Donkeys, Phoenixes, and William Shakespeare

April 11, 2018


Posted by
Alexis Smith

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When you think of an artist, you might think of musicians or painters or dancers who live and breathe their craft and only their craft. I'm sure we're all familiar with the romantic story of artists who live and die by their craft. Maybe you think of an impoverished Van Gogh who was forced to eat his paints or maybe you think of Kafka who quit his job as an insurance officer to have more time to write. Today the modern artist must be a one-person cooperation, both a savvy businessperson and marketing executive. In a society that's increasingly moving towards self-starting and publication, an artist must think of more than just their craft.

Matthew Szymanski, founder and Music Director of Phoenix Orchestra, sat down with us to talk about building an orchestra from it's brand up. In building Phoenix, the former euphonium player turned conductor has had to strip away all of the traditional trimmings of a classical music concert and learn how to run a business while the orchestral world upside down.

The name for Phoenix came from the idea of an orchestra built on the ashes of classical tradition, how did you want that to influence your branding, do you think that's changed at all throughout the years?

Social and accessible have been the two buzzwords from the very beginning and I think that’s still very true. Four or five years ago, at the very beginning of Phoenix, we just talked about things we wanted to do. We didn’t talk about executing them, we just shared ideas for ways we wanted to change classical music concerts. There were lots of crazy weird ideas that we always threw around, but it was all in service of being social and accessible.

One of the things we talked about a lot was breaking down the wall between the audience and the musicians. If you think about a traditional concert, the orchestra is on stage, they’re dressed differently than you, they’re raised up in front of you and then when the concert ends, the musicians sneak out the stage door and the audiences exits through a different door and you each go to your separate lives. You listen to the music in a very good performance and it has the chance to touch you in a very special way but it’s still very difficult to make a connection with something from which you feel very separated. We worked on different ways to break that stuff down and a lot of that was to just take it all away. For instance: we don’t sit on a stage, we sit on the same level as the audience; we dress to look good but not to look a level above our audience. The number one thing we focus on is making personal connections with our audience which is why when you come to our concerts we always take the time to talk to our audience members one on one. We always talk to our audiences about what makes the music important to us before we play it and it’s all in service of breaking down that barrier. It turns out that the real way to break down that barrier is to never put it up in the first place.

One of my favorite things about Phoenix, and something I think that is very accessible, is how each concert have a very specific, very cohesive theme, does that just happen serendipitously?

This concert we really wanted to do Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and so when I have a piece like that, I start by making a list of themes that it could tie into because I don’t want to just put random pieces with it. I could do the normal way of building an orchestral program which is to find two other pieces that are kind of similar, but I prefer to look at the narrative themes and what they tie into. With Midsummer Night’s Dream, I’m sure there’s a list somewhere that says SHAKESPEARE and MISCHIEF and SUMMER but what I boiled it down to was NIGHTS and DREAMS. A while ago someone had suggested Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings and it’s not in the title but Britten’s Serenade is a collection of poems by all English authors that are all about night and the ethos of night and it’s interesting because all of the authors of the poems are from different centuries and times so they all provide different cultural views of night. Those two pieces fit together very naturally. For the last piece, part of our mission as an orchestra is that we want to play a piece by a living composer on every program and that we really want to represent a more diverse culture than just Germany and England. At this point, I really start hunting. I have the theme of the concert, I have two pieces that fit and I’m sitting there needing ten more minutes of music that really fits into a mold. I’ll find a lot of pieces that are close but no cigar. I got very lucky and found Lullaby and Doina by Osvaldo Golijov who is a fantastic and very much living Argentinian-Israeli composer who is also on faculty at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester and he lives in Brookline! It’s eight minutes long and it’s astonishingly fantastic music that fits the theme. Putting a good program together is a puzzle. If you slack on it, the concert will lack momentum and conviction. You’ll have a good concert, but you won’t have a spectacular show.

What are the challenges that come from being both the Music Director and Artistic Director? Do you think they are ever in conflict?

