Interview With Neponset Valley Philharmonic Orchestra Conductor Lawrence Isaacson

March 1, 2009
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NVPO_Isaacson webIn October 2008, the Neponset Valley Philharmonic Orchestra (NVPO) made its debut.

Founded by Conductor and Music Educator Lawrence Isaacson, the NVPO gave its inaugural performance at Showcase Live at Patriot Place in Foxboro, Massachusetts.

Fifty musicians strong, the NVPO performed Mozart, Beethoven, and with violin soloist Markus Placci, Mendelssohn’s Concerto for Violin in E Minor.  The concert was a great success and provided Neponset Valley-area classical music lovers the much-needed opportunity to attend a quality orchestral concert without having to drive to Boston.

On March 22nd at 3:00 p.m., the NVPO will host its second concert at Showcase Live.  The Spring 2009 concert will feature the Overture to Coriolanus by Ludwig Van Beethoven, Suite de Trois Morceaux, Op. 116 by Benjamin Godard (Ona Jonaityte, flute soloist), Andante and Rondo by Franz Doppler (Ona Jonaityte and Jessi Rosinski, flute soloists), and Symphony No. 5 by Peter I. Tchaikovsky.

In advance of the Spring concert, I had the opportunity to talk with Maestro Isaacson about all things music.  I learned that the Maestro retired from performing 10 years ago, his job as a conductor goes far beyond the on-stage direction the audience sees, is an avid outdoorsman, and has a great sense of humor! Maestro Isaacson inspires musicians and patrons alike. A great teacher never stops learning, and Maestro Isaacson continues to challenge himself each day by pursuing his dreams of sharing music with the world.

About Maestro Isaacson
Betsy: What is your musical background?
Maestro Isaacson: I started playing the guitar at age 6. My father was my first teacher and he taught me lots of folk songs, like “If I Had a Hammer” and “This Land is Your Land”. We performed together in those days at what was called a “Hootenanny”. What I remember the most is that we’d sing in harmony. Pretty crazy for a 6 year old! I took up trombone at age 8 and worked very hard through middle and high school and finally at college at Northwestern University. I practiced hard my first two years. Maybe I practiced too hard, because I got a job in the middle of my sophomore year as Principal Trombone of the Hamilton Philharmonic in Ontario, Canada. It was a really great job for me at age 19! I stayed for 3 seasons and moved on to the San Francisco Symphony for one season as Principal Trombone before moving to Boston for the Empire Brass Quintet. I stayed with them for two years and decided to strike out on my own and work more in the orchestral realm again. Within about 6 months, I was working pretty regularly with the Boston Symphony and Boston Pops. I performed with them, as well as most every ensemble the Boston area at one time or another, until my retirement in 1999.

Betsy: Why did you retire?
Maestro Isaacson: I developed symptoms of what I now know is called Focal Dystonia around 1997. It took me a year to realize something was very wrong, I wasn’t just out of shape in my practicing. After some visits to local doctors, I was able to get a diagnosis. I did try for almost 2 years to heal it or at least get around it, but no matter what I tried, it was of no use. Both Eastern and Western medicine had no effect. I tried acupuncture, massage, The Alexander Technique, Meditation, medications for Parkinson’s and other debilitating diseases and even had Botox injections into my lip. I wish I could say that I looked better due to the Botox, but that wasn’t really the case – we injected my upper lip! After struggling for 2 years, I decided to put the trombone away and start to pursue other avenues of NVPO Logocreativity.

Betsy: What inspired you to become a conductor?
Maestro Isaacson: As a trombonist for over 20 years, I wanted to learn more about the inner-workings of the music. Conducting is the best way to learn and experience that part of music making. It has been a joy to experience this side of the conductor’s podium.

Betsy: How did you make the transition from orchestra member to leading the orchestra?
Maestro Isaacson: After retiring from performing, I spent some time clearing my head before deciding what direction to take. After about 1 year, even though I saw an opportunity to break out of music and head off in a totally different direction, it became clear to me that I wanted to stay in music. Conducting opportunities were coming from several directions and I spent most of 2000 to 2002 learning as much as I could about the art of conducting. I attended the conducting program at the Aspen Music Festival as well as participated in the National Conductors Institute with the National Symphony in Washington, D.C. Since then the opportunities have continued to blossom and I’m so grateful that I can still perform as a musician as I had done for the previous 25 or so years.

Betsy: Where are you in your career today?
Maestro Isaacson: After almost 25 years as a trombonist performing at the highest levels, I’ve begun again and am in the early stages of a conducting career. There is still much room for growth, but it does feel like things have gotten off to a good start with weeks of conducting every year in places like Boston , New York, Aspen, Texas and Pennsylvania. I’m actually coming into my 9th summer conducting at the Aspen Music Festival.

