Thursday, June 26, 2008

Talking with David Hattner, new conductor of the Portland Youth Philharmonic

David Hattner is the new music director and conductor of the Portland Youth Philharmonic, making him only the 5th person to hold this position with the nation’s oldest youth orchestra (established in 1924 as the Portland Junior Symphony Association). Hattner beat 111 other applicants for the job in an evaluation process that took eight months to complete.

Hattner has conducted many ensembles, including Oklahoma Chamber Ensemble, the Garden State Philharmonic Orchestra, and Camerata Atlantica, plus multi-media work with ensembles involved in silent films. He is also a professional clarinetist and has held the principal clarinet position with Princeton Symphony Orchestra, Cascade Music Festival Orchestra, New Jersey Opera Theater and Key West Symphony Orchestra.

I spoke to Hattner recently about his new gig with the PYP.

You were in attendance at the final PYP concert of the season and saw that you will be losing most of your woodwind section, which had a lot of seniors who were graduating. I understand that you are auditioning students like crazy.

Hattner: That’s right, only the principal flutist, principal clarinetist, two oboes, and one bassoonist will be returning to the woodwinds. Fortunately, we’ve heard some impressive candidates and are very confident – all the way down to the young string ensemble – about the upcoming season. Some of those who are auditioning are new to us, and some have returned for their second try with the orchestra and they are really committed. It’s exciting.

How many auditions have you heard this week?

Hattner: I think that we heard around 100 so far.

That got to be guelling!

Hattner: We have another four hours tonight, and we’ll be back in August to hear people for another several days, and then we have the seating auditions for the PYP orchestra itself. It’s a great! I’m listening to a lot of young, nervous players. It’s an exciting time.

Do you intend to keep playing the clarinet as well as conducting?

Hattner: I’ve been working too hard at playing clarinet to quit now. I’ve been playing almost 20 years professionally. But my playing will be limited to solo recitals and chamber music. But I am looking forward to meeting new people to collaborate with. I’ll probably teach a little bit – in the master class style. We have a lot of clarinets in the PYP. So, it’ll be fun.

What made you decide to become a conductor?

Hattner: I didn’t make the decision to try conducting until fairly recently. But the genesis started years ago when I first started auditioning as a clarinetist – this was for a job with a town orchestra – and was listening to someone in the room next to me warm up. And what I was hearing sounded like it came from another planet. It was so good. It turned out to be a young man, Ricardo Morales, who is now the principal clarinetist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He was using a new clarinet technique, and I could practice for 100 years and barely get close to what he could do. That’s when I thought there might be things in music beyond playing the clarinet.

Was there a time that you stood on the podium and felt that conducting was just right for you?

Hattner: No, conducting never felt natural. I thought that I was a natural musician or instead of conductor. When I tried conducting as a student, it didn’t feel quite right. But a few years ago I tried conducting some small groups and the feedback was very positive, so I thought that I’d push it more.

Later I went to Aspen to study conducting with David Zinman. And that program was terrific. Those of us in the conducting program got a dedicated, professional-level orchestra to work with.

When you initially start to learn how to conduct, it’s sort of like learning to drive a car. You have to gauge things. Check all the mirrors. Become familiar with all the controls. It’s sort the same thing with the orchestra. Conductors have to figure out what makes things go faster. How to slow them up. Mr. Zinmann would say, “Do you realize what you doing? Go watch yourself in the video tape.” He was a consummate musician and instructor. He can spot all sorts of things. You might be doing something that is getting the wrong result.

Zinman’s philosophy, in my words, was to know the score, conduct the players, and be the music. If you conduct the music but not the players, then they might follow you or not. If you conduct the players and use the right orchestra gestures, every reasonable orchestral musician will be able to follow you. Authoritative conducting and the musical wherewithal to back it up works real well. You don’t have a lot of time in rehearsal, so every second counts. If you start talking, the clock goes very fast.

I was able to attend Aspen’s conducting program three times and it really helped. I worked on the things I learned, and here I am now. And I’m as excited as anyone to lead the PYP orchestra.

Did you plan the upcoming season for the PYP?

Hattner: TI did plan the season myself. I had just done it before my trips to portland for the auditions had started.

I chose the repertoire to give the students and audience a sampling of my taste in repertoire, as well as to challenge the musicians more at each concert.

The programs have an extremely high level of difficulty. I know that I have the freedom to program almost anything for future seasons. But I keep in mind the need to program different styles and eras and appropriate levels of challenge based on the different parts of the season.

Like other orchestras, youth orchestras have an incredible learning curve from the first concert of the season to the last concert in May. They are much better in May than November. The goal is to have each succeeding season is to start a little stronger than the year before.

Since most students in PYP play in the orchestra for about three years, I’ll try to program a wide spectrum for them. They are a disciplined, motivated group, and they are very open to be challenged.

I like the student blog on the PYP web site. Will you be adding your comments there, too?

Hattner: For the web site I’ve written some thoughts for the students – about practicing their scales. Based on my playing experience, I thought that I would talk about playing scales. What’s important is the way you practice them, and the way to make it better.

And I made a Youtube video that talks about all this. It’s in three parts, but the first part contains an explanation and an example of my playing. People can check it out and see if I make any mistakes or not.

Have you been to Portland before?

Hattner: Last October I was in Portland, conducting music for the silent film “Brand upon the Brain.” It was shown at Cinema 21. It’s a recently made film by Canadian.director Guy Maddin. It’s a quirky production with live sound effects and live music. We had a narrator, Karen Black of “Five Easy Pieces” and “Easy Rider” fame.

Previous to that I had been the principal clarinetist for Murry Sidlin at the Cascade Music Festival. I came to Portland in February for a week during my audition. Many of my New York friends would love to come here. Portland is great!

What kind of orchestral music do you like?

Hattner: I love all types, but I have a real fondness for American music, especially some of the pieces that have been ignored. In the first concert of the season, we’ll perform Samuel Barber’s “Music for a Scene from Shelley” and Henry Cowell’s “Ancient Desert Drone,” Cowell wrote 900 pieces but no one seems to play him much anymore. Then there’s a favorite like Aaron Copland’s “Billy the Kid.” I’d love to do Grant Still’s Second Symphony sometime.

What are you doing this summer?

Hattner: I’ll be playing principal clarinet for the New Jersey Opera during the month of July.

Good luck with your future with the PYP.

Hattner: Thanks! It’s going to be great. The orchestra is impressive. It’s a strong organization that is very well run. The alumni are very attached. Some of my former colleagues are from the PYP, and they think that it’s terrific that I’m here. I’m looking forward to making music!

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