Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia's new music director to debut Saturday

Dirk Brossé debut s as the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia's music director Saturday. His work is not well-known here.
Dirk Brossé debut s as the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia's music director Saturday. His work is not well-known here.
Posted: September 23, 2010

With his square jaw, penetrating eyes, and thick dark hair, Belgian conductor Dirk Brossé looks as if he ought to be somebody - and a serious somebody at that.

Yet few conductors have arrived for a major post with so little prior reputation as the new music director of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. Brossé, born and based in Ghent, has a huge, diverse resumé as a composer of film scores, musicals, and concert works - roughly 200 in all genres - plus a guest-conducting record that has taken him to a lion's share of Europe's secondary orchestras.

He's been there and done that in triplicate - though in few places well-known to Americans. Even the films he has scored - titles include Boerenpsalm - haven't been seen much outside of Europe. Yet this mystery is anything but his doing.

"I don't have hidden agendas. I hate agendas. With me, one plus one equals two," he said on Tuesday, having just flown into Philadelphia for his opening Chamber Orchestra concerts starting Saturday. "I'm open and reachable. You don't have to send me 25 e-mails and wait six months for a phone call."

Even the thick dark hair - rare for a 50-year-old with two college-age daughters - "is all original," he laughs. "I don't paint my hair."

The Chamber Orchestra has had only two previous music directors in its 46-year history - Marc Mostovoy and Ignat Solzhenitsyn - and is approaching this new introduction carefully. Mass mailings to Center City residents weren't typical brochures, but a personal-style invitation letter from Brossé. His tenure opens not at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater (the orchestra's home) but at the Mann Center on Saturday - with fireworks as a crowd-drawing bonus, followed by Sunday and Monday concerts at Kimmel.

Both conductor and orchestra need all the promotional oomph they can get - the Chamber Orchestra is back from the financial abyss, but only recently. Last season was curtailed from 10 Kimmel Center subscription pairs to four. This season, the debt-free orchestra is up to eight pairs with a third performance in Temple University's recently renovated Baptist Temple.

The season's programs are mostly familiar works by Mozart, Beethoven, Bizet, and Joaquin Rodrigo, reflecting Brosse's belief that there's always going to be some overlap with the Philadelphia Orchestra's repertoire, though the size of the forces - 33 vs. 90 - will always deliver a different experience. Also, each program will feature an unannounced short piece - like a chef sending an amuse-bouche to the table - such as Brossé's own Fanfare for Philadelphia, which he'll slip into this weekend's concerts. Certain traditions will remain in place: The departed Solzhenitsyn will return once a year for the foreseeable future, and Philadelphia Orchestra principal players will be guests for concertos.

Beyond that, orchestra musicians shy away from discussing Brossé except to say that, technically speaking, he has the goods - the main prerequisite for a working relationship with any new conductor, particularly one whose credits are weighted toward film work.

In fact, Brosse's main U.S. credit is last year's Star Wars: A Music Journey tour - which carries the prestige of being an interpreter anointed by composer John Williams but also a slight Hollywood taint that even established musicians like Joshua Bell and Yo-Yo Ma, who occasionally play on film scores, haven't entirely escaped.

"Life is too short to worry about these things. And it's too late anyway," Brossé says. "I'm not going to change for the 10 people who don't like it. Also, you cannot be a good musician if you've never played jazz and never listen to pop music."

But Brossé's training, as it turns out, was not in movieland. Though he has an internal metronome that allows him to coordinate music with cinematic images without the use of a click track - a gift rarer than perfect pitch - his actual conducting technique came out of formal training with contemporary music in the Netherlands, years directing the Belgian youth orchestras, plus studies in Paris, Vienna and, most significantly, a conducting seminar in Cologne where fellow students were the distinguished Ingo Metzmacher and Markus Stenz.

Brossé leaped at the Philadelphia opportunity out of a desire to spend more time in the United States, and his music leaves little question why: He's an American composer in all but name, influenced by John Williams superficially and Leonard Bernstein more deeply. Also, Europe's film world holds less allure now, as lower budgets dictate increasing use of synthetically generated sound. And in the orchestral world, he's had his disappointments: An ensemble he formed in the 1990s was shut down by the government after four years because state-dictated regulations made the enterprise more expensive than he could afford.

"In Europe," he says, "the weight you have in your backpack is so heavy."

Still, some Chamber Orchestra board members questioned the wisdom of hiring a Belgian rather than an American. "I was very short in my answer: An American conductor would be like bringing in a member of your own family," he recalls. "Bringing somebody from another continent, I can share all of the things I have learned."

And the Belgian connection makes sense: Executive director Peter H. Gistelinck has known Brossé for roughly 25 years from film work together. However, Gistelinck heads off any accusations of Flemish chauvinism: "Everybody was given a fair chance," he says. "But it helps to know somebody. You know what you're getting."

The fact that most Philadelphia music lovers haven't known his name is partly due to restrictive post-9/11 security regulations that have impeded the influx of European talent here. Top classical artists can't even obtain American agents. One indication of the widening gulf is that EMI is releasing a six-disc boxed set of Brossé's music in Europe this fall - an honor not accorded to just anybody. Few, if any, recordings of his classical compositions are available in the United States.

The differences Brossé is likely to introduce here may be immediately audible. The center of the historically informed performance movement has shifted from England to the Low Countries, thanks to conductors such as Philippe Herreweghe and Jos van Immerseel, whom Brossé considers his neighbors, literally and figuratively. Don't expect the homogenous suaveness that marked chamber orchestra performances in decades past. Brossé is not one to muzzle brass players. Not every sound should be lovely.

"It's painting with sound," he says. "Like Van Gogh, I'm going to use a very bright yellow against a very bright blue. I'm not afraid of that."

In a Chamber Orchestra promotional recording of Brossé conducting Beethoven's Symphony No. 8 live last spring, the performance bristles with activity. Phrases talk back to each other, sometimes combatively. Normally secondary activities elbow their way to the foreground.

Such effects aren't entirely authentic. The real wild card in Brossé's approach is his composing. The fact that this is a regular part of his life means that he approaches Mozart and Beethoven not as distant historic figures, but as peers, with results that are likely to surprise not only audiences but also himself.

During his ride from the airport Tuesday, he revisited the Beethoven 8th recording. "Is that really us?" he exclaimed.


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

Music

Chamber Orchestra

of Philadelphia

8 p.m. Saturday at the Mann Center, $10-$25, www.manncenter.org; 2:30 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Kimmel Center, $24-$81, www.chamberorchestra.org; 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Baptist Temple, $28, www.thebaptisttemple.org.

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