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Not your granny's conductor

Philharmonic finalist Viswa Subbaraman follows an unorthodox path to success



While many classical success stories begin the moment a child is able to reach the piano keys, Viswa Subbaraman's involves a more circuitous route. Growing up in what he describes as "Middle of Nowhere, West Texas," Subbaraman played trombone in the Big Spring High School marching band, and would then go on to major in math, chemistry and biology before realizing that conducting was his life's true passion.

"I was woefully ignorant of classical music," he recalls of his early days at Duke University. "I couldn't tell you anything about the nine Beethoven symphonies at the time. I knew the Fifth like anybody else, but that was about it."

All that would change soon enough. Upon graduation, Subbaraman won a Fulbright grant and relocated to Paris, where Kurt Masur offered him a post as assistant conductor with the Orchestre National de France.

The founder and current artistic director of Houston's innovative Opera Vista is now one of five finalists in the Colorado Springs Philharmonic's search for a new music director. His program here will include Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet, Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto No. 4 and, appropriately enough, Beethoven's Symphony No. 7.

Indy: Now that the L.A. Philharmonic has begun doing high-definition simulcasts, there seem to be renewed predictions that live orchestras will eventually be limited to major cities, mainly because of economics. In auditioning for new positions, wouldn't you lean more toward a larger city? It doesn't seem like a smaller city would be particularly risk-free.

Viswa Subbaraman: Well, I don't think any orchestra these days is risk-free. You know, I don't think conductors are in the business because it's a low-risk, long-term kind of job commitment. You're in the orchestra world because you want to build something and you believe in this music, first and foremost. And I also think Colorado Springs is a pretty large community, I mean, if you think of some of the truly small communities that still maintain orchestras.

Indy: Can you give me some examples?

VS: You know, you look at a place like Lubbock, Texas, which still has an orchestra. Midland-Odessa is still running a professional orchestra. So there are much smaller communities that are maintaining orchestras. What I see as potential in a place like Colorado Springs is that, while it's not the size of Houston, it's also not as saturated as Houston.

Indy: Tell me about how you put together the repertoire you're doing here.

VS: It was an interesting situation, because I was given the concerto and then the rest was up to me. And so the Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto No. 4 was where I started, and it's funny — that piece is almost unknown these days. I can't tell you how many people I called to see if they knew anything about it. And almost invariably the answer was no.

So the starting point was that I had to go out and find a recording before I could even program the rest of the concert. It's a wonderful piece and kind of unjustly neglected, I think, which is a good reason for doing it.

The idea behind the way the program is structured is that, because that piece is not so well-known, I wanted to make sure that we had some pieces that the audience could really sink their teeth into. And when you're doing a piece for an audition, you also want to get to know everybody in the orchestra, so I wanted to make sure that at least one piece included everybody. So I thought the Tchaikovsky would be a really nice way to open, and it's got one of the most beautiful tunes ever written, so you can't complain about that. And then I wanted to contrast it with something that would be a substantial symphonic work, so that's how the Beethoven came around.

Indy: I noticed that Opera Vista's tagline is "It's Not Your Granny's Opera." But a fair amount of the repertoire here, especially in the Masterworks series, is at least partially your granny's symphony. How would you change that, if at all?

VS: You know, I don't think I would. They have two different missions. The Colorado Springs Philharmonic, their job is to really look at it from the perspective of encompassing all of the music. And what Opera Vista does is very niche.

You know, we have the Houston Grand Opera, which is an international-level opera company that does all the great masterworks, and does a great job of them. And so what Houston didn't need was another company that mimicked that. And what we were trying to do is find a very small niche by targeting young professionals and really doing something that was different for them.

But the Colorado Springs Phil doesn't necessarily have that same kind of mission, you know — there can be aspects of the programming that should mimic that, so we do target young professionals and build that next generation of orchestra-goer. But that's not the entire mission of it.

And you know, one of the things that's attractive to me is that for the past four years, I've been doing nothing but new opera. And the opportunity to go back and really do more romantic works and classical works and, you know, kind of get back to doing a variety, is exciting from a personal perspective.

Indy: There's also a Vanguard series here. Would you consider mixing the two, varying the main program to include a more contemporary work, or do you think those two don't really blend together that well?

VS: I think they do blend together. Contemporary work, when you look at it, is based on the past. I mean, every composer studies the past in order to write the future. And sometimes there are great opportunities to contrast those. I think the more we can kind of juxtapose those, the better we are as an art form.

Indy: So if you were to take the repertoire you're doing here, and were to add a fourth piece that was contemporary, what would it be?

VS: Wow, that's a good question. Unfair, but a very good question. You know, what I might do is something like Arvo Pärt. There's a certain grandeur and solemnity to what we're doing on this program, and to add something like a Pärt, who kind of has that sacred feel to his music, might be a good choice.

And you know, there's quite an emphasis on rhythm in this program: The Saint-Saëns is a very rhythmic piece, the Beethoven has been called the apotheosis of dance, so it's got this very rhythmic feel. And maybe something like the Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten by Pärt would be a good one to include, to kind of give that contrast, because it's not a highly rhythmic piece.

Indy: When it comes to conducting, how would you describe your own style, and who would you compare yourself to?

VS: I think that intellectually, in the way I look at music and from my interpretive style, I'm much more in the vein of the old romantic conductors. You know, Kurt Masur, who was one of my mentors, has hugely influenced me, but then when you look back to some of my favorite conductors, they've always been Bruno Walter, Furtwängler, you know, that kind of very romantic interpretation.

So intellectually, the way I look at a score and how I feel a score tends to come from that. You know, I'm very focused on the sound of an orchestra, and I love that Eastern European very warm sound that an orchestra can generate, and those are the kinds of things I focus on when I'm on the podium.

Conducting style-wise, wow, it's hard to say. I get compared with [Zubin] Mehta every once in a while, but I think partly just because of the fact that we're both from Indian backgrounds. Although I don't really see myself, just gesturally, in his vein. So I think it's from the Indian background more than the actual conducting. Because I don't think we look much alike on the podium.

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