Music director: from Washington to Saint Paul and beyond

When I was Rostropovich's assistant, he would often ask me to conduct when he played a concerto. This was an important way for him to watch and guide his assistants. I owe my London debut to him: in 1982 he told the London Philharmonic (who were presumably quite skeptical), “I want to play the Dutilleux concerto, and please accept my young assistant to conduct the entire program!” He had that kind of influence. He opened doors for me all over the world. It was a thrill to come along with him.

After my apprenticeship in Washington, it was time to strike out on my own. My first music director position was with an excellent regional orchestra in Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Many freelance musicians from the conservatories in New York and Philadelphia got their starts there. Then, in 1985, I became music director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. This was a tremendous opportunity, especially as we were near the spotlight of New York City. If you were creative, you could attract the attention of New York audiences and critics.

I have always loved chamber orchestras. As a student, most of my conducting was with chamber orchestras. I could phone friends and say, “Would you like to play Stravinsky's Pulcinella next week?” But to put together a Mahler symphony? Forget it! The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra has 33 musicians. Working there from 1988 to 2000 was returning to my roots in chamber orchestra literature. Teldec noticed what we were doing and wanted to record us. It was heady stuff: in just eight years we made 20 recordings, toured the States annually, and went twice to Europe and Asia, things you couldn’t afford with a larger ensemble. We filled a niche, as there are few chamber orchestras in the US. America as a culture is largely about “bigger is better.” When symphony orchestras got started in America in the mid-19th century, their ambition was: how big can we be? Sadly, there never has been a tradition of chamber orchestras in America.