Putting It Together

The Austin Symphony's Peter Bay on Leading an Orchestra, Interpreting a Score, and Seeing Music

Putting It Together
Photo By Bret Brookshire

Impish and powerful. To watch Austin Symphony maestro Peter Bay at work on the podium is to see a conductor leading musicians as if he were the music itself -- his body swaying, soaring, as he cajoles and rouses the notes from his orchestra.

But when the music is over, and it is time to take a bow, Bay often appears not to know exactly how to take the audience's loud appreciation, attempting instead to defer praise to the orchestra, the soloists, the music.

In person, Bay is equally generous: a steady, adroit speaker, quick to smile, with a glint in his eye that makes you wonder just how much imp lurks beneath the surface of this incredibly well-listened, well-traveled artist whose record collection numbers in the thousands and who has graced the podium in dozens of American cities.

This is Bay's third full season with the Austin Symphony Orchestra (ASO). After a lengthy tenure with the Rochester Philharmonic, where he is now principal guest conductor, and in tandem with his duties as music director of the Britt Festivals Orchestra in Medford, Ore., Bay arrived in Austin, not so much as the local symphony's savior, but as a leader with a refreshing burst of creative energy that had an immediate effect on the city's premier orchestra. Bay's enthusiastic embrace of a variety of classical music, including new commissions and an ongoing commitment to American work, and his long-term vision for ASO, which would see extended seasons and touring, have led the symphony to new heights. He has proven himself unafraid to program difficult selections, while not neglecting the standard classical repertory, always ensuring that no matter the music, an accompanying wealth of informative, educational material be provided. And educating new audiences is something of a mission for Bay, who seems eager not only to have the music heard, but to put it into a context where the neophyte listener can enjoy, and understand, why there is such magic in music around which most people timidly tiptoe.

In conversation, Bay's already animated delivery amplifies when describing the symphony's outreach programs and their potential to reach new audiences. When this interviewer strayed into some serious layman's questions, Bay responded as an encouraging tutor, ready to illustrate his explanations on napkins or with pictures in the air. To some extent, this is Bay's greatest strength: the charisma of the teacher/artist, radiating his visual artistry from atop the podium, with the orchestra his canvas, and the music a sumptuous, nuanced adventure that takes the listener, any listener, on a journey across history and around the world.

Austin Chronicle: You were born and grew up where?

Peter Bay: Washington, D.C. By the time I was seven or eight, I moved to suburban D.C., in the Maryland suburbs. My father was a diplomat. He was from the Philippines, and he was assigned to the embassy in Washington in the early Fifties. My mother is Swiss. They met at some foreign service dinner/dance, or something like that, and here I am.

AC: So how did you come to classical music?

PB: Well, in a way, actually it came through my father. He was a big stereo buff. He was more interested in the equipment, really, than the music ... his record collection had Percy Faith and Mantovani, and it had some classical music and a lot of Broadway music. He loved Broadway shows. Not much jazz. Of course, no rock; I brought that into the house. So I heard music in the house all the time, of all shapes and sizes. And maybe it was just hearing the music constantly that propelled me in that direction, but ironically he was the least supportive of my going into music as a profession.

AC: "Don't be an artist!"

PB: That's right. He said, "Well if you want to starve, okay, go ahead." He wanted me to be a lawyer or a mathematician or something like that. I mean, it's his fault. [laughs] He's no longer living, but toward the end of his life he started to understand that this was something that I was passionate about and there was no going back. And I think at the very end he finally accepted it. But it was a struggle to not have acceptance from him.

AC: So how young were you when you began to realize you were heading for classical music?

Putting It Together
Photo By Bret Brookshire

PB: About nine. I don't remember the exact date, but there was a Sunday afternoon that I had the television on, and Bernstein did one of his famous Young People's Concerts and that was it. That was the moment, and from that point on that's all I've wanted to do. Never wanted to do anything else.

AC: Do you remember what pieces he played?

PB: You know, I don't. I remember in that season he did Respighi's Pines of Rome. I remember seeing some Copland. And I think Copland was on a show as well. But what that particular show was, I can't remember. Luckily they're all on tape now. They're remarkable.

AC: How did you drift toward conducting?

