Illinois Philharmonic’s new conductor wants to be an advocate for neglected American music

Tue Nov 06, 2012 at 9:18 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

David Danzmayr will open his first season as music director of the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra Saturday night in Frankfort. Photo: Tom Finnie

What is it with Austrian conductors and American music?

One of the most laudable elements of Carlos Kalmar’s success at the Grant Park Music Festival has been his consistent advocacy of homegrown repertoire.

His young compatriot David Danzmayr appears to be cut from the same cloth. The 32-year-old Austrian maestro opens his debut season as music director of the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra Saturday night in southwest suburban Frankfort.

His first season program will offer some populist favorites to be sure, including Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 and Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez with guitarist Ana Vidovic.

Yet Danzmayr has also programmed The Incredible Flutist by Walter Piston, one of our most neglected composers.

“He’s a genius,” said Danzmayr, speaking from London. “He’s very seldom performed in Europe and even in the states his music is not played very often.

“It’s funny, isn’t it? It seems that people like Copland tend to overshadow basically everybody else. Don’t get me wrong, I like Copland but I believe Piston’s music is every bit as good as Copland’s. I’m totally in love with The Incredible Flutist.

Danzmayr is an enthusiastic advocate for American repertoire and has programmed a work by an American composer on three of the IPO’s five programs this season. In addition to Piston’s Incredible Flutist, this season will also bring Copland’s Lincoln Portrait and the Illinois premiere of Lee Actor’s Divertimento for Small Orchestra.

Danzmayr’s commitment to performing American works is welcome news considering the absence of domestic orchestral repertoire on local programs, most conspicuously those of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in recent seasons.

“I’ve made a kind of pledge that next season every program will have an American piece of music,” said Danzmayr. I think it is very important than an American orchestra has some focus on playing American music.”

Danzmayr received his musical training at the University Mozarteum in Salzburg, where he began as a pianist, later switching to conducting. 
Pierre Boulez and Claudio Abbado were early influences as a young conducting associate with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra as well as Leif Segerstam during further studies at the Sibelius Academy.

He served for three years as assistant conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, an orchestra he still appears with regularly. He has guest conducted the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the Sinfonieorchester Basel, Mozarteum Orchester, and the Bruckner Orchester Linz.

So how did someone schooled in cornerstone European repertoire become such an omnivorous fan of American music?

“I just think America is very blessed [musically], especially with contemporary stuff. If you look at Europe in the 60’s and 70’s many composers took the approach of serial music. On the other hand in America, many composers took a more mixed approach with jazz and with popular music.

“I’m thrilled in many ways that the world is coming together. Especially in western Europe. In my lifetime the [Berlin] wall came down, and there is a kind of new order and democracy taking place.

“On the other hand, in many countries people tend to import things from outside and don’t really think about the things they have to offer. And so as a music director of an American orchestra, it’s very important for me to conduct music of people connected to this country and the community. You have composers like Arthur Foote and Edward MacDowell who just never get played.”

Danzmayr made a strong impact last season in his debut with the Illinois Philharmonic, a concert that won him his new post. In return, he was impressed with the level of playing of the IPO in Mendelssohn’s Reformation symphony.

“It’s a very tricky piece and it went very well. They have a good work ethic and they picked it up very quickly.

“I mean, there are things which need improvement in every orchestra and I think that over time, we will make some changes and tweak where we can.”

Danzmayr said he’s very impressed with the local pool of freelance talent which the Philharmonic draws from. “We just hired two new violinists, a cellist and a principal clarinetist and all four of them are just brilliant! The young players are trained so well and are so prepared. I’m very happy.”

In addition to American repertoire, Danzmayr also wants to perform more contemporary music from all countries and begin to start commissioning works. “There are so many good people writing music nowadays.”

Married with a 2-year-old daughter and a 1-1/2-year-old son, Danzmayr believes that having a stable home life and family makes him a better conductor.

“There’s no question, at least for me. You know, when you’re young and you’re a conductor sometimes you can be overprepared and your conducting can be a little stiff.

“In front of an orchestra you have to be in control but you also have to be considerate and relax a little bit and have a little freedom.”

David Danzmayr conducts the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in Piston’s The Incredible Flutist, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 and Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez with guitarist Ana Vidovic at Lincoln-Way North Performing Arts Center, 19900 S. Harlem Ave. in Frankfort.

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