On today’s scene, when classical music is not seeing a lot of popularity, how do you keep yourself current?
As classical musicians we keep ourselves current by being innovative. We have to unfortunately always look for ways to compete with things that have greater visibility and greater power to capture attention. It didn’t happen all at once. On the other hand I think there’s still the demand but it comes from a wider variety of sources. And that’s very interesting. Partly it’s because the musicians themselves are finding these sources but also we were invited here by Apollo Theater. I approached them and they said ‘We were thinking about this already but in a few years. Right there that told me here’s is organization that doesn’t have the history of inviting orchestras. I don’t know how often that happens that they would hire an orchestra to play a concert. So this is an example of places that wants classical music. We forget that a lot of classical musicians and composers, the famous ones, also had to sell their product. Mozart and Beethoven they were constantly peddling like ‘Oh, how much will you give me for this symphony’ or ‘I need the money beforehand, can you do it?’ We think of them as our heroes. There’s always been an effort required by artists to make sure that they are heard. And it’s not just the musicians. Painters, of course. I think the term ‘starving artist’ was meant for painters, not musicians.
TheHarlem Symphony Orchestra makes a statement, having only African-Americans as members. Do you make it a point to reflect the African roots in your music also?
We do. Every concert we’ll include a composer of African descent. For example the 3rd piece today is written by an African English composer. His father was from Sierra Leone. And of course Scott Joplin, who’s African –American. We have scheduled some pieces by African composers for the future. Every concert will have a traditional work [also].
What type of parallels do you see between the music you play and the more typical African-American music genres like Hip Hop, R&B and Jazz?
Well, the first parallel is it’s effective if you put your heart and soul into it. Number one purpose of music is to communicate. So if we tell our musical story well there won’t be anyone who’ll say ‘I might not listen to classical music ever or often but I understand drama, sorrow, happiness or suspense…’ All of these things are in Hip Hop, classical music and every other type of music you can imagine. In classical music [the story] is just told in another way. It’s told by many people over a longer period of time.
Have you tried doing anything more progressive, sort of like Baryshnikov in ballet?
No, but it’s been a dream of mine to collaborate with ballet and opera. My dream performance is a concert that would see the first half with 5 different gospel choirs. Each of them performing with or without the orchestras. The second half put all of the choirs together plus the orchestra and a ballet company and then we do [a piece by] Ravel. I don’t know if it’s ever been done in concert form with a chorus and orchestra and ballet.
Now that music has becomes a business for most and original music trends are not very wide-spread, do you feel it helps classical music or hurts it?
I think it doesn’t necessarily hurt the classical music. It’s not the absence of interest. It’s the presence of so many other things. We have iPods now, we have internet, Xbox… even movie attendance is down. Now that movies go to DVD so quickly some people don’t even go to the theater. Now I hear TV stations are wondering what they can do as people are starting to watch their TV shows online. It’s an ever-changing world.
Do you feel that the lighter themes of repertoire of today is more appropriate than Bach for the listeners of today or is it simply another composer, another style?
Today is a special family concert. So today’s pieces are lighter except for the Tchaikovsky one. Actually each of these pieces you will find in a concert hall. The first time I played [Othello] I was a soloist and after the concert I went to the audience and I got feedback from audience. For this family series we try to play serious pieces but also are lighter and have a purpose. So it’s very planned and structured.
What do you feel is the key to making classical music more popular in 2008?
I think it’s a catch 22. I think that exposure generates more exposure. I think to the person who’s never seen an orchestra and sees it for the first time it will be fascinating. I don’t think there is anybody who would just dismiss this. It may also be a case of unlearning some ingrain attitudes toward classical music. Because we all know some classical music. Anyone who’s ever heard Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, that’s Mozart. So from the time you were 2 years old you knew Mozart, whether you knew it was him or not. I doubt that incorporating classical music in a [different music genre] would create more of an interest in it. I could be wrong.