As the Detroit Symphony Orchestra returns to in-person concerts this season, DSO Music Director Jader Bignamini is establishing his vision at the helm of the orchestra.
The orchestra is ready to take this journey.
“Jader has clear, specific ideas about where he wants to take us artistically—and he is wasting no time in leading us in that direction,” says cellist Úna O’Riordan. “He is not afraid to take risks and try new things to achieve his goals, and those are some of the essential qualities of a great leader. The orchestra has a lot of faith in Jader’s artistic vision.”
Jader makes a point of conducting performances from memory without a score on the podium. He stresses interaction and eye contact with the orchestra, enhancing his connection with the musicians, and the orchestra’s connection with the music.
To help the musicians connect with Jader’s visual cues and eye contact, the DSO is, for the first time in decades, staging its musicians on risers this season.
“The contact between the musicians during concerts has to be like breathing,” says Jader. “Being raised, there will be no barriers between the woodwinds, the percussions, and the strings and they will be able to play in a much more natural way.”
Principal Trumpet Hunter Eberly is excited about the change. “Visual cues are huge from a conductor,” he says. “With Jader doing everything by memory he is very connected to the orchestra, whether it is small glances or large gestures, he is always communicating with us. For those of us in the back of the orchestra, these improved sight lines will help us catch those cues, build our understanding of what his expectations are, and build a strong musical connection.”
For all that, the risers will take some getting used to. “This is a little bit of a leap of faith for us, as most members of the orchestra have not used risers here in Orchestra Hall,” says Úna.
The risers were meticulously crafted by West End Studios in Delray, Detroit. The build was important, as was the wood that was used—maple—to ensure that the sound reflects off the risers in the same way that it does from Orchestra Hall’s stage. Prior to construction, the DSO’s Stage Crew built a to-scale model of the hall’s stage and the many different-size risers to help visualize the various layouts for different types of programming. (For example, a Mozart symphony versus a Mahler symphony—Mahler calls for a much larger orchestra.) The orchestra’s Artistic Advisory Committee was consulted, and the pieces were moved around the model, arranged and rearranged by the many hands who wanted to get a feel for this new way of playing.
“ Thursday evening was very special. Wonderful performances I can only describe as 'epic', combining great musicianship, imaginative staging (!), and our new, world-class conductor who immediately established himself as the next 'thing' in the Detroit Symphony tradition. ”DSO Patron, Reflecting on Classical Opening Night
Orchestra Hall is known for its impeccable acoustics, so ensuring the musicians’ sounds can make the best use of their beloved space was also a consideration for Jader when implementing the change.
There is no “try before you buy,” Úna says, since the risers must be custom-built. “It will be interesting to experience the change in balance between the various sections of the orchestra—the brass and woodwinds (now on risers) will be much higher, above the strings. It should make it easier for the orchestra to achieve greater dynamic control and play together.”
So how will this seating change affect the audience’s concert-going experience?
“With this new setup of the orchestra, I am sure the audience will have the feeling of being even closer to our musicians wherever they are seated in the hall,” Jader says. “They will be able to see all our players and hear them very brightly. Plus, the sound will be perfectly balanced. We have a great orchestra hall, and I believe this is the best way to bring out its acoustics to the fullest.”
While Jader’s decision is focused on live performance, audiences at home will welcome the improved camera angles in the DSO’s Live from Orchestra Hall webcasts, which will make it easier to see the percussion, horns, and other musicians that sit toward the back of the stage.
Jader is also taking a deep dive into fresh programming this season. Together with orchestra Vice President and General Manager Erik Rönmark, Jader is working to balance time-tested works that speak to the resilience of the human spirit in challenging times, while amplifying the voices of people of color and women composers and highlighting new music.
“Contemporary music is so important for a symphony orchestra,” says Jader. “Music and art are like people’s thinking, which continues to develop and change. Music anticipates our way of thinking and that’s why we must support contemporary music—it’s our future. And remember that all music was contemporary music at one time.”
The orchestra is not just preparing for a metaphorical journey with Jader as its new leader, but a literal one as well. For the first time in almost five years, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra will go on tour, playing four concerts in Florida—in Miami, West Palm Beach, Jacksonville, and Sarasota—this January.
“A great orchestra has the task of performing and spreading great music,” Jader says, explaining why the DSO is going on tour. “When you are on tour, you experience strong emotions all together, and the pride of being part of an orchestra like the DSO will charge our musicians. All together, we will be able to create musical moments of the highest level that will make us all grow musically and as people.
“I know that Detroit is so proud to have an orchestra of this level, and we will be extremely happy to bring Detroit to the world. The tour program will show the high technical level of the orchestra. It will be a time of growth and pride for all of us.”
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