Betsy: How do you feel when you’re onstage ‘making music’? What does it feel like to be able to bring out such timeless beauty?
Maestro Isaacson:
Changing over from instrumentalist to Conductor has been a huge shift. The skill sets are totally different. Gratefully though, the music – the reason we perform – is the same. Now instead of learning one line, I must learn the entire score. Instead of just showing up at the gig, I spend weeks and months preparing for each performance. Learning music from the inside out is amazing. Composers are brilliant people and you get to see the inner workings of their minds when learning and performing their scores. What’s also fascinating is how many “right” ways there are to perform a piece. Tempos, interpretation and mood are not in stone. It’s all about the interpretation. And that can take a long time to figure out and it can change from performance to performance.

The Mona Lisa looks pretty much the same each time you see it. The Louvre could change the lighting or location of the painting, but it would still be pretty much the same. A symphony, like the Tchaikovsky we are performing in March, can be interpreted in numerous ways. To have a group strong enough to bring out these subtleties is amazing. We never know exactly what is going to happen at any given concert. Living in the moment is very exciting.

IMG_7110Betsy: What do you get most out of conducting?
Maestro Isaacson:
Working with my peers. Shaping music by group effort, not by dictatorship. That’s why I never know exactly how a given performance is going to go.

Betsy: Have you ever had a bad performance, and if so, what did you do to get through it? What did it teach you and do you still use those lessons today?
Maestro Isaacson:
Yes, I had a very bad performance as a trombonist! When I was 20 years old, in my first job in Hamilton, Ontario, we were performing Ravel’s Bolero. That piece has one of the most important and difficult solos in the trombone repertoire. At the rehearsals, I played it beautifully. In the concert, the conductor went appreciably slower and I had trouble making it through the phrases as I had planned them. I just ran out of breath due to the slower tempo. It was embarrassing and I vowed to practice even harder to make sure that I would be ready for anything that might be thrown at me. To this day, I’m incredibly conscientious in my preparation to be ready for anything that might come up in a performance.

Betsy: What are you working on in addition to the NVPO?
Maestro Isaacson:
In addition to the NVPO, I’m the Associate Director of the Music Division at the Boston Conservatory. Musicians would call that my “Day Gig”. It’s incredibly rewarding working with so many talented young IMG_8187musicians. And in addition to that, I conduct at numerous summer music festivals as well as conduct clinics and district orchestras during the winter months.

Betsy: Where else do you focus your attentions throughout the year?
Maestro Isaacson: I’m an avid hiker and road cyclist. Given a free weekend morning in the summer, my preference would be to go out on a 30-mile bike ride or a 5-mile hike in the more rural areas of Eastern Massachusetts. I also travel when I can, taking a trip last summer to Machu Picchu. We hiked 26 miles over 3 days, up as high as 14,400 ft. and ended up at Machu Picchu as the sun was rising. An unforgettable moment.

Betsy: What have been your career highlights thus far?
Maestro Isaacson:
So many. Performing on an Aerosmith video, touring with the Boston Symphony and the Boston Pops to Japan, touring with the Empire Brass Quintet, playing at Carnegie Hall, conducting for 5,000 excited music lovers in Aspen and conducting the National Symphony (albeit briefly!).

Betsy: What do you want to accomplish down the road in addition to the success of the NVPO?
Maestro Isaacson: First I’d like to get the NVPO on its feet. We’ll do 2 concerts this year, I’d like to do 3 next season and finally 4 in the following season. At the same time, the orchestra is working on getting into the schools in some way and into events in the Valley. We’ve done almost a dozen chamber programs already, but I’d like to do lots more! I’d personally like to continue to expand my conducting responsibilities here and around the country.

Today’s Conductors
Betsy: How do conductors differ from each other?
Maestro Isaacson:
Conductors come in all shapes, sizes and flavors. Their interpretations can be as different as night and day and their interaction with the audience and orchestra is as diverse as there are days in the year. That’s what makes it all so interesting.


Betsy: What makes a conductor good, great or remarkable?
Maestro Isaacson:
They say “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. I think that is true for conductors too. “Great conducting is in the eye of the beholder”! The conductors that I admire are people like Leonard Bernstein, Neemi Jarvi, Bernard Haitink, Georg Solti, George Szell and others. I’m most impressed by a great leader – someone who can take 50-100 musicians and bring them together in a unified effort. They are musical beasts and compassionate human beings, working together with the musicians to create a symbiotic relationship.

Betsy: What is the importance of a conductor?
Maestro Isaacson:
An excellent question.  Many people aren’t quite sure what we do.  Is a conductor really necessary, some ask?  The truth is that most of what a conductor does, maybe 80-90% is done before the concert begins.  Using the Neponset Valley Philharmonic as an example, before I even set foot onto the stage, many things must be done first.  For example:

  • Preliminary meeting with musicians to find out what they would like to see in a new orchestraNumerous meetings with mentors and friends to discuss how to put together an orchestra Putting a board together – one person and relationship at a time
  • Numerous days of auditions
  • Numerous board meetings
  • Development of materials, logo, stationary, business cards a website, etc.
  • Fund raising
  • Hours and hours of meetings to raise the necessary support to bring off our first concerts
  • Selection and preparation of music
  • Music study
  • Determining the orchestra size appropriate to the repertoire
  • Hire an orchestra

This list just goes on and on. For argument sake, it’s at least 200 hours of preparation for each 2 hour concert. Some would say it’s crazy to put in that kind of time for a 1% return on the energy.

