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Talking violins, multiple myeloma and birdsong with Michael Fine 

The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra premieres his double violin concerto May 4.

Michael Fine, the first and only American to have been named artistic director in Deutsche Grammophon's 118-year history, rotated his laptop 180 degrees, showing me the Rhine River just outside his window. "It's called the 'Maas' here," he said, speaking via Skype from his South Holland apartment in Rotterdam. "It goes all the way to Switzerland, and the sort of harp-like thing is the bridge. It's a delta, and this is the navigable channel in the river." His voice is low and mellifluous, and his speech is measured. He demurred — pursing his lips sideways and covering his face with his hands — when I began my interview by listing a few of his accolades: He's a seven-time Grammy Award winner. He's produced much-heralded recordings of Cecilia Bartoli, Anne Sophie-Mutter, Andrea Bocelli, Bryn Terfel, Renaud Capucon, Myung-Whun Chung, Sumi Jo, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra and the Czech Philharmonic. He's been acknowledged with an award for the Advancement of Women in Music, the 2015 International Classical Music Award for Best Recording in Contemporary Music, the Echo Klassik 2012 Prize, the BBC Music Magazine's 2015 "Premiere" Award and others. Then, as if those laurels weren't enough to rest on, he began composing just four years ago, at the behest of his wife and colleague, Tammy, after she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. The modern suspension bridge to which he'd gestured, nicknamed "The Swan," was part of a scene that inspired the first movement in Fine's first complete composition, "Quartet Moments I: The River by Window." He returns to Arkansas to collaborate with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra in the world premiere of his double violin concerto, to be played by ASO concertmasters Andrew Irvin and Kiril Laskarov under the baton of maestro Phillip Mann, 7 p.m. Thursday, May 4, at Calvary Baptist Church, 5700 Cantrell Road, the last in the orchestra's 2016-17 Intimate Neighborhood Concert series.

Because you've divided your long career between playing clarinet, orchestral artistic planning, classical recording production, you're probably one of only a handful of people on the planet that understand the creation of orchestral music in such depth — from its inception to the end result. Has anything occurred to you retroactively about that process, now that you've added "composer" to that list?

That's actually a very good question. Last week, I was playing clarinet in a festival orchestra in Korea, playing music by a contemporary composer, and I thought, 'Why is he writing music we can't play? I understand, as a composer, because that's what's in his head. That's what he wants to say. I make composing mistakes that, as a recording producer or as a musician, I would immediately catch and say, 'What's wrong with that guy?' I was talking about it with a very good French composer, a friend of mine named Nicolas Bacri, and he said, "It's a different part of your brain." It's a completely different part of your physical, emotional, musical makeup. ... So, I guess all the different things I do — they all inform each other. I always tell myself that if I'd just been a clarinet player, I'd be a better clarinet player. If I'd just been an orchestra planner, I'd be a better one. But, it didn't work out that way. It's too late to change it. So all of these things are part of the puzzle of music for me, and I'm happy to have the opportunity and privilege to explore all these aspects, sometimes at the same time.

Maybe it's lamentable that you stay busy enough that you couldn't have, say, written a book about how all of those things link up, especially given the state of arts funding, and how orchestras and opera companies really need to understand how their whole machine works in order to fund themselves properly.

Interesting that you say that. I was just thinking about major figures — talents so far beyond me — who were doing all of those same things. I mean, Mahler was also the greatest conductor of his time. He was a summer composer, and as the director of the Vienna court opera, the imperial opera at that time, I think he probably planned the seasons as well. He was also a pianist. So, at an exalted level, there were people who did this. But, just like in baseball now, it's an age of specialization.

In an interview last year with our own Ann Nicholson on "Arts Scene" [KUAR-FM, 89.1], you said, "I like recording in a funny way because of the falseness of it. Music is really not meant to be talked about to be recorded, it's meant to happen in time as a memory that can be fleeting or that lingers. It's like the Keats "[Ode on a] Grecian Urn." Does the fleeting nature of live performance mean that a composer should have patience with unfolding ideas?

Before recorded music, I think people listened in a more serious way. That might be the only time you'd hear the piece, and you were more aware of form, for example. ... The way people listen to music right now — I mean, who sits down for an hour and just listens to a piece of music? The phone rings. You go get a snack. It's sort of going in the background. ... Then there's mindful listening, where you are aware that it's fleeting, that the moment won't come again. There's a beautiful garden near my home. I went there yesterday, the first warm day. You realize that the way it looks at that moment is passing. There's something wistful about it, something poignant, but it's also the way our lives are. The same with music — it has to happen in time. It has to be fleeting, but you have to give the listener a chance to catch on. There's a practical side to composing, and I'm getting there. I only started a few years ago.

