The Knoxville Symphony Orchestra opens 2017-18 with its second season under Music Director Aram Demirjian. The KSO has a full slate of concerts and events in the community, from its signature Moxley Charmichael Masterworks Series to educational outreach programs. Demirjian generously took time to provide in-depth answers to a few questions Cityview editor Keith Norris asked about his work, Knoxville, and the KSO.
Keith Norris: When did you realize conducting was something you wanted to do or found that you were passionate about it? How did you get your start?
Aram Demirjian: There was a mystique about conducting that always intrigued me, even from the time I was very young. As long as I can remember, even going back to elementary school, I enjoyed being in leadership positions (team captain, line leader). My mom actually conducted a children’s choir that I sang in at the time, and she gave me my first conducting “lesson” when I was seven years old, because I was interested in how it worked.
Don’t get the wrong idea, though — I was by no means some prodigy being groomed for this career from the time I could walk. I had a wide range of interests growing up. Depending on the year, I wanted to be a doctor, biologist, sports play-by-play announcer, historian and politician, all of which I pursued to some level of intensity. I was raised somewhat with the ethos of “make your money elsewhere and spend it on music.” If you told me 15 years ago that this is what I would be doing with my life I would have laughed.
I can really trace my “serious” interest in conducting back to high school and the first time I played in a full symphony youth orchestra (I also am a cellist). I was really enchanted by the phenomenon of a symphony orchestra — so many moving parts, so many individuals all working together to achieve harmony. And I wanted to be at the center of it, doing everything I could to bring that harmony about.
I started off mostly just by experimenting in front of the stereo with my favorite recordings, but my first opportunity to conduct a bona fide orchestra was in my senior year of high school, when my high school orchestra teacher let me conduct a piece on a concert. Needless to say I was hooked. I went on to Harvard to study government, but could not shake the conducting bug and wound up spending most of my extracurricular hours conducting operas and orchestras on campus. Eventually, I came to the realization that conducting was not only what I enjoyed the most but the thing for which I had the greatest aptitude (my friends would tell you I was the last one to realize this). I went on to grad school to study conducting full time at New England Conservatory, and really got my first “big break” when I won an audition to be the associate conductor of the Kansas City Symphony, where I spent four years before being hired by the KSO.
KN: Oftentimes when we read about you, the word “young” is attached. Do you find that your age affects how you are perceived in the music community? Does it affect how you approach the job?
AD: Usually, when I am referred to as “young,” it is meant as something positive. I think in the music world, as in many industries and disciplines, “young” can be a catch-all term for the qualities we associate with youth: energy, new ideas, optimism, hope. Young people are thirsting for new innovations and not yet set in their ways. In this sense, “youth” is a state of mind as much as it is a reflection of age. I know 70-year-old conductors who are “younger” than some 30-year-olds.
That said — I am young! I am only 31 years old and I have only been conducting professionally for 7 years. I do not have the benefit of decades of experience and insight the way my mentors and role models have. With all music, but particularly with conducting, you tend to get better as you age. There’s a saying that it takes 30 years to become a conductor: 10 to learn how to listen to the orchestra; 10 to learn what you want from them; and 10 to learn how to get it from them.
Does my age affect how I approach my job? I guess I won’t know until I am older! It almost certainly does, though not consciously. The conductor is the leader, yet most of the musicians I conduct are older and far more experienced than I am, so I always strive to be aware of what I have to learn, to have respect for their knowledge and to be open to feedback. You have to be simultaneously conscious of all you have to offer and all you have to learn — and then let go of all of it when you get on the podium because ultimately you are there to serve the music as genuinely as you can in that moment. Beyond that, I think being kind to people goes a long way, no matter what your age.
KN: If you were to reduce what it means to direct and conduct a symphony orchestra to two sentences, what would you say?
AD: There is a brilliant conductor named Semion Bychkov who encapsulated what a conductor does better than anybody I have ever heard, and I am paraphrasing him now:
The conductor is force for unity, existing in a perpetual communion with every participant in a musical experience: the composers, orchestra musicians, audience members and community whom he/she serves, and the ultimate caretaker of the fulfillment of all. If the orchestra were a sports team, the conductor would simultaneously be a player, a coach, and a play-by-play announcer, constantly searching to understand the structure and heart of the music and the orchestra musicians, providing a unifying vision in rehearsal that is inclusive of the many musical perspectives among the players, and then participating in the performance as a teammate that helps the individuals in the orchestra reach their greatest level of expression and guides the audience through words and movement so that each concert-goer can enjoy their musical journey to the fullest.
KN: Why Knoxville; what brought you here? Now that you’ve spent some time here, what do you enjoy about our community?