PB: I was a flutist by training. But there are so many good flute players. I much prefer spending the time learning the scores. As I said, seeing Bernstein on TV was one of those experiences -- it seemed so riveting, what he was doing. He was jumping up and down on the podium. He was smiling, he was frowning. He went through all of the emotions of the music, and I just thought, "Wow, how fun that must be," to stand in front of an orchestra with that sound and to be so into music, the way he was. That's what I was hoping to emulate.

AC: So what's it been like here?

PB: I would say 99% of it has been absolutely incredible. Positive. The 1% has to do with frustrations having to do with either financial restraints or my own impatience at trying to do more and more and more and not letting time sort of pass naturally before I can do those things. I mean, I'd love for us to do 16 pairs of subscription concerts and tour and do all sorts of things. But it's not realistic to do that right off the bat; that might take a few more years before we can do that. But it's been overwhelmingly positive. My enjoyment of players in the orchestra; the board is very active; the staff very good. And the city: amazing. I mean, I'm going to be very spoiled here. I know that it is not realistic for me to say that I can now retire in Austin -- at 43, I doubt very seriously that the orchestra will put up with another 30 years of me. But, unless it's a major, major city, I think any move to another city is going to be disappointing.

AC: It happens to almost every artist who comes to town. It's really hard to leave.

PB: Yeah. Absolutely. The atmosphere and the city and the amount of activity in the city is unbelievable now. And it's going to be even more so. We've got the museum of art being built. All three of the major classical organizations -- ballet, opera, symphony -- are going to grow when we get into the hall (Long Center). There's going to be more competition for artistic dollars, I'd say, which is the scary part. And the city seems to be growing endlessly. Fortunately and unfortunately. Unfortunately, if you're a commuter.

AC: You've sort of shaken up a little what the symphony does. You've been pretty successful bringing in alternatives. Is that true?

PB: You see, to me, I feel like my job wasn't to come here and shake things up. When I interviewed for the job, I was asked what my taste in repertory was. And of course that's a very big topic for any search. If I were to say that my favorite repertory is avant-garde, 12-tone music, needless to say I wouldn't be sitting here. But I feel like my taste in music is wide. I enjoy all sorts of things, just like I enjoy all sorts of food, all sorts of art. I don't feel limited to a particular time frame of music. I love Copland, I love Bach, Beethoven, and some contemporary music I'm very fond of. I tend not to listen to most avant-garde things. And I mentioned 12-tone music -- it's not yet something that I feel compelled to perform. Maybe someday I will. But I love it all. And I feel like all of this music -- not just the works by a few Russian and German composers -- is worth hearing. I mean, there are even some works of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky which are seldom played, and I plan to perform those kinds of pieces, too.

AC: You did Mahler.

PB: We did Mahler. And for a while, Mahler was verboten.

Putting It Together
Photo By Bret Brookshire

AC: Why?

PB: Well, there was one patron, apparently who is wealthy, who objected to Mahler's Third Symphony when it was played here. And apparently one of the complaints, which I still find very amusing, was that there was a children's chorus involved in one movement of the symphony, and it's the shortest movement of the symphony -- I mean, the whole symphony is about 85 minutes, it's a pretty lengthy symphony, one of the longest symphonies of all time -- and the children's chorus was relegated to a four-minute segment, and they had to sit around and wait most of the symphony in order to sing. And this person thought this was an extraordinary waste of effort and time and talent. So after a few letters of complaint, the decision was made by I don't know who to put Mahler on the back burner for a while. One thing I won't do is to have any repertory held hostage. If someone says, "If you play one more piece of Schubert, I'm not going to come back," then I'm more than likely to program Schubert because I think Schubert is a great composer. I don't mean to pick on Schubert, but it's ludicrous that any composer -- especially one that I'm going to program because, like I've said, I'm not going to go that far afield -- would be held hostage. There's no way. It's all fair game, it's all great music, and far be it from me to cut something out that a good segment of Austin might enjoy.

AC: When you pick a program, are you looking to find some kind of unifying theme?

