Detroit Free Press Staff Writer
12:05 a.m. EDT March 30, 2016
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This is a big week for Michelle Merrill, the 32-year-old assistant conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The Texas native is in her second season with the DSO, and she has led the orchestra through innumerable young people’s concerts. She also has worked closely with music director Leonard Slatkin on a variety of artistic matters (including leading offstage musicians when a score demanded a second conductor), and she has been a presence on the DSO’s webcasts and in the community.
This week marks her debut on the classical subscription series, a rite-of-passage and the chance to dig into meaty repertoire with the highest expectations from the audience, the musicians and, of course, herself. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 anchors the program, which also includes DSO principal bassist Kevin Brown performing 18th-Century composer Johann Baptist Vanhal’s Bass Concerto. Music by Walter Piston and Dvorak is also on the program. Merrill spoke recently about the concert with the Free Press.
QUESTION: Are you nervous about this week?
ANSWER: No. It’s more of an excited anxiousness than a nervousness. I’ve been doing things with the orchestra now for almost two years. They almost feel like family. I have all of these ideas and all of these things I feel are coming through Beethoven’s music. You think: “Ok, what’s going to work? What’s not going to work? What are the musicians going to do that’s more exciting than what I was going to do?” There’s excitement about what we are going to create together.
Q: So you have to bring your ideas to the table but also be open to what the players do?
A: Yes. I could go to another orchestra and do the same piece and it could be a completely different week, even if I come with the same ideas about structure and flow. Every orchestra has its own history, its own sound. I always take into consideration what they’re putting out. I’m guiding the interpretation, but I like to think of it as a collaboration. I love to think of it as chamber music where everybody is an equal partner. Of course, I have to be there to give direction and guidance, but it’s so much fun from rehearsal to rehearsal and performance to performance to see what can be just a little different and what I can bring out. And the interplay between conductor and orchestra, conductor and musician, musician and musician — that’s what makes the music come alive and lets everybody feel like it’s their piece.
Q: Still, the musicians have to be convinced that you have a vision, right?
A: That’s the fun part, and why I became a conductor. I love to take the ideas and the hours poring over, say, one note — What should this one note sound like in the bass part? What should this note sound like in the violins transitioning from one corner to another corner? — and get those things across, even without saying anything, just from the hand gestures. You have be able to articulate these things to bring out the vision that I have in my head of what I think Beethoven would have wanted. You have to be confident in the decisions and feel them deeply. When I get up on the podium, I can’t can’t exude a moment of doubt because the minute you do is the the moment you lose the orchestra.
Q: Goodwill accounts for much at this level. If the orchestra wants to play for you, it will.
A: That’s where the respect comes in. They might not agree with some interpretive thing that I do, but if you respect them and can get them to want to play for you, they’ll do it.
Q: Tell me something that you’ve learned from being around Leonard Slatkin.
A: Growing up, I’ve always been very meticulous, very particular, and sometimes I try to do too much. Something that I’ve really come to appreciate and tried to embrace is that you can trust the orchestra. You don’t have to give every little cue, every single entrance. Watching Leonard, there will be times when he won’t beat the time but just show the phrasing. It’s been so freeing to see that because that’s when you can really make the music. Before, I was lining everything up, getting everything in place. But when you free yourself from trying to make sure everything is in place and realize that the orchestra already plays everything in place, then you can start showing the line and the phrasing. I can feel it starting to change for me, especially this year. I feel like I’m more free and can take more risks
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Detroit Symphony Orchestra
7:30 p.m. Thu., Congregation Shaarey Zedek, 27375 Bell Rd., Southfield Southfield.
8 p.m. April 1, Macomb Center for the Performing Arts., 44575 Garfield, Clinton Township
8 p.m. Sat., Orchestra Hall, Max M. and Marjorie S. Music Center, 3711 Woodward Ave., Detroit.
Fri.-Sat.: $25, adult; $10, student.