Preview: "Symphony candidate sees youth as a plus"

Brett Mitchell, a candidate for the position of music director at the Peoria Symphony Orchestra, leads the orchestra on April 24 at the Civic Center Theater.

Brett Mitchell, a candidate for the position of music director at the Peoria Symphony Orchestra, leads the orchestra on April 24 at the Civic Center Theater.

The Journal Star (Peoria) has published a profile of Brett Mitchell in advance of his upcoming concert with the Peoria Symphony Orchestra:

Brett Mitchell, the next candidate in the Peoria Symphony Orchestra's music director search, said that a young face at the podium can be a plus.

"If you look at the list of candidates that the Peoria Symphony has brought this season, it's very clear that they are interested in reaching out to the next generation of concertgoers," said Mitchell of Houston, who leads the orchestra in a performance of Beethoven, Prokofiev and the music of contemporary composer Michael Torke on Saturday.

"We're all, relatively speaking, young. I think that's a great way to bring in young audiences. It seems like a superficial thing, but it's not and I'll tell you why. I go home on Monday night, if I can, and I watch 'House' just like everybody else. I'm excited about the last season of 'Lost' just like everybody else. I listen to top 40 radio just like everybody else. I think there is something really important - the relatability of the person on the podium."

Yet Mitchell, 30, is not just an "average Joe" who just happens to have a passion for classical music. Few rising conductors can impress the likes of conductor Kurt Masur, whom Mitchell can claim as a personal mentor and supporter. Connections to Masur led to three years of shuttling back and forth over the Atlantic while serving as assistant conductor for the French National Orchestra. And besides that world-class orchestra, Mitchell has led several other top-notch organizations: the London Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Houston Symphony Orchestra, where he now serves as assistant conductor.

Nevertheless, Mitchell, who grew up in Seattle, hardly projects the image of a rarified know-it-all. His parents listened to not just classical but a variety of music, and he owes his fascination with orchestral sound to John Williams via movies like "Star Wars," "Superman," "E.T." and "Indiana Jones." In fact, for a time Mitchell wanted to be a film composer and studied composition at Western Washington University while taking lessons on his primary instrument, the piano, on which he is basically self-taught after having a few formal lessons when he was 6. (Mitchell broke out on his own because his piano teacher insisted that the young boy learn scales instead of songs.)

When he considered graduate school in music, however, Mitchell switched to conducting - partly because he decided he wasn't a young John Williams in the making. Also, he discovered he preferred collaborating with others.

"Playing the piano is a very solitary endeavor," Mitchell said. "You spend hours and hours alone in a practice room. The culmination of all that practice is that you go on stage alone again. Composition is a very solitary endeavor. You spend hours and hours alone writing your music. Once it's written, it's written. But with conducting - yes, I spend hours and hours alone studying these scores. But the end result is so different. The end result is that I get to work with 60, 80, 100 of my colleagues on these pieces. Then we get to perform them for one or two or three or five or 10,000 people. I'm such a people person. That just speaks to me and makes so much sense to me for who I am as an artist."

Not to mention the added benefit of spending a great deal of time with scores by Beethoven or Prokofiev - composers of genius. What job can be better than that?

After receiving a master's and doctoral degrees in orchestral conducting from the University of Texas at Austin, Mitchell went on to a varied career. Thanks to Kurt Masur, Mitchell received the inaugural Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy Scholarship, which meant one-on-one study with Masur and helping the great conductor with concerts in Europe and America. He currently serves as assistant conductor/American conducting fellow of the Houston Symphony Orchestra.

Mitchell said that orchestras can broaden their audiences by being good representatives of their respective cities and regions. Programs, he said, should not be interchangeable: What is played in Chicago should be different from what is played in Dallas, because Chicago and Dallas are different places. For instance, the Peoria Symphony Orchestra might consider playing more music from local and regional composers as well as standards like Aaron Copland's homage to Abraham Lincoln.

"The Peoria Symphony Orchestra's programming should absolutely be reflective of Peoria and Illinois," Mitchell said. "Because otherwise we just become a symphony orchestra that just happens to be in Peoria. That is a huge mistake."

Beyond that, Mitchell would like to see collaborations with other dance, theater and other arts groups - projects he has tried to cultivate in his time with the Houston Symphony.

Mitchell, who also is in the running for the position of music director at Michigan State's Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra, said he's ready for a new stage in his career.

"I've had great music director experiences with my own orchestras - but they've been smaller orchestras," Mitchell said. "They've been largely academic orchestras, in a university setting, or a youth orchestra. I've had great professional orchestra experience, including with some of the greatest orchestras in the world. I've conducted the London Philharmonic. I've conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra. I work with the Houston Symphony. These are really sensational orchestras. I feel like the time is right for me to synthesize those two things - that great music director experience that I have and that great professional experience that I have. And become music director of one of the nation's really, truly great regional orchestras."