PB: I've tried to in the past. In my first full season, we did things by country. We had a Latin program. All American, all German, all French. It helps people understand that even within a certain country, styles can be all over the map. And since then, I've tried to put pieces together that would make sense together. I mean, to do a program that's based all on Shakespeare would be simple. It makes the concert a bit more interesting without being overly pedantic. Or the theme could be as simple as nature. I'm thinking about a program for next year -- there's a piece I heard by a composer named Rautavaara, a wonderful piece called Cantus Arcticus, and its subtitle is Concerto for Birds and Orchestra; it's a somewhat reflective, very beautiful piece, and a tape of bird calls comes in and works itself into the music very nicely. And the ideal pairing of that piece would be Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, which has some bird calls, too. You know, we could have one animal unify this whole program, but from totally different poles. How do composers react to nature? Well, they do it in many different ways, and here's how Beethoven and Rautavaara attempted to do that.

AC: What is the role of the individual musician in an orchestra?

PB: Well, if you're a wind player, to blend within the section and also to be [a soloist] for a brief amount of time. It's an interesting question because, I would say -- this is very stereotyped and generalized, but -- the mentality of a string player versus a wind player is quite different. Because if you're a flute player, let's say, even though you might be the third flute, you have an individual part. No one else is basically playing your part with you. You are by yourself. And that goes for all of the winds, all of the brass, all the percussion. Now for the strings, except for the concertmaster and the principals of each of these sections, who at times will have some solos, someone who's in the eighth chair has no individuality. And therefore the mindset is a little different. Wind players say, "Well that's fine and good, but the pressure is on us, because if I make a mistake everybody hears it. If you make a mistake, no one hears it." So there's always this constant sort of rivalry between strings and the rest of the orchestra. But I would say that the job of an individual player in the orchestra is to blend within the section, watch the conductor, and listen well.

As great as the piece of music is, it doesn't exist without performers, in a way. And that's the odd thing about music. Because a piece of art is finite, and what you see is what it is. Whatever you interpret from that painting is your input. But I suppose music has an additional element in that it has to be performed, it has to come off the page for you to enjoy it.

AC: And who does the interpreting then?

PB: In a sense, we all do. I think I am responsible for the overall view of the piece.

AC: When you get Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, you've got, "Da da da dum." Do you sit there and think, "What is the right way to play this?" Does that enter into it?

PB: Well, yes, it does. And even a piece that's so played -- or as that piece is, overplayed -- there are still decisions to be made each time you perform it: How soft is soft? How smooth is smooth? I mean, it's hard to reinterpret the opening of that piece. But the beauty of that piece, at least the opening, is: "da da da daaa," the long note is subject to interpretation. How long is that note held? There's a fermata over it. All this means is that you have to hold this note, and not necessarily in a tempo or in a pulse. You hold it as long as you want. For example, well, the way the Beethoven is written [Bay writes the musical phrase on a napkin], each of these would be a bar of music. The way it's written is, you have a pulse in this bar: "da da da da." But suddenly the pulse stops and you hold this note. If none of these holds were there, it would be: "da da da da, da da da da" [taps out a metronomic rhythm on the table]. But now that he's introduced the holds -- and as a matter of fact, this one is even longer -- you now have to interpret how long these holds are going to be. And do you stop? "Da da da daaa." "Da da da daaa." Or do you go on? "Da da da daaa, da da da daaa." None of that is explained in the score. That's why I say that the score, as magnificent as this is, is not the final product. Because you have to interpret, you have to make decisions about these things. And I could pull out five different recordings of it and I'll guarantee those issues about stopping or going on, or how long the hold is, are all different. Maybe by a second or a fraction of a second. But that's how inexact music is.

AC: But it has an emotional effect on the audience somehow.

PB: Absolutely. I mean you can't rearrange the overall construction of a piece or the emotional profile of a piece. You can alter certain moments. It's kind of like a play. I mean, it's there in words, and there are certain lines that will elicit an emotion. No matter how you say it, speak it -- you could do it deliberately or rush through it -- it's still going to create anger, let's say. But to what degree of anger is the way you read it.

Putting It Together
Photo By Bret Brookshire

AC: And can color it so that it ties into something later on, so that it's not a unit by itself.

PB: Exactly. I've heard actors go on and on about how you can interpret a Shakespearean line to mean four or five different shades of the same thing just by which word you hold by a millisecond. And it's the same with music. But generally I'm responsible for the overall interpretation. I have to make the decision how long is it going to be or whether to have that space or not. But in the course of a rehearsal, sometimes a player, let's say the oboist, plays a melody and slightly lingers over it so that the overall speed is slowed down. And I didn't ask for that. That's the way he or she interprets that solo. That person is contributing to the interpretation, especially if I like it.