AD: It sounds obvious, but what primarily brought me to Knoxville was the KSO! A young conductor can’t ask for much better from his first music director job than an excellent, financially-healthy orchestra with a devoted audience. The KSO also recognized that the status quo was not sufficient — they were hungry to grow, evolve and reach beyond their comfort zone.
Knoxville is obviously a city with an artistic spirit, from the Knoxville Museum of Art and all the public art to the Big Ears Festival, The Pilot Light, and all the great independent groups that I am just beginning to discover. You can’t walk one block downtown without encountering art and creativity in some form. That quality was important to me.
I believe that classical music is for everybody no matter what their background or level of prior exposure. The fact that Knoxville is a city with a foundation of artistic curiosity suggests to me that there are many people the KSO can engage that we just haven’t reached yet — bringing those people in is my top mandate as music director.
There also is no shortage of exciting collaborative possibilities in Knoxville – when artists from different backgrounds work together, it makes us all stronger, fuels new ideas and creates unexpected experiences for audience members.
I am an American history junkie and also devoted to the performance of American music, and I am fascinated by the depth of Knoxville’s history. I think we have a unique opportunity in Knoxville to champion the music of our own country to the same degree that we celebrate traditional European composers and to examine the connections between our music and the many layers of our regional history.
KN:What’s your favorite Knoxville restaurant? Feel free to cheat and offer two or three, but give reasons!
AD: I get my coffee at Coffee & Chocolate — love their brews and their playlists! For drinks it’s Boyd’s Jig and Reel — scotch is my drink of choice and their list is jaw-dropping.
As for restaurants…because of some recently-discovered food allergies, I’ve become a pretty picky eater. I go pretty reliably to Babalu (for the chicken tacos and guacamole), Bistro by the Bijou (brunch!), The Tomato Head (because they have gluten free bread) and Café 4 (truffle fries)!
KN: You’ve come into a program with a 75-year legacy. The last two Music Directors have made huge, indelible marks on the way the community experiences symphonic music. Knoxvillians have grown accustomed to the Masterworks series at the Tennessee Theatre; to stunning, world-class guest artists; to progressive community, educational, and children’s programs; and to new works commissioned especially for the KSO. What programs and events do you hope to continue; what new things might we expect?
AD: Certainly our core, headliner series, like Masterworks and Pops will continue, but those programs are going to become a little more surprising. I believe that an orchestra concert should be a multi-sensory experience. If you want to sit back and close your eyes and let the sound wash over you, by all means, go for it! But if you like watching the stage, we’re going to give you more to look at, whether it’s dynamic lighting, theatricality or digital projections. This upcoming season alone, we feature dancers and rock musicians on Masterworks, full-length feature films on Pops and unusual stage configurations that use the full 360 degrees of the concert hall.
You’ll also hear a shift in sound. There will be no shortage of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Mozart, but we are going to come at those classics from new perspectives by pairing them with music the KSO has never played before, some of it by astounding composers that are alive and active today. Programs will be thematic and narrative. You’re also going to get used to the sound of my voice! I believe a little background on the music can go a long way, and I love talking to the audience during concerts — just like musicians of any other style would! It’s a great way to bring the audience into the magic of the music and to connect with them on a human level.
Finally, you’re going to notice us popping up in places you wouldn’t normally expect to find us. Already over 80% of our appearances occur outside of the concert hall, many of them in classrooms, libraries and hospitals. In the coming years, we’re going a few steps further and putting on social events for fun-seeking adults in places like The Standard, Jackson Terminal, and Mill & Mine that will feel more like a night out at a bar, where the featured music just happens to be orchestral. We’re calling the series KSO UnStaged, and we’re rolling out our first event in November! Keep an eye on our social media for more information!
KN: We love having a symphony here, but it’s not the first thing people think of. How might you work to lift the profile of the KSO? What impact would you like to have on Knoxville?
AD: I want the KSO to be an indispensable part of the civic identity of Knoxville and for the KSO to be one of the primary entertainment options for everybody on a Friday night and a gathering g place for Knoxville’s entire artistic culture.
I think one place to start is changing the way we talk about ourselves. Way too many people think that classical music is for the elite and cultivated or feel lost when they walk in the door of an orchestra concert. You don’t need to know single thing about Mozart, or when is the right time to clap, or what the difference is between a violin or a viola (no matter who might make you feel like you do!), but we will give you all the information and insight you need to have the best possible time if you make the leap and buy a ticket. We want to meet you where you are and share your journey with you.
If you’re getting the sense that this is important to me, it is because I don’t want the joy and electricity of orchestra music to be missing from anybody’s life! It is fun, powerful and exhilarating, and we are going to put on concerts and present ourselves in ways that make it obvious.