Six Questions for Evan Mitchell

Evan Mitchell, Kingston Symphony, conductor, Kingston, OntarioThere are a lot of changes in store for The Kingston Symphony this season, which kicked off with a bang two weeks ago with an incredible performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto at the brand new Isabel Bader Centre.  In addition to the new hall, which in and of itself is a huge change for the 60-year-old orchestra, the KSO welcomes their new Conductor and Musical Director, Evan Mitchell.  After a two-year search to replace Glen Fast, who spent 23 years in the position and will continue as Conductor Emeritus, Mitchell, 34, has been appointed to a three-year term with the KSO.  Most recently, he served as assistant conductor of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra and before that he held the same position with the Vancouver Symphony where he also acted as a consultant to the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Committee.  In addition to a strong desire to bring new Canadian music to the Kingston stage, Mitchell also has big plans to engage a broader audience through technology and social media.

1. You began your musical training with a drum lesson at age 16 and pursued percussion to the university level.  While attending Wilfrid Laurier University in percussion performance, you decided to change paths, eventually completing a Masters in Orchestral Conducting at U of T.  What inspired you to pursue conducting over performance?

Well, it wasn’t an easy decision, but the realization came that I wouldn’t be able to really pursue both at a serious level, and I was feeling much closer to the music as a conductor than as a percussionist. I just felt like I had more to say as a conductor. Now, having made that choice, I can tell you that I miss playing percussion an awful lot! Ultimately though I feel like I made the right choice.

2. What is your pre-concert preparation? Do you have any rituals before and/or after a concert? Any superstitions?

I always say “It’s bad luck to be superstitious!” I’m not the kind of guy who needs two hours of silence and darkness before a concert. For me, the real focus begins when I walk out on stage, and sometimes I’m dealing with something else in the minutes leading up to the start of the concert. So maybe I’m a little more on the spontaneous side, but it works well for me because in my experience, lots of things need attention at the last minute so you can’t rely on having that time to pause and reflect before getting onto the podium.

3. At this early stage in your career, there must be many large works that you still haven’t yet had the opportunity to conduct.  I believe you said that last month’s KSO premiere was your first Symphonie Fantastique.  I realize it would be very hard to narrow down, but if you could choose just three, which major works are you most looking forward to tackling?

It’s very wise of you to narrow it down to a list of three! I would say that I’m most looking forward to my first Mahler symphony (hopeful 2 or 5) as well as Beethoven’s 3rd (my favourite of the 9) and my first complete performance of La Bohème. Runner up would be the Rite of Spring.

4. Which composers and conductors, alive or dead, have inspired you the most in your career?  Which works or composers would make up your dream concert program? 

I’ve always felt an affinity towards Beethoven. Such power, such invention and such courage! But I think my ultimate composer is Mozart. Every time I do something of Mozart’s I’m struck by its absolute perfection. And while we don’t always associate Mozart with drama, the guy could write dramatic music like no other. The operas are incredible, the concerti are sublime and the symphonies (particularly the late ones) are really the peak of symphonic music of the classical era.

My “pet” composer though is Jules Massenet. If I had an opportunity to make a programme that was all Massenet, I would do it in a heartbeat. I think he represented the very best qualities of French music from the late 19th century into the early 20th.

5. I think a lot of people expect that Classical musicians are always listening to Classical music.  Do you have other favourite genres?  What’s in your play list that people might be surprised to learn about?

I don’t have a whole lot of opportunity to listen to music in my free time, but that being said I do have a few surprises on my iPhone. Lots of 90s Canadian rock, Frank Zappa, Faith no More and the entire discography of Japanese beatboxer Dokaka.

6. Symphony orchestras all over the world are always looking for ways to reach out to a broader, and often younger audience to help keep Classical music alive.  With this in mind, as well as the desire to be current and accessible, you are bringing some exciting new digital initiatives to The Kingston Symphony.  Can you tell us what’s in store for the KSO audience?

We’re starting a whole new project that’s entitled “Before the Downbeat” and it’s aimed at not only enhancing the concert experience for current ticket holders, but also enticing a broader audience (while not alienating our current concert-goers!) In terms of digital initiatives, we have a podcast made for each week in which the KSO has a concert, and that deals with the repertoire for that given concert. The podcast series is entitled “What’s On!” and is recorded by yours truly. For each of out Masterworks series concerts we are presenting a video series entitled “The Dress Rehearsal” which gives a behind-the-scenes peek at the Masterworks concert we are preparing. We’re also trying out a new initiative called SoundSync which turns your smartphone into a silent concert tour guide. Live updates will be sent to your smartphone during the concert giving you insight as to what’s going on at that specific moment in the piece. While often we think of smartphones as something that has no place in the concert hall, this is an example of using the technology for a great purpose. The information helps guide your listening experience to a specific section onstage, and gives you knowledge and insight about the piece being played and how it works. We’ve found this is a very effective service for both younger audiences and those who are curious but perhaps not so technically inclined. It’s very easy to use. The CBC hailed it as the best usage of technology in the orchestra concert hall in 2013.

On the non-digital side, the most important feature we are introducing is a pre-concert talk for all of our Masterworks concerts. It takes place one hour before each Masterworks performance and it is free with a concert ticket. I host them and hope to include members of the orchestra in a dialogue in the future. This is a great way for those who want to have a deeper sense of what’s going on to satisfy their thirst for knowledge, and get many specific tips on what to listen for.

Finally, we are expanding our Family concert programming, which to me is absolutely integral. This season we are performing two concerts that are aimed at 4-12 year old kids as well as their friends and family, and they will be a fabulous way to spend a Sunday afternoon. We’re hoping that this series takes off and we can expand to include a third concert as soon as possible. These concerts are not only a wonderful weekend activity for families of all types and sizes, but also they introduce this great music to kids at a young age, which means they can appreciate it over a lifetime.

So were doing quite a lot to entice new audiences!

Danielle Lennon

Danielle Lennon is Kingstonist's Co-Founder. She was the Editor, Community Event Coordinator and Contributor at-large (2008-2018). She is otherwise employed as a section violinist with the Kingston Symphony, violin teacher, studio musician and cat lover. Learn more about Danielle...

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