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A Sunday Chat with Neal Gittleman

Get to know the conductor of the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra

In 1994, when the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra was seeking a new music director, several candidates were brought to town for auditions. Audiences were then asked to fill out written evaluations on each of them.

“I remember what I wrote after Neal Gittleman was here,” says Rochelle Goldstein, a long-time DPO subscriber.    “I wrote: ‘HIRE THIS MAN!’”

The Clayton resident says she’s never been disappointed.

"Neal has re-energized the arts community and the orchestra," Goldstein says. "He's brought out the best in every section of the orchestra, and he's been brilliant at outreach and in conceiving new program ideas. His Classical Connections series is great for people who would like to understand more about what they're hearing."

Gittleman, at ease in both his tuxedo and his Spiderman costume, is one of those local arts personalities who’s earned a special place in the heart of the community through the years. Whether he’s emerging from a coffin in a ghoul costume, visiting schools to share his love of music with youngsters, or performing his own zany lyrics in a stripped-down version of The Mikado at a Fraze Pavilion summer concert.

There is no one better to kick-off our new series of informal conversations about life as a working artist than the music director of the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra.

Neal Gittleman
Neal Gittleman

THE FORMATIVE YEARS

Q: So, what kind of child were you?

A: Well, I thought I was pretty normal until my mom moved into assisted living and in going through her files I found all the early school evaluations they saved.

Q. What triggered your interest in music?

A: My mother was a public school music teacher, so there was always music in the house. I have vivid (and thrilling) memories of seeing rehearsals and performances of her chorus at Bushwick High School in Brooklyn. (The Hallelujah Chorus and “Buffalo Gals” were my two biggest favorites.). So I guess I was more or less always interested in music.

Q: Do you play instruments?

A: The instruments that I’ve been known to play are (in chronological order) piano, violin, and viola. I certainly use the piano as a tool — for score study, to accompany soloists in pre-rehearsal rehearsals, and so on.

Q: Who were influences in your life and in what ways did these people influence you?

A: It has to be five teachers: Helen Goodwin, the music teacher in Norwich, Vermont who first got me interested in the violin; Channing Kempf, a Boston-area freelance violinist who figured out how to get me from scratchy to having a real sound in a single lesson; John Mauceri, conductor of the Yale Symphony, whose joy on the podium made me think about conducting; Nadia Boulanger, who made me (and helped me make myself) into the musician (and person) that I am; and Charles Bruck, who taught me countless lessons (positive and negative) about the technique and the psychology of conducting.

One other important formative influence: watching Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts on TV when I was kid. Probably more than anything else, that gave me the idea that classical music (and orchestral music in particular) was interesting, fun, and exciting.

Q: When did you decide you wanted to conduct and what about it appealed to you?

Playing in the Yale Symphony made me fall in love with the orchestra as an “instrument” and as a way of collectively making music. It also convinced me that I liked the sound of the orchestra much better than the sound of my own violin in my left ear! That got me thinking of conducting as a way to stay in orchestral music without hearing myself play.

ON BEING A CONDUCTOR

Q: What is the role of the conductor, has it changed over the years?

A: In the “bad old days” it was rather dictatorial… “My way or the highway!” Now it’s more collaborative, more democratic — at least here, in the U.S.

Q: How would you describe the relationship between the conductor and the members of the orchestra?

A: That’s the most complicated — and most interesting part — of the job. You have to lead, you have to tell people what to do and often you have to tell them to change what they’re doing. But you have to realize that the players have their own (often quite valid) ideas about how the music should go. So how you navigate the orchestra’s need for unity with the musicians’ need for individual expression is where it really gets interesting. Bruck used to tell me, “The conductor’s job is to get them to do what you want but have them feel they’re doing what THEY want.”

As far as the “relationship,” you have one relationship with the orchestra as a whole and also 83 individual relationships with the players. And that’s a delicate balancing act — the one relationship is more important than the 83. Some musicians want you to be their friend, others just want you to be the boss who lets them do their job and otherwise leaves them alone, some want no relationship at all. So it’s exactly like conducting…managing both the micro and the macro simultaneously, always listening for changes in the equilibrium, and adjusting as appropriate.

Maestro Neal Gittleman says Brahms is his favorite composer. A Brahms Festival is slated for May 6-7 at the Schuster Center. Submitted photo
Maestro Neal Gittleman says Brahms is his favorite composer. A Brahms Festival is slated for May 6-7 at the Schuster Center. Submitted photo

Q: What qualities do you think make a good conductor?

A: As a conductor on the podium I think the most important thing is knowing how to lead while understanding what’s it’s like to be led. Then there’s all the behind-the-scenes stuff…studying the music, thinking about and making decisions about interpretation. And THEN there’s the other stuff…planning, programming, PR, fundraising, etc.

Q: What do you look for when hiring someone new for the orchestra? Is it solely your decision?

A: Everyone who gets into the DPO (or any other U.S. professional orchestra) does so by winning an audition. Our auditions are “blind” — an Audition Committee (several musicians and me) sit behind a screen. We don’t know who the auditioner is, we don’t see them, we can only hear how they play. We have them play a selection of representative (and difficult) excerpts from standard-repertoire pieces, and we pick the person we think who plays them the best.

