“The only way I can be helpful to an orchestra is if I’m actually listening,” says 37-year-old, Seattle-born conductor Brett Mitchell, who led over 100 performances as assistant conductor of the Houston Symphony before becoming associate conductor of the internationally-renowned Cleveland Orchestra. “So much of being a leader is about listening. And that’s just as true in a board meeting in corporate America as it is behind the podium in front of an orchestra.”
Before heading north to Denver with his wife Angela to begin his tenure as music director of the Colorado Symphony for its 2017-18 season, Mitchell is in Houston this week to lead the Texas Music Festival Orchestra in performances of Finnish conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen’s sprawling L.A. Variations (1997), a concerto featuring this year’s Cynthia Woods Mitchell Young Artist Competition winner, and Edward Elgar’s lush and haunting Variations on an Original Theme, better known as the Enigma Variations. It’s the kind of program Mitchell loves: an engaging mix of the classical and the contemporary.
“I am big on contemporary American music,” Mitchell says. “It’s one of the reasons why I’m so bound to the composer’s message in the score, because I know what it’s like to look at an empty piece of staff paper and try got put some notes on that thing . . . it’s not easy! So if I can help my colleagues say what they need to say, that’s awesome.”
“Having these two sets of orchestral variations on the program, each written about 100-years apart at either end of the 20th century is very interesting to me,” says Mitchell, who will be conducting L.A. Variations for the first time. “It’s not in our blood the way the Elgar piece is. But by the end of the week, it will be.”
The TMF orchestra is made up of pre-professional musicians from all over the world, each chosen through a rigorous audition process to come to Houston and study and perform with some of classical music’s most celebrated conductors, faculty and performers. For Mitchell, who has appeared as a guest conductor with orchestras across the country and served as music director of the Cleveland Youth Orchestra, preparing for a performance with young musicians isn’t all that different from working with a seasoned professional orchestra.
“The piece is the piece,” Mitchell says matter-of-factly. “If we’re going to do the Enigma Variations, we’re gonna do the Enigma Variations. The ensemble is kind of incidental to that.”
“Part of working with a young orchestra is letting them know you have these high standards,” he continues. “But how you inspire them to get there is telling them you believe in them, that they are better than they think they are and can do more as a group of musicians than any of us can do by ourselves.”
Audiences at the Texas Music Festival will no doubt appreciate Mitchell’s warm, down-to-earth demeanor, which serves him well in his roles as a conductor of major orchestras, advocate for contemporary composition and a mentor to younger musicians.
“I have many of the same tastes and inclinations as my peers,” says Mitchell, whose résumé includes appearing as a contestant on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? “Each fall I get beside myself when the NFL comes back. I was so excited when season six of Veep premiered a couple months ago. I just happen to have this sliver of something that I do, that I have chosen to make my life’s work, which is classical music.”
June 23 at 8 p.m.. Free. Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, 2005 Lake Robbins Drive, 281-364-3010. More info at uh.edu.
June 24 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets from $15. Moores Opera House, 120 School of Music Building. 713-743-3388. More info at uh.edu.