. One is good counting and/or rhythm - if an orchestra can't play in rhythm together, it's hard to make great music. The second skill I would mention is the ability to divide your attention - to focus part of it on reading your music, part of it on watching the conductor and your section leader, and part of it on listening to the rest of your section and the rest of the orchestra. This ability is critical to great orchestral playing.
What advice do you have for young musicians who are interested in pursuing a career in music?
If you love music, then pour yourself into it passionately, and work as hard as you can. Find a good mentor who can both inspire you and give you a reliable assessment of your talents, and can help you set good goals. Try as much as possible to always make your first priority becoming the best musician that you can, and worry about "having a career" second. But don't neglect the latter aspect, either - try to find experienced professional musicians who can give you good advice on navigating the sometimes tricky professional world.
How do you see the future of classical music?
I see the future of classical music as generally very bright. The same innate qualities of the classical masterworks that have always spoken to profound human emotions and values will continue to do so, and contemporary composition is thriving. That is not to say that there aren't challenges - the fundraising environment for large non-profit organizations like orchestras and opera companies is ever more competitive, and the state of music education in the US leaves much to be desired. However, I have confidence that the classical music world is evolving and will continue to evolve in order to touch as many lives as possible with the great power of music.
How do you hear so many instruments all at the same time? Can you hear individual mistakes as you are conducting?
Listening to the full orchestra and hearing what is truly going on is possibly the greatest challenge of conducting. As a conductor, my goal is to know the music so well before I step on the podium - to have truly internalized the music - so that any mistake sticks out like a sore thumb. When I succeed in learning the music to that high level, then yes, I do hear individual mistakes, though if one violinist in a section of fourteen violinists plays a wrong note, I usually wouldn't be able to determine exactly which person it was.
Do you enjoy conducting more or playing your instrument?
My main instrument is violin, and while I love playing violin, I definitely enjoy conducting more, because as a conductor I feel very closely connected to every part of the orchestra. However, this is my personal preference, and it definitely doesn't mean that conducting is in any objective way better than playing violin.
Is it hard being a conductor? Do you need to be able to play all the instruments to be a conductor?
Conducting is incredibly challenging (as well as incredibly rewarding!). It requires a great deal of knowledge and many different skills. It's not actually necessary to be able to play all the instruments of the orchestra (though that would help), but a conductor does need to have a lot of knowledge about each of the various instruments: their ranges (i.e. how high and low they can play), how fast they can play, and what kinds of passages they find difficult (just to name a few aspects).
Do you need to practice conducting? What does your practicing involve? How long do you practice conducting per day?
When I first started studying conducting, I did a lot of practicing of the physical gestures to develop my skills - usually an hour or two per day. I don't do that very often anymore. However, the most important "practicing" involved in learning conducting is score study - that is, becoming as familiar as possible with the full orchestral score of the works you will conduct. I now usually spend anywhere from 2-6 hours per day studying scores - trying to hear them in my head, singing the various lines, playing some passages at the piano - so that when I step in front of the orchestra, I know exactly what I want the orchestra to sound like.
What instrument did you start with? Was there a particular person or event that inspired you to start conducting?
I began my musical studies with the violin. There was no particular person or event that inspired me to pursue conducting; it was more of a gradual process of curiosity and discovery. While playing in youth orchestras as a violinist, I began to become curious about the role of the conductor - why he made the decisions he did (particularly if he
told us to do something that was different from what it said in my violin part!) and how his gestures impacted the playing of the orchestra. That led to my desire to begin studying conducting.
What career do you think you would have pursued if you hadn't studied music?
This is a very interesting question! When I first went to college, I planned on double majoring in music and some kind of science (like physics or engineering), in case music didn't work out. I soon realized that the life of a scientist was not for me, so I switched my second major to political science (while keeping my first major in music, of course). However, I then realized that if I was going to have a chance at a career in music, I would have to focus completely on it, so I dropped my second major completely.
If for some reason I couldn't be a musician, though, I think I would love to be a film director (which has some similarities to conducting, actually, in terms of being the chief visionary of the artistic result) - or I might like to write about politics or philosophy, subjects that have always fascinated me.
Has anything major ever gone wrong during one of your performances?
I have indeed had a few performances that ended up being quite an adventure! One time, I was conducting a piano concerto, and the piano soloist had two memory slips, which caused her, in each case, to jump ahead a little bit in the music, skipping a few measures. By showing the orchestra exactly where they were supposed to come in, and in one case, quietly speaking a measure number to the orchestra (loud enough so that they could hear it, but hopefully quiet enough so that the audience couldn't hear it), I was able to keep the performance together, and we never had to stop, thank goodness. One never knows exactly what will happen on stage!
Thank you, Maestro Newhouse, for spending time with us.
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