Once someone wins the audition, then we find out how they work in the context of the orchestra, and usually they do very well. So it’s not solely my decision. According to the audition rules of our collective bargaining agreement, the conductor gets one vote, just like everyone else. Except if there’s a tie, and then I have an extra, tie-breaking vote. And I can veto a selection. But in practice, I’ve never used my tie-breaker or my veto. At auditions, I see my job as akin to that of the foreman of a jury, and I try to help the committee reach a consensus decision.

Q: How do you select pieces for concerts?

A: I work in close collaboration with Dayton Performing Arts Alliance President Paul Helfrich and also with a program committee. The latter makes me a bit of an anomaly among conductors. Most conductors don’t want anyone meddling in their programming decisions. But I actually find the committee to be very useful, serving both as a source for good ideas that I haven’t thought of myself, and also as a sounding board for my own good and wacky ideas.

The Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra’s conductor, Neal Gittleman, points to a portrait of his favorite composer, Johannes Brahms. Submitted photo
The Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra’s conductor, Neal Gittleman, points to a portrait of his favorite composer, Johannes Brahms. Submitted photo

OFF THE CLOCK

Q: What do you do in your off-time?

A: Movies, books, squash, golf, tai chi, yoga. Sometimes I get to nap, too.

Q: What are a few of your favorite pieces of music?

A: That’s so hard to answer, but here are few that come to mind immediately: Bach: St. Matthew Passion; Brahms: German Requiem; Debussy: La mer; Steve Reich: The Cave; Shostakovich: Symphony #13 (“Babi Yar”); The Beatles: A Day in the Life; The Who: Baba O’Reilly; The Rolling Stones: Gimme Shelter.

Q: What would you recommend to parents or grandparents who want their children to be interested in music?

A: Expose them to music — all kinds of music — from the moment they’re born. And not just music that comes from an electrical appliance. Sing to them. Sing with them. When to start lessons is a tricky question. If you want your child to have a chance to get really good at music, the earlier the start the better — often you find that world-class musicians started as early as age 3 or 4. But the best time to start lessons on an instrument is when the child expresses interest.

Q: Where do you spend vacations?

A: (My wife,) Lisa and I usually spend a couple of weeks each summer in Door County, Wisconsin. It’s a wonderful, peaceful, quiet place for R&R, perfect for “recharging the batteries.”

Q: Where have you traveled that you’ve liked the most?

A: One of my favorite places to visit has been Japan. I’ve been there three times — all for work. I found Japan (particularly urban Japan) an amazing and infinitely fascinating place, both very familiar and foreign-feeling at the same time.

Q: What’s on your bucket list?

A: A round of golf at the Old Course at St. Andrews, hearing Wagner’s operas at Bayreuth, and throwing out the first pitch at a baseball game.

THE FUTURE

Q: What dreams do you have for the orchestra?

A: My dream for the orchestra — and for all the arts in Dayton — is to be a central part of the civic life of our community. To an extent, that dream is already a reality. But there are still many people who don’t think our music is “for them.” I’d love to have the chance to win them over.

Q: What are the greatest challenges Dayton faces at the moment? The arts?

A: I think Dayton’s biggest challenge is how to successfully move from the Dayton-of-the-past (built on manufacturing and big national and international companies) to a Dayton-of-the-present/future (built on something else). For the arts, thinking big-picture, it’s how to keep the arts important to people’s lives when so many children have little or no experience or exposure to the arts. Fortunately, art is very compelling and powerful. Usually you just have to get someone to get up the courage to try it and you’ve got a good chance to get hooked.

"Most people might expect me to produce predictions/wishes for the music/arts world, but saying “full houses and full coffers” would be too predictable, so I’ll go for something lighter: 1. A nice, deep playoff run for the Bengals. 2. Continued NCAA tournament successes for the Flyers (men and women). 3. A ring for LeBron and the Cavs. 4. Spring training starting in about eight weeks, followed by a better year for the Reds and Dragons. 5. A completed grand slam for Serena. 6. A healthy back for Tiger. Now back to Nutcrackers and Messiahs, sports fans!"
"Most people might expect me to produce predictions/wishes for the music/arts world, but saying “full houses and full coffers” would be too predictable, so I’ll go for something lighter: 1. A nice, deep playoff run for the Bengals. 2. Continued NCAA tournament successes for the Flyers (men and women). 3. A ring for LeBron and the Cavs. 4. Spring training starting in about eight weeks, followed by a better year for the Reds and Dragons. 5. A completed grand slam for Serena. 6. A healthy back for Tiger. Now back to Nutcrackers and Messiahs, sports fans!"

A BRIEF BIO

Neal Gittleman, 57, grew up in Brooklyn, studied at Yale, and served 10 seasons as Associate Conductor and Resident Conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra before coming to Dayton.

He also served as Music Director of the Marion (Ind.) Philharmonic, Associate Conductor of the Syracuse Symphony, and Assistant Conductor of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra.

He’s been a guest conductor with many of the country’s leading orchestras, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Chicago, San Francisco, Minnesota, Phoenix, Indianapolis, San Antonio, Omaha, San Jose and Jacksonville symphony orchestras and the Buffalo Philharmonic. He has also conducted orchestras in Germany, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Japan, Canada and Mexico.