Arts & Culture

Brandon Keith Brown offers new direction for U. orchestra

New director brings experience in Germanic orchestra, attention to individual growth

By
Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 26, 2017

On any given Tuesday or Thursday night, Visiting Professor of Music and Orchestra Director Brandon Keith Brown can be found in Alumnae Hall, presiding over the assemblages of undergraduate performers who serve as the fundamental elements of his reflexive flair and measured technicality. The orchestra is currently rehearsing Brahms’ First Symphony — a piece that, in its swirling structure and Beethovian emulation, captures the dynamism and tradition clearly present in Brown’s incarnation of the University orchestra.

Sweet remembrance

Like Brahms himself, the newly appointed conductor appears compelled by a complex anxiety of his influences. Brown aspires to embed himself and his orchestra in classical music’s extensive tapestry of tradition.

“That tradition is the most valuable thing in my teaching and conducting ­— it’s something you can’t find in a book,” Brown said, underscoring the necessity of engaging with a lineage of composers. “I make peace with myself by pretending that the original composer of a piece sits down at rehearsals and is comfortable with my orchestra and its musicians’ individual interpretations of the composer. If you aren’t speaking for the art, you should be quiet.”

Brown’s tracing of the classical music tradition might have been most literally realized during his three-week-long Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy Scholarship, during which he undertook a rigorous and extensive study of Mendelssohn’s life and music. The once-in-a-lifetime award is granted to prominent conductors outside of Germany and encompasses research opportunities and private lectures on the German Romantic composer, as well as the chance to conduct a concert of the composer’s works.

“I got to see the towns he lived in, as well as original parts of his and other composers’ compositions, such as Beethoven’s Fifth,” Brown said. “Germany is wonderful in that they value music over everything. No matter what your education level is there, you know who Mahler or Mendelssohn was.”

“Professor Brown is sharing his admiration of the Germanic orchestral tradition with us by choosing classic repertoire like Brahms and Mahler symphonies and moving the instrument sections to mimic a Berlin setup,” said Max Naftol ’19, a bassist in the orchestra. The symphonies are “great learning opportunities for students and I can’t wait to show the Brown community what we’re up to at our October 20th and 21st concerts,” he added. 

A portrait of the conductor

The orchestra director’s experience with classical music began at age nine. A native of North Carolina, Brown learned composition from an “incredible” elementary school music teacher. The conductor subsequently composed until high school, when he began playing violin, and was admitted to the North Carolina School of the Arts shortly after. From there, Brown attended music programs at Oberlin College and Northwestern University.

As an undergraduate, Brown studied under violin instructors Roland and Almita Vamos. Since then, his estimable resume has come to include training by the illustrious David Zinman and Lorin Maazel — accomplishments joined by studies at the Johns Hopkins Peabody Institute and a position directing the New York Philharmonic.

Rhapsody in Brown

The virtuoso is set to fulfill his roles as Visiting Professor of Music and Orchestra Director through the 2017-18 academic year, aspiring to realize some “very high artistic goals” before leaving the University in a year.

“The technicality of the musicians is no different than that of those in the top conservatories, so I’m focused more on helping them develop and mature as musicians,” Brown said. “I use the Socratic method and try to get students to interrogate questions like why notes and key signatures are where they are in a piece. … I need the students I’m teaching to realize that the destination is not as important as the journey in education, no matter how painful that journey might be. And, so far, I’m very impressed with how capable Brown students are of thinking about music in a way they never have before.”

Stressing extensive mentorship toward the members of his orchestra, Brown said he strives toward “engaging the imagination of (his) musicians and helping them sound better than they ever could have thought they could sound.”

The conductor is decidedly less passionate about the spaces his musicians practice in, deeming them “wet,” a phrase from classical music vernacular that refers to echo-ridden orchestra halls.

“The University’s spaces are historic, regal and august, with something very intriguing about them,” Brown said. “They just don’t work particularly well in a concert setting because of how echoey they are. But that’s not going to stop me — it’s all simply a matter of putting people in the right places,” he added.

“For orchestra veterans, he has a significantly more formal demeanor that takes some getting used to,” Naftol said. “There’s going to be a bit of a learning curve as both Professor Brown and the orchestra musicians get to know one another.”

“Brown is extremely passionate and attentive to all individuals during orchestra,” said Rainbow Chen ’21, a bassist in the orchestra. “Although he can be quite intimidating, it’s cool to see he truly loves his work.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Visiting Professor of Music and Orchestra Director Brandon Keith Brown’s experience with classical music began at age six. In fact, it began at age nine. The Herald regrets the error.