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New orchestra director talks background, future projects

Mark Seto discusses working with student musicians, upcoming U. concert season

Last May, the Department of Music announced that Mark Seto would serve as the new director of the Brown University Orchestra effective July 1. Prior to this appointment, Seto was an associate professor of music and director of the Connecticut College Orchestra. He also holds the position of Artistic Director and Conductor of The Chelsea Symphony in New York City.

Herald: Let’s start with your musical background and experiences.

Seto: These days, I wear two hats in terms of what I do as a musician. I am a conductor, and I am also a musicologist.  In terms of what I’m doing here at Brown, I’m directing the orchestra, but I’m also teaching academic courses. This semester, I’m teaching a course in Baroque and Classical music and next semester I’ll be teaching an introductory theory course.

What attracted you to Brown?

I was really excited to have the opportunity to come here because I could wear both of those hats as a performer and also as a scholar and an academic. It’s weird to find that at an institution of Brown’s caliber because usually the bigger the institution is, the more specialized people get. Having the chance to do both was really special.

How has your experience working with the orchestra been thus far?

It’s been fantastic.  The musicians have all been really terrific, incredibly talented, intellectually curious — everything one could ask for.

What is the orchestra currently working on?

We’re getting ready for a concert coming up on Oct. 20 and Oct. 21. That program will feature two pieces of music: a piece called Sinfonía India by Carlos Chávez — an early 20th century Mexican composer — and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. It’s a study in contrast because the pieces come out of very different cultural traditions, but what attracted me to the pairing was that both of the works juxtapose folklore and traditional elements with bracing modernity. They also have this incredible range of capturing human experience from the deepest sorrow to unbridled exuberance.

Last year the orchestra faced several challenges in terms of the conductor being relieved of his duties due to general dissatisfaction.  Have these disruptions affected you in any way?

I can’t speak directly to how things were prior to when I came here. What I can say is that there’s been a real sense of excitement of being able to start a new chapter in the orchestra’s history. We have an incredibly large and talented cohort of first year students. To be able to write this new chapter with a lot of students who are new to Brown is really exciting.

What is your vision for the orchestra? 

I think any orchestra, and particularly an orchestra that is embedded in a university community, is a space that can really bring together different constituencies. On the one hand, it’s a place where people who are already involved with music can find a place to work together, … but it’s also a space where we can bring together other parts of campus. One of my aspirations is to engage in some form of collaboration with other departments or programs and partnerships with other organizations in the Providence and the wider community. I think that an orchestra, by virtue of its scale and the breadth of what you can do with it, is perfectly situated to do that kind of work.

Is there an event planned for the orchestra that you are particularly looking forward to?

In the spring we are going to be working with a Syrian clarinetist and composer named Kinan Azmeh, who has performed with the Silkroad Ensemble and Yo-Yo Ma. He’s going to be working with a number of different groups on campus, but we’re going to be performing his clarinet concerto — which is actually still in the process of being written. It will be the East Coast premiere of the concerto because he’s doing the first concerts in February with the Seattle Symphony and then he’s coming to Providence and we’ll be performing it the next month, which is exciting.

What are a few fun facts about you?

My claim to pop culture fame is that I was actually on screen in the first season of “Mozart in the Jungle.” The orchestra that I worked with in New York provided a lot of the on-screen orchestra for that show. I was only in the first season because I happened to be on sabbatical that semester, but it’s fun to be able to say I was a part of that.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

An earlier version of this story stated that the Brown University Orchestra's first concert will take place Oct. 21 and Oct. 22. In fact, the Brown University Orchestra's first concert will take place Oct. 20 and Oct 21. The Herald regrets the error.


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