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Q&A with ASO Conductor Philip Mann 

Taking the corner.

click to enlarge INDELIBLE MOMENTS: Conductor Phillip Mann leads the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra in a program of Bizet, De Falla and Tchaikovsky this weekend.
  • INDELIBLE MOMENTS: Conductor Phillip Mann leads the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra in a program of Bizet, De Falla and Tchaikovsky this weekend.

On paper, it's hard to imagine Philip Mann ever wanted to be anything but an orchestra conductor. He picked up the violin at age 5. His stepfather, Jan Roshong, was an oboe player and conductor/founder of the San Juan Symphony, in which Mann's mother, Rochelle Mann, was the principal flutist. Critics describe Mann's approach with words like "tender" (Voronezh Philharmonia), "clever" (Enkopings Posten, Sweden) and "a skilled musical architect" (San Diego Tribune). Yet Mann assumed he'd pursue science — physics or engineering. Then his stepfather died of cancer, and on that day, in 1994, police had to block the street because so many people turned up for the memorial service. That was an "indelible moment," Mann said. "I looked around and saw that, and it left an impression on me — that a conductor is given a soapbox to articulate things and influence families, young artists and entire communities. ... That's where it started."

Over eight seasons at the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, Mann has transformed the organization into a symphony in the black, looked to nationally and internationally as an aspirational model. ASO performs Tchaikovsky's fiery Symphony No. 6, Op. 74 in B minor ("Pathétique") with pianist Tatiana Roitman Mann — Mann's wife — preceded by Manuel de Falla's "Nights in the Garden of Spain" and excerpts from Georges Bizet's "Carmen" at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 27, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 28.

Describe what it was like coming to Arkansas, which isn't exactly on the classical music map.

At the time, I was working in Sydney, Australia, and San Diego, and I had the opportunity to guest conduct and I immediately felt an incredible chemistry with the orchestra. I just felt this tremendous potential. It was an orchestra that was hungry and craving inspiration and was very ambitious in a way. It was aspirationally poised to want to do something special and I saw it as a great opportunity.

This was my first music director appointment of a large orchestra in the United States. It was also the chance for me to use the position of music director to make a difference in a large place. ... Without going too far into the story, ASO has become a national and international success story that other orchestras are using as a model right now, including legacy great orchestras like the Cleveland Orchestra. We've simultaneously increased the quality dramatically — so we have a extraordinary artistic product now — but we've done it in a financially sustainable way. ... That's very encouraging and satisfying for us at the orchestra, that we're bringing attention to our great state in a really positive way.

Can you elaborate on what that immediate chemistry with the ASO felt like?

It's a little like dating, where you don't know when you'll have that spark, but it was immediately clear. What I'm really talking about is that very special and mysterious, ineffable type of communication conductors have with an orchestra. It's nonverbal, it's with our eyes, expressions and what we do with our hands.

I felt like it was an orchestra that had been led very successfully by my predecessor [David Itkin] and brought many levels up, but was poised to take another big step forward artistically. It felt like the musicians were asking for permission to take risks. When I embraced the relationship, gave them permission to take risks and not be afraid of failure, their personalities blossomed. Musical growth happened in every corner of the orchestra.

For me, the relationship is a charmed one that I'm very lucky to have. We knew in that first rehearsal that we had some chemistry. Sometimes when you have this immediate, big flashy spark, things won't continue to build, but they continued to build all the way through the week and into each performance. Each performance was memorable — the kind of experience that you carry with you for the rest of your life. I draw on those remembrances of those first performances as a reminder of how far we've come, and also how we started off together. There was a sense of momentum and kind of passion. There was an abandon to the performances that was very invigorating.

Now that you've grown with the orchestra, take a look back and describe the flavor of the ASO.

I love that it's become a place where people take risks. It's got this sense of being alive, this kind of visceral sensation, a visceral energy that our audiences immediately pick up on. ... It keeps things fresh and alive in a good way.

A few other characteristics come to mind. There's this really wonderful esprit de corps camaraderie of family on stage where people feel supported, so people will really put themselves out there.

The second characteristic is I'd say it's an agile group. Sometimes when you're on the podium, different orchestras feel different on the stand — almost as if you were at a racetrack and you were driving different cars. ..... This is an orchestra that really likes to take the corner. They are flexible and malleable. They will speed up and turn left or right on a dime. For me, it's an absolute joy to tackle Mahler or Strauss, the Viennese repertoire works that require incredible flexibility at all moments where every phrase might have slightly different tempo modifications within it. There's an improvisation to that, a spontaneity that feels in some ways improvised — or at least fresh — even if something is well rehearsed.

The third thing I'd mention is that they have a sensitivity in accompaniment with guest artists that comes from a very broad color palette. They have created this enormous range of possibilities of color that is particularly rare in the U.S. The most frequent comment I get from guest conductors and guest artists is that they don't sound like an American orchestra. That's not to say that that's a derogatory thing. I'm an American conductor and grew up with American orchestras, so it's not pejorative at all, but there's a European sensibility to this group.

Let's discuss Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" symphony, which you're tackling in the upcoming Masterworks concert.

It was written in 1892, and came in a time in his life where he was having the composer's equivalent of writer's block and really stuck. He was questioning himself, questioning the role of writing music in his life and he had a relationship that bloomed that was supportive for him, a relationship which is full of all sorts of controversy in musicology. He received advice from this person and he begins writing again, and it flows quickly and with great inspiration. You might consider this piece the result of a newfound muse, perhaps.

It quotes Russian Orthodox hymns for the dead but also features extraordinary soaring themes of love and passion. At the end is one of the most poignant and powerful pianissimos you will ever hear. It's strings and four p's, so pppp. It creates a setting where you're afraid to break the silence. The program has an arc. ... It's a journey of the whole range of human experience, especially in life and loss, love and death. ... I love this program because of the mystery that ties it together. And I have the great fortune of working with my wife, Tatiana, as a soloist.

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