I think there’s always a conflict and the good thing with Phoenix is that while I’m both the Executive Director and the Music Director, I have an incredibly strong supporting team. There are enough passionate people in Phoenix that when I start veering off into one direction or another, somebody pokes me back into place. I try to think of it more as an opportunity than as a challenge because what it does mean for us is that we aren’t prone to silo-ing, which is when each team is in their own little world and they don’t talk to the other teams, we work together from start to finish and it creates a very cohesive product and experience for the audience. It’s super great for us is that our Music Director and Artistic Director are the same people because it’s very hard for me to mix messages when I’m the same person. Our staff talks to each other a lot and I think that’s essential to the branding. Everything has to work together. When things are working well, our concert is fantastic and the music works well together, our social media is all focused on that concert and exactly what we want to highlight.

Phoenix 1_preview

Speaking of social media, the Phoenix instagram is so wonderful because you aren't just like "BUY TICKETS", instead you tell the story of the pieces you're about to play and what makes them so special. You can really feel your excitement of wanting to share this music with people.

Yeah, what we try to focus on is what is somebody’s experience with our organization, what is their experience with the music and the art from the very first moment they interact with it until after they leave the event. For instance: maybe the first time you see something about our show is on our Instagram and you see a post that’s about Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and maybe it’s more about Shakespeare than anything else but you attach yourself to that. Then you might see a post we put up about Bottom the Weaver and you attach yourself to Bottom the Weaver being turned into a donkey or something like that. From there we’ll talk about how Bottom the Weaver is represented in this Mendelssohn overture by this great string passage. There’s a string passage in the overture that has a line that descends from a D-sharp to a C-sharp and in the score they’re just written as two notes but the performance practice is that we really slide between those two notes to sound more like a donkey HEE-HAW and so we want to introduce you to that. So the flow chart is like, “Oh you’re interested in the Shakespeare, what about Bottom the Weaver? Bottom the Weaver is a great story and here’s how it’s represented in music!”


Music is an all-inclusive experience and we’re trying to open up people to the process. We don’t want to just be like “BUY A TICKET TO OUR SHOW”, we want to get you as excited about the show as we are. People are familiar with Shakespeare, but what about Britten? What is it that makes the Britten so exciting to us? How can we share it with people? One of the really interesting things about the Serenade is that the opening movement and the closing movement are just solo horn accompanied by orchestra-no singing-and the horn part is written to be played on natural harmonics. Here’s when our mission comes into play: musicians know what natural harmonics are and it’s a term that we throw around easily but 95% of the audience probably doesn't know what that means which is totally fine. Natural harmonics mean that if you see a horn player, trumpet players, trombone player, any sort of brass player, they can play a wide ranging set of notes by just moving their lips and changing the amount of pressure and air that's going. That's called the natural harmonic series of notes which you can play without using the valves on a trumpet or horn or without using the slide on a trombone and those notes sound very different than when they're played naturally without any mechanical manipulation. 

In order to get audiences to understand what that means and why it’s so interesting, we’re filming a video with our horn player where he’s going to play what it would sound like if he used valves vs if he played it using natural harmonics which is not using valves. This is so important because it’s something that's a musical moment that you could go to a concert and you could see it and you could have the natural harmonic thing at the beginning and at the end and recognize that it was a great horn solo but not really know that it was ridiculous for Britten to write in the horn part that this is supposed to be played on natural harmonics when it sounds “better” and more “in tune” and it’s much easier if you just play it using valves. Britten wrote for natural horn in this case because it gives this other-worldly sound quality when it’s played using natural harmonics and it’s essential to that ethos of night that Britten is trying to write for. It sounds old and one of the things about night is that night is old, night has been happening for forever.

Going back to what Britten wrote, it’s like if you gave a mathematician a calculator but they did everything by hand instead. You’re essentially taking something away all of the convenience of modern machines. It’s like asking a mathematician to divide this number by that number and they had a calculator sitting right there that made it super easy to do and it was all going to make it super accurate, but instead what Britten is asking us to do is do everything by hand and it’s going to be a little bit uglier but he’s doing it to accomplish a very specific goal, with a very specific sound. It’s stuff like that that we gloss over way too much when we perform for people. It takes a lot of work and thinking about it in different ways to explain it which is why we’re going to explain it on our Instagram, we’re going to make a video of it, and we’re going to explain it in a newsletter and Nick our hornist will probably talk about it before he plays it at the concert. That stuff is important. Not doing that service to your audience of explaining that is like putting up a painting at a museum without the little placard next to it that explains what the painting is. At least for me, I don't know a lot about visual art so if I went to a museum and there’s this great Seurat or Picasso or Monet or something like that but you didn't have an explanation about Neoclassicism in picasso or pointillism in Seurat or something like that, then I would be able to acknowledge that it’s a painting but there’s no way I could understand the significance or artistry that went into it. It takes work to help people understand how amazing that painting is. I think sometimes we don't realize it takes some work to understand how amazing this music is.

