5 questions: Russell Ger – The Highland Current
Russell Ger is the new Music Director of Orchestra 914, which will perform a holiday concert at the Paramount Hudson Valley Theater in Peekskill on Thursday, December 2nd. Ger is also Music Director of the Greater Newburgh Symphony Orchestra.
Is it common for conductors to work with more than one orchestra?
This is the norm for conductors of all stripes, as different ensembles give you different musicians and programs. For example, Yannick Nézet-Séguin is the musical director of the Metropolitan Opera and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic as well as the Paris Opera. Orchestras are certainly not in competition with each other; they enrich each other.
What are the factors involved in developing a program?
Large orchestras have artistic committees that work with the musical director to put together a season. With my orchestras, it’s entirely my job. The old model inherited from an overture, a concerto and a symphony is neither enlightening nor fascinating. I like to find pieces that unite around a theme. For example, Orchestra 914 is offering a music program by Latin American composers in March. A good program should be like a menu in which everything should be satisfactory for both the players and the audience at the end of a meal.
How do you build trust when working with a new orchestra?
The best you can do is prepare yourself. Many drivers suffer from impostor syndrome. I worked with someone who turned into a sweaty mess and wringing their hands before every gig, saying, “I shouldn’t be doing this.” By recognizing that you work with and respect great masterpieces of human creation, you are the composer’s advocate. You have to convince both the experts, the players and the audience that you have the right to dictate the direction of the experiment. You are a conduit, a conductor, the vehicle in which to conduct energy. Being open and honest with the whole – this is how you create a successful relationship.
How did you go from musician to conductor?
I played tuba in my high school orchestra [in Australia]. The tuba provides a harmonic basis but is not a particularly interesting role to play. I spent a tremendous amount of time sitting watching, busy watching the chef rehearse. I’ve always been jealous that I didn’t have something to play. I was also a pianist in the school’s jazz orchestra and a singer in a vocal ensemble. At home I was a composer, writing string quartets and pop songs. The conductor of my high school orchestra noticed all of these things when asked for recommendations from an American teacher who was launching an immersive conductor training program, and he recommended me. Conductors have all types of personalities; some are gregarious, some withdrawn. I am on the gregarious side. My teacher recognized this in me and encouraged me to apply it, refine it, and develop all of these things.
Is there a typical path for composers?
There is no linear progression. So if you ask me where I see myself in 10 years, I can’t answer. I have just turned 40 and for a conductor I am still young. It takes a tremendous amount of time to become good at it. I am skeptical of wonders: how much gravity and life experience can they bring? Or is it just tons of energy? The more I am at it, the more I see an image of the old maestro because of the number of skills you need to have, not only as a conductor but as a human being. For now, I look forward to bringing Orchestra 914 into the public consciousness this year, and through it, to bring in a new group of people by eliminating some of the more difficult and stifling elements of attending a orchestra concert. I am delighted to introduce people to a new way of experiencing this music.