Which is remarkable! I'd bet there are a lot of people who assume you've been composing all this time, but you took this on, in part, at your wife's behest.

My wife was diagnosed with a disease called multiple myeloma, and the leading center for the care of multiple myeloma is in Little Rock. So, here's a puzzle for you. My wife's diagnosed with multiple myeloma here in Rotterdam. Holland is a country where everyone's insured, and it turns out that Rotterdam has one of the leading multiple myeloma centers in Europe. In fact, the guy who runs it is a rival, if you will, of Dr. Garth Morgan in Little Rock. ... In any case, the first night I was in Little Rock, I had dinner with Philip [Mann] and with a gentleman from the board of directors, Dr. [Richard] Wheeler, who's also on the faculty at the medical center. Philip knows my wife, and knows what the situation is, so he brought the subject around. So I asked, "Is there any chance I could meet Dr. Morgan, even for five minutes?" The next day, I got up and put a tie on and sat by the phone at the Capital Hotel. At 11 o'clock, the phone rang, and Philip and Dr. Wheeler were kind enough to take me to the hospital, warning me, you know, 'you may only get to shake hands.' I had an hour with Dr. Morgan — at no charge — and at the end of a long discussion, I said, "What are the three most important things I can do?" I called my wife up. Her doctor bristled a little that we'd asked somebody else, but it was OK. When I came back, I found that we had a meeting with the head of the department and they accepted Dr. Morgan's recommendations. Interestingly enough, he recommended a particular kind of scan — they'd told my wife she was in remission — it turns out this test revealed a tiny knot of cancer. It's under control, and now the other patients here are getting the test. So, I wrote a piece for strings. I sent it to Philip Mann. He decided to program it in Arkansas. By chance, I find out that a leading researcher in the field is in Little Rock. I have dinner with a guy on the hospital faculty, who arranges a meeting with this doctor. I take the information back here, and now other patients are benefiting. So, maybe that's why I wrote the piece.

I wonder why you chose to begin with something so demandingly economic and exacting as the string quartet?

Well, it's not because I'm a clarinet player, for sure. My grandfather wanted me to be a violinist. I wasn't. For me, string sound is at the heart of my work as a recording producer. It's really the key to everything I do. We're filigree, the winds and brass, sitting around doing nothing for a lot of the time, not doing music. The string section is the heart of the orchestra, and the string quartet is the heart of the string section. I actually feel much more comfortable writing for strings than for my own instrument. It just works, somehow. Although I have to tell you, I think the most beautiful music in the world is birdsong. No question. And this I wouldn't even try to copy.

Well, lots of writers come pretty close. Bartoli's rendition of Ravel's "Vocalise [etude en forme] de Habanera," for one.

I love Cecilia. We know each other. But it's still not birds.

You've worked with an extensive list of stunning artists, and because we tend to take for granted what's in our own backyard, I think maybe a lot of people here in Arkansas don't realize that their very own symphony has a place on a list next to names like the Vienna Philharmonic, Seoul Philharmonic. You could work with anybody you wanted to. Why do you keep coming back to Arkansas?

Well — and I mean this very genuinely — I've heard Philip work now with the London Symphony, with the Busan Philharmonic in South Korea, and he's a fine musician. He found things in my music that I didn't know were there. He made my music more beautiful to me. I can't think of a higher compliment as a composer.

Because this is a world premiere, the audience will go in knowing very little about this double concerto. We know it will be played by Drew Irvin and by Kiril Laskarov, the latter of whom will play on a 300-year-old Stradivarius. How early did you know that the concerto would be played on the Le Brun? And did that affect anything about what you wrote?

It was already written, and when I came to Arkansas last year, Kiril had just borrowed the Strad; Philip went to New Mexico and brought it back from the secret lender. I wrote the piece as a kind of response to two famous double violin concertos — the Bach, of course, the most famous, and Malcolm Arnold's, which I recorded years ago. It has a section I really like, sort of a pastoral F major thing in the middle that's pretty, and there are moments that sound a little Russian, but the inspiration is really an old-fashioned concerto grosso. My music is not terribly profound or challenging; it's meant to be enjoyed. It's not avant-garde. If I wanted to be a famous composer, I'd start my avant-garde period. Maybe when I'm 80.

For this concert, the premiere of Fine's double violin concerto will be bookended by Bach's "Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor" and Copland's "Appalachian Spring" suite. Tickets are available at arkansassymphony.org or by calling 501-666-1761.

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