Coffee Talk with Jayce Ogren

by Adam Rosen

Jayce Ogren, the fifth of sixth candidates vying to be the Asheville Symphony Orchestra’s next music director, will take the stage with the orchestra this Saturday night at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. The Brooklyn–based conductor and composer is currently the artistic director of Orchestra 2001 in Philadelphia, a Stanley Kubrick-inspired ensemble that performs trailblazing contemporary music. Ogren also has a foot in the opera world; as the former music director of the New York City Opera, in 2012 he conducted the American premiere of singer-songwriter Rufus Wainright’s opera Prima Donna. His program on Saturday, dubbed “Patriots,” reflects his diverse musical background, and includes works from Sibelius, de Falla, and John Adams’ 1972 opera Nixon in China. Joining him will be pianist Joyce Yang.

As part of the ASO’s ongoing Coffee Talk interview series, I caught up with Ogren at Trade and Lore Coffee on Wednesday, April 11.

In the following interview, which has been edited for clarity and length, Ogren discusses what makes for good opera material, the different kinds of nationalism in music, how training for triathlons can help conductors, and more.

AR: In your opinion, what makes a good conductor?

JO: A conductor first of all has to be a great musician. You have to have impeccable rhythm, you have to have great ears, you need to be able to hear what’s right and what’s not. A conductor has to be a creative artist as well. It has to be someone who has a certain amount of fantasy. If you just try to get the orchestra to play the notes on the page, it won’t read to the audience; the piece won’t have life. There needs to be a person who will get personality into the performance. For me that always means just trying to get inside the head of the composer as much as possible.

AR: You have a lot experience with opera. Why is it so attractive to you?

JO: Opera brings together all of the arts, and there’s something really thrilling about that. It feels like a complete artistic experience with the music, the theater, the costumes, the visual elements, and sometimes, the dance. Selfishly, as a conductor, there’s something very, very satisfying about the fact that the opera could absolutely not get from start to finish without my leadership. Coordinating all of that, and helping all of these amazing artists sound their best when they have really extreme demands asked of them is really satisfying, especially with contemporary opera.

AR: The image of Madame Mao dancing in “The Chairman Dances,” the piece you’re playing from Nixon in China, is surreal—and probably not something that many people would expect to be part of an opera. Then again, Jerry Springer inspired an opera. So did the story of a fictional pinball wunderkind. Can anything be explored through opera?

JO: I think the short answer is yes. In Ligeti’s Le Grande Macabre, the opening aria is sung by a guy who’s sitting on the toilet. There are operas being written that explore the absurd. That being said, I think there are certain stories that work well for opera and ones that don’t. There are certain films that I think would translate perfectly to opera, because the story is contained in maybe a couple different settings. There are really clear signposts throughout the piece that can be hit points for big arias or big ensembles.

AR: Tell me about your collaboration with Rufus Wainright on Prima Donna.
JO: It’s a very challenging piece, but we just had fun. He said to me that I was the first conductor to really trust his music. I think because it was his first opera, when he had worked with previous conductors they were trying to fix things all the time. I loved his songs, and already loved his music, and very clearly saw how he was inspired by Strauss, and Verdi, and so many of the great opera composers, that it was really easy for me in Prima Donna to say, “Oh yeah, that’s right from ‘Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,’” or “That’s right from Straus’s Rosenkavalier.”

AR: The title of the program you’re performing is “Patriots.” In your view, what are the composers whose works you’re performing saying about nationalism?
JO: All three of the pieces have very different relationships to nationalism, and not necessarily intentionally. The program, for me, started with Sibelius’ Second Symphony. The Finnish people absolutely heard it as this kind of cry for independence, just because of the kind of victory that’s won throughout the forty minutes of the piece. Like many pieces of classical music, even if the composer didn’t quite intend the meaning that the audience arrived at, it’s the spirit of the piece that moved people in this way. With the de Falla, it’s just a loving portrait of three places in his country. I think it’s sort of three love letters to beautiful and dramatic places. And of course the Adams has this sort of ironic relationship to nationalism. You know, Nixon in China is sort of this farce of this tremendous media event that happened when Nixon visited China and visited this nationalist regime.

AR: Your discussion of the de Falla as a sort of slice of the country made me think about Appalachian Spring. What do you think of that comparison—does that register at all, or no?
JO: I think that Appalachian Spring is more of a humanist piece. It’s really a portrait of the character of the people. Of course you sort of see those landscapes as well when you hear the music, and Copland was such a master of that, of creating this sense of open spaces and sky. But I really see Appalachian Spring as being a portrait of the people. Of these sort of humble people, and the beauty of that humility in their lives.

AR: You compose as well. How do you feel like that informs your work as a conductor?
JO: I look at scores in a different way, I think, because I’m imaging the process in terms of choices of pitch or rhythm, structure—but also the tiny, mundane details. The last kind of question that I ask myself when I’m studying a score is always the same: what does this mean—what is this person trying to say through this piece? Every piece that I’ve written, there was an intent, I was trying to say something. So as a conductor I do my best to try to figure that out.

AR: You’re really into running. How does your conducting affect your marathon performance, and vice versa?
JO: I’ve noticed, especially when conducting a three-hour opera, I have more endurance than I used to. Especially from triathlons, from all the swimming and biking. There’s a lot of shock absorbed by your core and by your shoulders, especially. I feel a lot fresher after a show, and a lot more ready to have lightning bolts coming out of my hands than I used to. They work well together.

Adam Rosen is a freelance writer and book editor who lives in Asheville.

www.adammrosen.com