AC: And do you negotiate those moments?

PB: Sometimes, yeah. But there are occasions where a player will play something in a certain way and I'll feel like it's not in context with the overall pulse and I'll ask them either privately or in rehearsal, "I feel like that's dragging a little bit, do you mind? Let's go through." And they might be happy to do it; they may not realize that they're doing it; they might be upset that I'm asking them to change the way they play. But, nonetheless, there are occasions where players in the orchestra can affect the overall interpretation.

AC: How do you rehearse?

PB: Well, usually we have four or five rehearsals. And on many occasions, the pieces we perform are familiar to the players. They've either played them before with other orchestras or heard the recordings. So they have an idea of how the piece goes. We read it through, usually, from start to finish, right at the very start. [That is,] we play it through; I don't stop and rehearse things or correct things. Then we go back and start taking it apart. Things that don't quite hold together, we rehearse them over and over until they're exactly right. It's often not together until you rehearse it slowly, fast, do it 20 times. And then there could be a stretch of 300 measures that I won't need to rehearse. It just flows naturally, there are no rhythmic difficulties, no interpretive difficulties. I think for me, it's the most fun that I have. Concerts are a blast, but actually taking it apart and putting it back together, for me it's a blast. And while you're doing it, the whole orchestra and conductor are hearing how a composer puts a piece together; what sort of elements are involved rhythmically, melodically, harmonically. And we find things in pieces we've played a hundred times. Sometimes you find mistakes in the music that were never noticed before.

AC: "Wolfgang, what are you doing? This shouldn't be there!"

PB: Exactly. Or the editor or the publisher just goofed.

AC: So there's some play in a measure of music. But there's still the expectation of what we've heard before?

PB: Right. Now if you go earlier than Beethoven -- into Mozart, Haydn, Bach -- there is far greater room for interpretation because there is very little in the music besides just the notes and a few dynamic marks. You look at a piece of Bach, oftentimes there's not even a tempo marking or a dynamic marking, just music. It doesn't say "allegro" or "adagio," it doesn't say "piano and then build to forte." It says nothing. So there's a great deal of leeway to interpret a piece like that, and you have to make 16,000 times more decisions when you do an earlier piece.

AC: So when you get the manuscript in front of you, do you hear it? Do you look for the way it unfolds, that it builds to a particular place?

PB: You can see it almost; visually, you can almost see it. My problem is, it's hard to look at a score and not be prejudiced by previous performances of that very same piece. Now, if it's a contemporary piece, brand new, it may not be as easy for me to see where the climax is, but there might be some visual clues. Like, if it's sort of sparse at the beginning, but 20 bars from the end everyone is playing and it's loud and then it tapers to nothing -- you can see overall shapes visually from the page. But sometimes where the emotional heart is, or if there's an earlier climax that's much more subtle, I won't even hear that at first. It may take me until the first or second rehearsal: "Oh! That's where that's going."

AC: How much time do you have, once you've made that discovery, to work it into the performance?

Putting It Together
Photo By Bret Brookshire

PB: Well, let's say in the course of four rehearsals I discover that in the second rehearsal; then I have two more rehearsals to try to reformulate how I'm going to do this. And I'll actually tell the orchestra things like that. Like, "I'm going to bar 58, that should be the climax of the piece; even though there's another one later, I think this is a more intimate one." I'll use descriptive terms like that: This should be more intimate. It's is a little too "out there" right now. Could you play with a little more subtlety? Or with a little more violence? But sometimes just the technical things you tell string players, like where on the bow to play a phrase, can shape the sound and the emotion. When you want something very sad, sometimes you tell them to play it over the fingerboard. When you want to get a darker color, play it on the fingerboard on the tip (of the bow); hardly move the bow. You're going to get a certain effect.

AC: When you look at a manuscript as you prepare for a concert, you often turn to previous recordings to understand the music better. Do you ever find yourself rebelling against what you've heard before?

