James Burton, the new Tanglewood Festival Chorus Conductor and Boston Symphony Orchestra Choral Director, grew up watching his father perform music for seniors on Saturday afternoons.
In an interview with HuffPost, Maestro Burton describes his father’s approach to diversity of music programming and how his early experiences as a listener, music student, and conductor led to the way he approaches preparing choruses today.
Michael: Tell me why you went into conducting.
James: I couldn’t not! I’d been to a wonderful school which had a great music department. When I got to university, a much bigger, higher profile experience at Cambridge, I quickly realized that there were skills that I had which my contemporaries didn’t. It was a wonderful environment whereby the students actually were expected to put on their own performances and were allowed to and given little budgets and so on.
When it came to my college’s musical society, no one else was there to provide the leadership of what should we do and why should we do it, and how many rehearsals do we need, and those sorts of things. I was looked to and I’d also had the luck to be exposed to music making at a high level as a young chorister. Through my teens, I’d sung at prodigious events and played my cello. There was an amalgam of musical energy in me which putting on the podium made so much sense to me.
Michael: You thought that your first undergraduate conducting experience hadn’t gone well – is that correct?
James: I did my first concert and my Head of Music took me aside the next day and said, “I’d really like to see you on Monday. Can you bring the score of your Beethoven?” I thought, oh no, I’m going to get a right rollicking here.
I met up with him. He said, look, let’s just sit down and talk this through. He gave me my first conducting lesson. He opened the score and we spoke about various aspects of things that I’d done or things that perhaps I’d missed. He asked me what I’d been thinking at this passage here and so on. From that point he was a great encourager of me to continue. He’d give me opportunities to conduct for the next two years.
Michael: You’ve said that your father was also a great influence over how you think about music.
James: My father was an amateur musician and would frequently perform. Some of my earliest musical memories were Saturday afternoons at a local church hall. My dad and his friends would get together and sing and perform with some folks who lived in an old people’s home. It was the highlight of their week — they would have a Saturday afternoon social.
The way my dad went about that, firstly, was to recognize that music had no boundaries. He wasn’t someone who was interested in genres of music. The record collection at home had as much Miles Davis as it did Stravinsky and Schubert and the Beatles. It was a very broad set of music that he would not only listen to at home, but also get to know and then perform.
Until I was older, I didn’t realize that music was separated by all these barriers. That’s how music used to be broadcast as well. Back then, people’s musical experience was healthily broad. That’s one of the things that I grew up with.
I also saw the way my father presented these performances. He would talk to the audience about why he was performing a song, what it was about, who wrote it. He was interested in that framing of music. This is the background to it and this is something he wanted to share and found interesting. I find myself reaching out to the audience and I want them to understand what we’re doing, not just come to a sacred holy place to worship at the shrine of classical music.
Michael: How do you avoid that sense of worshipping at the holy shrine?
James: It would be great if more people understood sonata form, for instance. I’m sure in the early days of the symphony people really appreciated form of music in a different way than perhaps is possible now. If it’s explained and taught and so on, then there is a greater appreciation for not just the greatness of a symphony of Beethoven, but why is it great, and why does it stand out from its contemporaries.
Audiences need to understand how immensely great composers are from a technical standpoint as well as their human side and their ability to touch the human heartstrings, whether or not people actually understand what’s actually going on in the music.
Michael: How do you prepare a chorus for a program?
James: You’ve got a finite amount of time, and so you’ve got to decide on the building blocks to put in place for a performance. In a run of three or four concerts, I’ll have a huge ream of notes for them for the next performance and to carry on tweaking things and focusing their minds on a particular aspect of the score. I’ve never been “done” with any given piece of music. There’s always something else to think about or have you notice.
For me, every performance is a new edifice that you have to put up. You can’t just pick up the one you left there yesterday and move it across two inches. Every pot made by a potter is slightly different, even if it’s the same material, the same spinning wheel, the same tosser, the same water. It’s slightly different. I think that’s what makes live theater, live opera, live performing of any sort so exciting and it’s why it’s more, I think, the human instinct to see it done live. We’re lucky like that.