Feature: "Colorado Symphony's new music director is ready to rock"

Seattle-born Brett Mitchell, the new 38-year-old music director for the Colorado Symphony, was raised on grunge before discovering his love for all things symphonic—and we do mean all things. (Photo by Peter Lockley)

Seattle-born Brett Mitchell, the new 38-year-old music director for the Colorado Symphony, was raised on grunge before discovering his love for all things symphonic—and we do mean all things. (Photo by Peter Lockley)

DENVER — Denver Metro Media has published a feature about Brett Mitchell on the eve of his first performances as Music Director of the Colorado Symphony:

Brett Mitchell remembers the day he discovered the genius of Ludwig van Beethoven.

It was 1994 while watching the biopic Immortal Beloved with his mother. As actor Gary Oldman pantomimed one of the great piano sonatas, 15-year-old Mitchell grew puzzled, then aghast.

“Mom, they stole this melody from Billy Joel. How are they getting away with this?” the high school freshman whispered in quiet desperation.

Within a few hours, the truth had sunk in.

It was Joel who had nicked the tune from Beethoven, not the other way around. The 20th-century piano man had some years earlier transformed the German composer’s exquisite “Sonata Pathétique” into a lamenting tribute to 1950s doo-wop in a 1983 hit song called “This Night.”

Like countless devotees before him, the newly enlightened Mitchell would soon scour the life work of Beethoven, whose tortured life, he discovered, was in frequent contrast to the sheer beauty of the composer’s wide-ranging work.

“Beethoven kind of stands for this great moral searching,” Mitchell explained. “Now, he’s a huge part of my life, every bit as much as Kurt Cobain was 25 years ago.”

Today, the 38-year-old Seattle-born musical director for the Colorado Symphony still stands at the intersection of classical and pop, as well as its varied crossroads at video games, movies, rock and roll, and who knows what else....

Like his recent CSO predecessors, the new Generation-X conductor is determined to bring “longhair” music to everyone—yes, including those with hipster beards. The millennial ticket-buying generation will soon constitute half the nation’s workforce and half of its expendable income.

“Millennials tend to not be so insistent about putting things into boxes,” Mitchell said, noting the symphony’s ongoing genre surfing. “Classical music doesn’t actually mean anything. That’s kind of a nonsense term we use to cover a lot of stuff. The opposite of classical, whatever the hell that means, is pops, whatever the hell that means.”

This year, it means not only upcoming homages to Beethoven and George Gershwin and collaborations with classical vocalist Renée Fleming and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, but also tributes to Ella Fitzgerald and Prince, a concert with eclectic banjoist Bela Fleck, live accompaniment to a screening of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, and a special performance dedicated to the music of video games.

Tell Tchaikovsky the news, but break it to him gently.

Born in Seattle in 1979, Mitchell came of age when new wave was already old and his city of birth was delivering a newer child called grunge. [Remember the dollar bill dangling in front of the swimming infant on the cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind?]

“I heard a very tortured soul who was trying to work through things in a very public way,” Mitchell said of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. “When I started listening to Beethoven, honestly, I heard the exact same thing.”

Although rooted in the Baby-Boom rock of his parents and the 90s rock that permeated his hometown, Mitchell somehow found his calling in symphonic music, first in the movie soundtracks of John Williams, which would act as his bridge from pop to classical and set him off on his quest.

Before landing in the Mile High City, Mitchell held conducting positions with symphonies in Saginaw, Michigan, Cleveland and Houston, having studied conducting at the University of Texas in Austin. He held an assistant-conductor post with the Orchestre National de France and had a litany of guest shots across the United States and Europe prior to settling down in Denver this year.

Although Mitchell has yet to hit 40, that is not so unusual for a conductor, he says. Keep in mind, when the legendary Leonard Bernstein took the reins at the New York Philharmonic in 1958, he was only a couple years older than Mitchell is now. Even so, Mitchell sees his relative youth as a benefit.

“I’m sure that doesn’t hurt in terms of reaching out to younger audience members,” he said. “But what really helps is the fact that I’ve been evangelizing for classical music in a way that I hope makes it relatable to anybody and everybody.”

Mitchell points out that even someone as revered as Bernstein was no stick in the mud when it came to music. The conductor-composer was a sort of ambassador between classical and other genres and in 1967 hosted CBS’s Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution, in which Bernstein introduced the “establishment” to the likes of Brian Wilson, Roger McGuinn and Janis Ian.

“[Bernstein] would listen to The Beatles’ Revolver with his kids. The only discrimination was the quality of music they would listen to,” Mitchell said. “We approach it very much the same way in our house and I think Lenny was really a light that led the way for a lot of the rest of us.”

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