Mischa Santora is between appointments. The young conductor has a lot on his mind, and he's only able to give me 20 minutes of his tightly scheduled time for an interview. Santora's voice on the telephone is deep, accented by the sounds of his European roots: His Hungarian parents raised him in the Netherlands and then moved to Switzerland. We agree to speak quickly.
"I basically have three orchestras," he tells me, "so that makes it actually quite busy, both with musical and non-musical aspects." Santora heads up the Juilliard Pre-College Orchestra in New York City, and also holds the distinguished position of the 13th music director of the New York Youth Symphony. Of particular interest in this part of the world, last spring Santora was named the music director of the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra (CCO), hired after a year-long search in which several conductors were auditioned to replace Keith Lockhart, who now directs the Boston Pops and the Utah Symphony.
Why would a New York-based conductor be attracted to an ensemble in Cincinnati? "First of all," he tells me, "it's a great orchestra. And it's a very good town.
There are lots of possibilities, opportunities, a lot of interest and support for the arts. Cincinnati is a big city, but it's not a huge city. For being in the Midwest, it's astounding the variety of cultural attractions that it offers." After just a few visits, Santora is already familiar with the local arts scene, citing the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, CCM, the May Festival and the Cincinnati Opera.
"There is just a tremendous variety of culture and music," he says. On his current visit he hopes to fit in visits to the Cincinnati Art Museum and the Taft Museum of Art.
Santora is honored to have been chosen to lead the CCO. "I think it's a group of fabulous musicians, and it's been a tremendous pleasure working with them." Altogeth-er, the CCO has a core of 35 musicians, typical for a chamber orchestra, at about one-third the size of a full-scale symphony orchestra.
"There are challenges," Santora observes, "that occur every time you stand up in front of an orchestra, no matter which one. That is to try to get a unified performance in a basically short amount of time, to try to get 35 people who not only play very different instruments, but they are different people, they are different musicians, they have different preferences, different tastes."
I ask him why he's well suited to do that, and his chuckling response is, "I don't know whether I am!"
Santora came to Cincinnati for the first time in Febru-ary when he auditioned for the CCO's music director position. "The hardest time is always the very first time, to be in front of an orchestra you don't know. ... Conducting is about communication. It can be verbal, but most of it is body language. It can be spiritual or whatever you want to call it, but it is about communicating ideas to people you basically don't know. And they don't know you or how you feel.
"That's why I feel that first rehearsals are always so difficult, because at the end, you have to get your point across," he continues. "That's a problem in a lot of music, a lot of the things that really come down to musical things you cannot really put your finger on: You have to describe them. That's the big difference between music and words. You try to describe something in words that you cannot really describe. So you have to find comparisons, or you have to circumscribe it somehow. It takes time to get adjusted and it takes some time to get results. But once that starts happening, I think, it's almost like pushing a cart up the hill: Once you get over the top, it keeps rolling."
Santora rolls into his second concert of the CCO's 2000-2001 season this weekend by conducting a varied set of works. "It's a very eclectic program, four extremely different pieces, not only different styles and different times and different geographical areas, but also different configurations of the orchestra. He'll conduct Copland's "Quiet City," Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E Minor (Karen Gomyo will be the violin soloist), Strauss' Serenade for Winds, and Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1, "The Classical."
The Mendelssohn concerto, written in the 19th century, is one of the "big" pieces, he says. "It's a classic, a masterpiece, quite often played. People love it. It's a wonderful piece with a great structure to it. It starts with a great first movement, and there's a strong second movement. It keeps getting better and better towards the end. The last movement is so incredibly brilliant, so elegant and sparkly, but in a very elegant way. It's one of those absolutely perfect compositions."
Prokofiev's "Classical Symphony" was composed early in the 20th century. "He wanted to write a Classical piece in a non-Classical time. So he basically takes the Classical symphony format with, for that time, a relatively small orchestra. You're basically talking a Mozart-sized, Beethoven-sized orchestra. I don't think you'd want to play this with a big orchestra, with a full string section. But then he has his own great twists in it, all kinds of things that are not from the Classical period. That's what makes this work particularly intriguing and charming."
The two smaller, contrasting works round out the concert. The piece by Strauss uses woodwinds, while Copland's "Quiet City," uses largely a string ensemble with a solo trumpet and an English horn.
So what's the appeal of a CCO concert? "First of all, music is there for everybody," he laughs again. "Of course, I'm biased, because I'm a musician."
He sees music as a key component of our Western cultural tradition: We gain enjoyment by immersing ourselves in it. "I think in an ideal world, it would just be part of our lives, as would be theater or going to museums or poetry readings."
Some people might think it requires more education or preparation to appreciate a concert of chamber music, but Santora disagrees. "I don't believe in that really. It takes somebody who is curious and really open-minded and who is a sensitive listener. Actually maybe this is the bottom line about this concert: I'd like to have a lot of young people there who have never gone to a Classical music concert before."
Once they've listened, he'd like to talk to them, "because I like talking to non-musicians about a Classical music concert and about how did they like this piece. How did they like the soloist, or this particular performance? You get incredibly interesting answers. You get completely non-professional answers. In many ways, I find that more interesting, because it's fresher and people come up with comparisons that you have never thought of."
Santora, who just turned 29, has charisma and energy, a presence likely to appeal to young audiences. That was certainly a factor when he was chosen for the CCO position. His eagerness to interact with a young audience bodes well for the orchestra's future.
Santora's waiting for you to come to one of his concerts this weekend. Don't hesitate to introduce yourself and engage him in some conversation. He's hoping you do.
THE CINCINNATI CHAMBER ORCHESTRA, conducted by Mischa Santora, will perform on Sunday at Memorial Hall in Over-the-Rhine and on Monday at Rockdale Temple in Amberly Village.