New conductor in L.A. asks `perfection' of chamber players
Los Angeles — ``I thought they wanted a man with a baton, not a woman with a violin,'' recalled Iona Brown, the new music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, with a gleam in her eye. In a surprise announcement in February, Ms. Brown - a violinist and for 13 years director of Britain's highly acclaimed Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields - became one of a only a handful of women to head a North American orchestra. She will supervise artistic planning and programming, select orchestra personnel, and regularly direct the 40-member ensemble for at least six weeks each year for three years. And she will add her considerable talents as a violin soloist and orchestra member who conducts while she plays - setting tempos and giving cues with her violin and bow.
``I was flabbergasted,'' said Brown in an interview at the orchestra's downtown office here. ``I thought the board of directors were going to take two years to decide.''
Brown is also artistic director of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra in Oslo and principal guest director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. She has long been in great demand on the international conducting circuit - leading ensembles such as the San Francisco and Detroit Symphonies, as well as the Polish Chamber Orchestra. She is highly regarded as a recording artist as well, with a discography of over 30 works - primarily 17th- and 18th-century pieces performed with the academy.
``This is a terrific orchestra,'' said Brown of the 18-year-old Los Angeles group, formed by civic leaders who wanted to develop an outstanding chamber orchestra. ``So far, they've been able to do anything I've asked of them, technically.''
Neville Marriner, the original music director, led the orchestra's first European tour in 1974 - opening the Bath Festival in England and performing in Geneva, Madrid, Paris, and London. Though reportedly under financial strain in recent years, the orchestra this season will present 35 concerts throughout Southern California and as far east as Denver.
``I know it sounds terrible to say they have great potential, because they have already achieved so much in their short-lived tenure,'' said Brown. ``But I do feel I can work with them in a positive way and achieve great things.''
``She's terrifically inspiring and musical,'' said one longtime ensemble member. ``Though it is a bit of an adjustment getting used to a conductor without a baton.''
``Basically, I want to take them in the direction of excellence,'' Brown said, emphasizing a human interaction based on total cooperation and respect. ``That's very important to me. If you have a really fine human relationhip and really want to make music together as friends and equals, the musicmaking is automatically going to be more satisfying.''
She feels she is a step ahead of most conductors in this relationship, because ``everything I demand of them as players, I'm also demanding of myself as a player.''
The Baroque-era tradition of player/conductor is relatively unfamiliar to American audiences, she said, citing Pinchas Zukerman as a well-known exception. Unlike Mr. Zukerman, who frequently conducted with both hands while holding his violin under his chin, Brown uses only the bow as a baton. ``Oh, and I guess they read a few nuances from my wrist as well,'' she added. Looks and nods serve as cues, too.
She said she would like to lead the orchestra in taking on more contemporary music, sometimes commissioning new works, and having the composers present during performances to introduce and explain their work.
``I think you have a much more personal and meaningful performance that way,'' she said, ``rather than just having musicians play pages of notes without context.''
Brown would like to learn more about American and women composers. But she adds: ``I want to be very honest. I'm not very knowledgeable about 20th-century music, and it's not my main interest.'' She plans to stick closely to her love of 17th- and 18th-century repertoire. ``I'm not suddenly going to change directions just because I've been appointed director of an American orchestra.''
Referring to her approach to rehearsals, Brown said the process will be threefold: overcoming technical problems, interpreting the balance between composers' intentions and players' sensibilities, and finding inspiration. Only the first two can be taught. ``Technically, the rhythm is most important, even more so than right notes,'' she said. ``I will insist not just on good rhythm, but absolute perfection.''
Brown explained that her background as a trained violinist has helped her to communicate exactly how to develop the kind of tonal colors and effects she wants. But the final ingredient, the one she said can't be taught, is performing with inspiration. ``I call it getting the music off the ground. It is the essence of music, why music is the greatest of the arts - that spontaneous moment in a particular hall on a particular phrase when everything comes together.'' It occurs, she said, when each player is giving himself over to the music, reaching for something beyond his own ability as a player.
Born in Salisbury, England, Brown obtained her violin training in Rome, Vienna, Brussels, and Paris, where she studied with Henryk Szeryng. Last year, she was honored by Queen Elizabeth II with an Order of the British Empire for her services to music. She plays on a violin by J.B. Guadagnini from Piacenza, 1740.
Brown's musical talent was nurtured by her parents - both professional musicians - in a home where music was as natural as it was omnipresent. ``We were never told we had to practice,'' speaking of her brother and sister, who are also professional musicians. ``Music was always done for the love of it.''