Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Q&A: Erin Freeman

Erin Freeman, a 34-year-old native of Atlanta and former music director of the Richmond Philharmonic, is in her first season as the Richmond Symphony’s associate conductor, leading the orchestra’s Pops and Kicked Back Classics series, directing its Young Performers Program, and directing the Richmond Symphony Chorus. We spoke earlier this month.

Q: With Handel’s "Messiah" and the holiday pops concert, you’re launching your first season as director of the Richmond Symphony Chorus. How’s the getting-acquainted process going?

A: So far, I’ve found the choristers dedicated and the experience of working with them very positive. It’s a pretty intense first season for us. Just a couple of months after "Messiah" we’ll be doing the Verdi Requiem and the Bach cantata "Christ lag in Todesbunden," so we’re already working on those pieces, too. I’m sure the singers find working with me different from working with James Erb [the chorus’ founder and longtime director]. It’s a great help, for continuity and other reasons, that Jim is now singing in the chorus.

Q: Your most important musical mentor was the late Robert Shaw, the great choral director and conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus when you were growing up. What are the big lessons you took away from working with Shaw?

A: I started singing for Mr. Shaw when I was 10, in a youth chorus, and later sang for him in the Atlanta Symphony Chorus. He was all about hard work, and all about the music, and that’s the attitude he expected from everyone who worked with him. Work hard, concentrate on the details, and then you can let the music unfold naturally and spontaneously in performance.

Q: The concert series you lead give many listeners their first taste of classical music, at least as a live experience. Is that an extra challenge for you? Does it give you less freedom, or more, in selecting music?

A: The biggest challenge, with experienced or inexperienced audiences, is to engage them. I think performers of all kinds of music agree on that. Music is all around us, all the time, so we tend to consign it to the background, or to absorb it passively. Live music-making is a contact sport – it takes active participation on the part of the audience. So we’re not just introducing people to classical music; we’re also teaching them to listen. You know how to tell whether people have been really listening? When, at the end of a performance, there’s silence before the applause begins.

Q: Another challenge you face is preparing programs without much rehearsal time . . .

A: Tell me about it. We did [last month’s] Pops concert on one rehearsal. To do that, the conductor and musicians need to prepare as much as possible beforehand. I need to be ready with answers to the questions the players may have about the music, and to anticipate what’s going to require extra attention and when I can assume things will gell without a lot of advance work.

Q: Conductors are authority figures – it’s assumed that they know more and are more experienced than the musicians they lead. Is it harder to exert that kind of authority when you’re no older than the musicians you conduct, and younger than many of them?

A: Not as hard as it used to be. Look at Alan Gilbert taking over the New York Philharmonic [at 42] or Gustavo Dudamel taking over the Los Angeles Philharmonic [at 28]. It certainly hasn’t been a problem for me with the Richmond Symphony’s musicians, who’ve been very supportive. I find it more of an internal struggle. I have very specific ideas about the music I’m conducting, and I know that the musicians have ideas, too. We have to accommodate one another to make the music bloom. So far, I think we’re doing very well at getting onto the same page.

Erin Freeman conducts the Richmond Symphony, Symphony Chorus and guest artists in Handel’s "Messiah" at 8 p.m. Nov. 30 at Second Baptist Church and 8 p.m. Dec. 3 at St. Michael Catholic Church (tickets: $25-$35) and the "Let It Snow!" holiday Pops concert at 8 p.m. Dec. 8 at the Landmark Theater (tickets: $35-$60). Details: 788-1212,