Once we get onto the stage though, the conductor is the prime cheerleader for the music. Starting and stopping the players, shaping phrases, balancing dynamics in the moment, reminding players of what may have been done in rehearsal or what it says on the page in front of them. There are definitely moments when the conductor is not needed and at those moments I definitely get out of the way. But there are also moments that require the conductor to act, and those moments are the most important. What tempo is the right one to bring out the brooding personality of King Coriolanus? Should the strings be heard over the winds as the melodic line or did Beethoven mean for the winds to be predominant? Should the second theme be at a different tempo, and if so, how should it change? How loud is a Beethoven fortissimo vs. a Tchaikovsky fortissimo, especially in the dynamics of the Showcase Live. The list goes on and on. There are no boundaries to how the music can be shaped and affected by the conductor.

Betsy: Is there such a thing as a bad conductor? And if so, what happens when you come across one?
Maestro Isaacson:
Can I take the 5th on this one?

Betsy: Who are your contemporaries?
Maestro Isaacson: There are many. Yoichi Udagawa (Cape Ann, Melrose, Quincy), Steven Karidoyanes (Plymouth), James Orent (Newton, Brockton) and many others. We are all friends and chat frequently about what we do. It’s such a quirky and strange field that we are in. It’s great to have the support of others in the field.

Betsy: Who are the musicians?
Maestro Isaacson:
We see ourselves as a training orchestra, hiring players who are currently in music school or who have been out for several years. We want to bridge the gap from school to their full-blown career. We have only been in existence for one season, but my hope is that there will be a huge turnover each year as our players move on to even better IMG_7723opportunities.

Betsy: How do they get selected?
Maestro Isaacson:
We hold auditions several times a year. The players come in and play an audition for me for about 10 minutes – a solo and some orchestral excerpts. This is a pretty standard format for an audition.

Betsy: Where are they from?
Maestro Isaacson:
Our players literally come from all over the world. There are many players from the US, but other countries like Australia, Korea, Canada, China, Romania, Japan and Poland are represented as well.

Today’s Music
Betsy: How is ‘classical’ perceived by the general public today?
Maestro Isaacson:
It depends on who you ask. For those who have little experience listening to Classical music, there is still a stigma around it. A fear that you won’t understand what you are listening to or you might clap in the wrong place. One of my goals with the NVPO is to educate the audience so that they realize there is no right and wrong with music. It’s just your personal response to it.

If someone has some experience listening to classical music, they know that we are in a bit of a growth spurt. After the failed experiments of the late 20th century (12 tone and atonal music), we are discovering old works that have not been given enough air time and hearing new works that are exploring interesting tonalities as well as relationships between Music, Art, Dance and Theater.

Betsy: Do you feel that the younger generation has knowingly been influenced by classical music?
Maestro Isaacson:
They have definitely been influenced, but not necessarily knowingly. It’s everywhere. You can’t be living today and have not heard classical music. If you look at a listing of classical music that is in movies, for example, the list is encyclopedic. You almost can’t have a current movie now without at least one piece of classical music hiding in it. And then there are cartoons. Classical music was omnipresent in the Looney Tunes cartoons from the 50’s and 60’s. That has influenced Pop music from the Beatles, to Aerosmith, to Metallica to Ben Folds. Classical instruments, Classical forms – they all show up in today’s music.

Betsy: What does music ‘do’ for people, or our society?
Maestro Isaacson:
Like a picture, music is worth a thousand words. After 9/11, the only thing that people could handle was going to a concert. Many new pieces of music were written around that time to commemorate our heroes and mourn the losses that our country had sustained. There is Patriotic Music, and Romantic Music and Holiday Music. Music says for us what we might not be able to say otherwise. It also acts as a background to an event. A wedding wouldn’t be the same without music. Nor would a graduation. Music fills in the holes that we can’t fill with words or actions.

What: Neponset Valley Philharmonic Orchestra Spring Concert
When: Sunday, March 22, 2009 – 3:00 p.m.
Showcase Live 23 Patriot Place, Foxboro, Massachusetts
Purchase Tickets

Watch the inaugural performance of the Neponset Valley Philharmonic Orchestra.

Neponset Valley Philharmonic Orchestra Led By Maestro Lawrence Isaacson: Violin Soloist Markus Placci

Support the NVPO– Many area businesses donate their services and goods in support of the NVPO. Please consider supporting the Neponset Valley Philharmonic Orchestra today!

Photos courtesy of the Neponset Valley Philharmonic Orchestra, Lawrence Isaacson and Photographer Matthew McKee.