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A conversation with CityMusic Cleveland Conductor Ryan McAdams
Mike Telin, October 11, 2011

When speaking to conductor Ryan McAdams you know right away that you are talking to someone who loves what he does and is truly thankful for the good fortune that has come his way. “It’s been a really lucky and successful two years,” McAdams told us by telephone from his home in New York. But luck will only take any performer so far and eventually one needs to come up with the goods. McAdams is obviously doing just that. “In the last few years New York has just been so good to me. It’s let me have my hands in all of the different pies in the pie shop. I mean I’ve gotten to work at City Opera, City Ballet and I've doing the vast symphonic works with my orchestra (the New York Youth Symphony) at Carnegie Hall: so I’ve been like a kid in a candy store and I feel totally blessed.”

This week Ryan McAdams makes his Cleveland debut when he leads CityMusic Cleveland in a series of five concerts that feature Beethoven’s Leonore Overture #3, Ligeti‘s Concert Romanesc, and Dvořák's Cello Concerto with Jan Vogler as soloist.

Mike Telin: This is your City Music Cleveland debut.

Ryan McAdams: It is and I’m very excited. I hope the friendship will come very easily and I will be returning later this season, so hopefully we will carve out a collaborative relationship.

MT: Well, you will also have the challenge of performing some very vibrant music in some very vibrant spaces.

RM: It’s interesting you say that because all three of the works on this program deal with spatial relationships: both the Beethoven and the Ligeti have off-stage brass. I am really looking forward to coming, doing a sound check and trying to figure out how distant the bugle call is going to be and from what perch on the Alp the horns are going to be, and whether they will be coming from right over us or from a neighboring town. Then there's the relationship between the soloist and the orchestra in these different spaces. I think we’re going to have fun figuring things out in all the different spaces.

MT: It’s a great program. How did you decide on these pieces?

RM: As usual, you start with the concerto, and once that’s set the question becomes how do you build a program around it. The Dvořák concerto is a difficult piece to program around because when it is performed exquisitely, you become completely saturated by it. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been to concerts and heard this concerto on the first half of a program and then had absolutely no interest in hearing anything else: really, when I hear great cellists play it I feel like I am filled with music for the rest of the day.

So the first decision I made was to not burden the program with anything after the concerto because I wanted the showcase to be Jan and his extraordinary musicianship. So I thought if we could fill the first half with colorful music that speaks to the Dvořák in a specific way, it would make people feel like they can feast on it as a main course.

The first thing I though of was the Ligeti Concert Romanesc (Romanian Concerto). It’s such a wild and vibrant work, and it has those sort of fictional folk tune roots in the same way the Dvořák does. As I was putting the program together I was also attracted to, as I said before, these spatial relationships: the Beethoven has the offstage trumpet that means a very specific thing, and even if you don’t know the story behind the work, you know immediately what the bugle is doing — you know that it is interrupting a moment of crisis. And at the end of the Ligeti you have these almost mystical off-stage horns. Also Beethoven did not want a clarion trumpet, he wanted the sound of a bugle. In the Ligeti it is the same, he wants the player to not use valves so that certain notes in the overtones will be slightly out of tune the way the Alp Horns are. So in a sense, the players have to slightly alter their sound in a somewhat unsophisticated way in order to achieve the meaning. I get excited about how we are going to make this work in the different spaces, and whether the audience is going to be aware the of the different musical meanings of both offstage brass instruments without having to say a word about it.

It also occurred to me that in some way all of these three works are related to liberation. The Beethoven is directly related because the opera (Fidelio) is about a political prisoner. And Ligeti called the Concert Romanesc his last compromise. It was written while he was at the Bucharest Institute, and it’s a work to please the sensors, even though it didn’t, but it is a work that feels incredibly Hungarian. I am so amazed by this piece because he was so young when he wrote it. He had already lost almost all of his family in Auschwitz, and he had already gone through one divorce and yet he wrote this marvelously happy, colorful work without any of the sarcasms and the pushing of musical boundaries of his later works. The score was destroyed, but was reconstructed after the parts were found, and it actually had its premier in Evanston, Illinois. So it literally went from Hungary to Evanston. I think it’s a very honest piece and a piece that he had a lot of affection for.

MT: Have you worked with Jan Vogler before?

RM: No, this will be our first time, but we have so many friends in common. He did a tour with the Knights (chamber orchestra), and I have many close friends in that orchestra, and their stories of working with him are so heartfelt, so I think we’re going to get into great shape. I’m looking forward to doing it with a smaller sized orchestra: I am excited to see how the piece changes.

MT: It’s great that so many people in different neighborhoods will get to hear this music.

RM: Absolutely! And the opportunity to repeat the concert six or seven times: you never get that. Then to do it in different spaces with different audiences who have their own relationship to concert going: to get them to feel comfortable and to understand that there are no wrong reactions. And the fact that the concerts are free, and we will come to you. And even if people have not been to an orchestra concert before or have heard this music before, there is some awareness that they can come and have a visceral experience. So I am terribly excited about what CityMusic Cleveland does.