Sometimes it feels as if the classical community almost prides themselves on being exclusive and like understanding the music is some sort of special power.

Absolutely right! I think the other thing that we get trapped in is that we don't think people will put in the effort. Like we think, oh we can’t make people understand that, but if you trust them, audiences will shock you. People are willing to go through a lot of effort to enjoy things. You think about the amount of people who totally enjoy sports and get really into sports and they understand very complicated rule books on a second-nature level in order to love that sport and be able to get into the intricacies of the sport. It took somebody a lot of work and a lot of learning to know that. You think about a baseball fan who knows all of the names of all the players on the team and what position they play and statistically how they’re doing this season and stuff like that. People are willing to put in effort if you make it worth their while. Sometimes I think that we don't trust audiences to do that, we’re like if this can't be explained in ten seconds then it’s not worth explaining.

You came from a non-musical family and you're probably one of the most knowledgable person about music that I know, how did that happen?

Yeah, and I think that's really important. One of the things that we try to highlight about Phoenix members is the behind the scenes, the paths that we’ve taken to get to where we are. That’s the stuff that always interests me about the sports figures and all of these different people. I want to read the biography, I want to know how you got to where you are.

Definitely! It creates a sort of intimacy, it's like this little secret that you can share and show off and become an insider!

Yeah, one of the things we wrote during Season 1 on our brainstorming page is that we want to be more than musicians, we want to be people to our audience.

Anyways, both of my parents are lawyers so I grew up in a totally non-musical family in Northern Virginia. I fell in love with orchestral music because of John Williams’ score to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone! I was a huge Harry Potter fan! I think I saw that first movie an embarrassing number of like ten times in the theaters. I loved the score so I bought the soundtrack and from there I started exploring the whole John Williams library and at some point my dad put on a cd of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and I really liked that.

So then I went to Boston University Tanglewood Institute in high school and I was the kid who didn’t know a lot of standard orchestral repertoire. The Boston Symphony Orchestra would be playing this huge piece like Dvorak Symphony 9 and everyone would be really excited and I wouldn’t know what it was but it sounded cool so I went! I got to hear all of these huge pieces for the first time and everybody was astounded that I hadn't heard them. Coming from that sort of background has been really, really important to me in putting together Phoenix as a project because part of it, on a very personal level, is that I want people to be able to go through that journey. I think orchestral music is one of the most amazing things that the world and humanity has accomplished and I want everybody to know about it. I want there to be all of these different avenues of experiencing it and I know that if I had not loved Harry Potter and if my dad had not put on that random cd of Beethoven 5, I wouldn't be here today.


In the Phoenix meetings, we talk about ‘knowing what you know’ and what that means is that everytime we write something or put something up or say something to our audience, we want to look at it from the point of view of that we know how we speak about things and how we write about things, that other people don’t know. Knowing what you know is about being conscious of knowing what you know inherently either because you've been taught them or you've experienced them but other people have no idea. Whenever we write something on the website or for an Instagram post somebody from our team will highlight a word and be like you need to explain what this is. If you don't stop and think about the process of trying to think about it, you would never realize that you're saying something that somebody doesn't understand. You’re trying to get everyone to speak the same language. There’s a lot of stuff you know that you take for granted. Diversity on a thousand different levels is incredibly important. It’s important that we come from and represent diverse cultures and diverse backgrounds and diverse upbringings and that we have diversity in our own lives because it makes it so much easier to relate. We can open ourselves up to a new audience and a whole new way of thinking. It is the non-musical things in my life that are essential to how I want to develop the musical part of my life. You need both of those halves in order to do what we’re doing. It’s been a crazy ride. We’re at the end of season four now. This concert is going to be awesome. A big part of this has been that we’ve learned how to run a business. Like, what the hell?

Click here to learn more about Phoenix's Nights and Dreams concert on April 12!

Click here to see Phoenix's Instagram page!

Click here to follow Matt on the Opus Affair site!