PB: Yes. I won't really listen -- well, I have to back this up: As an avid record collector, as a hobby, I will sit down and listen to CDs or LPs of music that I've never heard before. Or music that I have heard before, and it all sort of goes into this sort of tape recorder up here [points to his head]. So if I'm hearing a piece by Rautavaara that I've never heard before, if I like it, it will stick in my memory and I'll think, "Well sometime maybe I'll want to conduct that piece." Or it could be I've heard a brand-new recording of Beethoven's Fifth, which is the 800th performance I've heard, and as I'm listening to it, I will like how they did this and not like how they did that, or I'll just like the whole thing or I'll hate the whole thing. And I'll just remember that.

For example, the Copland program: I'd heard everything on this program many times before. The Copland Piano Concerto -- I'd heard that work live, I'd heard it on the recording, but I'd never actually conducted it. So I'll take out the score and start learning it without listening to any recordings during that process. I'm going to wait until I've learned all the notes, seen how he's put it together, and tried to make some decisions about how to interpret phrases from what I see. Then, after that process is over, then I might pull out recordings of the work to compare it with what I have already formulated in my mind.

AC: So it must be helpful to have a map of the work?

PB: Yeah, it is nice, so you're not doing it blindly at the beginning. "Oh, yeah, I remember that alto sax solo, there it is." It's in the study process that I try to stay away from reference or CDs. I don't listen to anything until after [the study process] is done.

AC: One hundred years ago, if you were presented with that manuscript and there were no recordings ... ?

PB: Then you're treating it as a contemporary piece, like I would treat a contemporary piece of music right now, exactly the same way, sort of going at it blindly. Now I will use a piano on occasion, at home, while I'm studying it. If it is a brand-new piece of music, I will learn the notes, see where they go, what are the dynamics, and I'll play the melodies on the piano. I'll try to play some of the chords to see where it's going. So I get somewhat of an aural blueprint of what the piece is about, and that's what they did 100 years ago. They mostly did it at the piano, playing through it. And yeah, you're right, before records or CDs the only way one could reproduce music was to play every song. And that's why there are hundreds of transcriptions of symphonies for two pianos -- four hands -- you get all Beethoven's symphonies transcribed for piano, Haydn, Schubert, Richard Strauss, versions for piano four-hands or just solo piano. And the only way you could create the music was if you recreated it yourself.

AC: It was a very social ...

PB: That's exactly right. And the social aspect was one of the most important parts of the music.

AC: Is that social aspect still as important?

PB: Not as much. It was a big deal. Let's say you were in Hamburg in 1865 and the orchestra was going to play a symphony by Mendelssohn. Who knows when the last time that symphony by Mendelssohn was played in Hamburg? Maybe it was 20 years. Maybe it was two years. And unless you played the piano and you could play the notes at home and hear -- re-create -- the sound of the Mendelssohn symphony, it was a major event to be able to hear a piece that you hadn't heard before. Now if I want to hear Mozart's 11th Symphony, I go to the CD or the record.

AC: Does that take the gloss off performing a symphony?

PB: Well, in a way it does. But I still think that what going to concerts or going to the performances live can do for one who knows the music -- it's a totally different experience. Just playing a Mendelssohn symphony on the piano cannot reproduce the sound of the strings or what the orchestra can do live. It's the same, I think, with a live performance: You can see a video [of a play], but it's not like seeing it in the theatre. It's the energy, it's being in that enclosed space together, seeing the actual live human process going on: hearing the mistakes, hearing the struggles, watching the struggles. I think that's all part of the live experience that nothing on video or reproduced sound can bring. And that's what we're trying to emphasize: hearing the orchestra live. If you've never heard the orchestra live, or never heard classical music, period, live is the way to experience it for the first time. And that's what we try to emphasize, over and over again: You might know Beethoven's Fifth, but wait 'til you hear it live. And most people say that the first time it's a different experience. "It's a lot louder than I thought; it's a lot more immediate than a CD." It's sort of like watching a game on TV. You can be at Lambeau Field and experience a football game -- it's going to be much better and totally different than watching it on TV. Everybody's cheering for the play together -- there's a sense of community there. And it's the same at a concert. It's almost part of the music making. Your response amongst people responding. end story

Peter Bay conducts the Austin Symphony in the program Gypsy Fire, featuring the Ökrös Ensemble and violinist Charles Castleman, Friday-Saturday, 8pm, Jan. 19-20, in Bass Concert Hall. Call476-6064 for information.

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