Brett Mitchell is Listening

6 mins read
Hands of male conductor on dark background

We caught up with Brett Mitchell, newly appointed Music Director for the Pasadena Symphony and POPS, on his second official day on the job.

His first performance as Music Director, initiating a five-year tenure, will be the orchestra’s season-opening concert on October 26, 2024 (2024/25 season details to be announced).

Mitchell is the sixth conductor to serve as Music Director of the Pasadena Symphony since the orchestra was founded in 1928. He succeeds distinguished Music Directors Reginald Bland (1928-1936), Dr. Richard Lert (1936-1968), Daniel Lewis (1971-1982), Jorge Mester (1984-2010), and David Lockington (2013-2022).

Pasadena Symphony, which has garnered considerable critical and public acclaim throughout its history, is a “virtuoso orchestra” lauded for “zesty, swaggering performances” (Los Angeles Times) and celebrated for its “superb tonal clarity and rich instrumental brilliance” (Pasadena Star-News).

Mitchell is the Artistic Director and Conductor of Oregon’s Sunriver Music Festival, a position he has held since 2022 and will maintain in conjunction with his new Pasadena Symphony post. He previously served as Music Director of the Colorado Symphony in Denver from 2017 to 2021, after four years with The Cleveland Orchestra, rising from Assistant Conductor to Associate Conductor and an earlier four-year post as Assistant Conductor of the Houston Symphony.

An in-demand guest conductor as well, Mitchell’s recent engagements include appearances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl; the Cleveland and Minnesota orchestras; the Dallas, Detroit, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, National, San Francisco, and Vancouver symphonies, among others; and a two-week tour with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Mitchell also regularly collaborates with the world’s leading soloists, including Yo-Yo Ma, Renée Fleming, Itzhak Perlman, Kirill Gerstein, Conrad Tao, Rudolf Buchbinder, James Ehnes, Augustin Hadelich, Leila Josefowicz, and Alisa Weilerstein.

Smells like teen spirit

He describes his new role this way: “My job is to serve the music, the musicians, and the community.”

A Seattle native who grew up down the street from Kurt Cobain and now a resident of Denver, Colorado, Mitchell grew up loving grunge as well as John Williams’ iconic “Star Wars” and “Superman” scores. He cites Barry Manilow as a musical guilty pleasure “…because Manilow is a consummate entertainer and showman. He genuinely connects with everyone in the audience. It’s real, and the people know it’s real, and my passion is to do the same with classical music as well as other genres,” Desi Arnaz-Copacabana ruffles optional. He recounts an evening in 2018 in Denver’s spectacular open-air Red Rocks amphitheater where he shared the stage with Yo-Yo Ma, saying, “He held those 9,000 people rapt. They were as attentive and silent 90 minutes into the program as they were 90 seconds in. Don’t ever underestimate the power of music.”

“The great thing about the Pasadena Symphony is that we’re working with the world’s A-grade, first-call studio musicians who can play everything and anything. They’re professional chameleons, so a specific focus of mine is to showcase the breadth of the team,” says Mitchell.

“This is one of the key differences between pop and classical performance. Pop music is the domain of an individual persona. Billy Joel always sounds like Billy Joel and people love the brand. But classical players need to be at ease in many different costumes. Debussy should not sound like Beethoven.”

On the subject of ego, he makes the distinction between hubris and authority. “Yes, it absolutely takes confidence to take the podium and lead. Without ego, we’d never get off the couch, much less get from the couch to the podium. But if a person’s surety arises from some innate sense of superiority or entitlement or ‘deserving to be here,’ there will be problems. In my case, I feel confident because I know I’ve done the work and that I continue to do it with passion and fervor. I am always gobbling up information, and I learn as much or maybe even more than I teach. Doing the work in this sense begins with respect for the audience, as well as the virtuosity of the musicians, and consists essentially of listening – active listening – seeing how the artists and the audience respond to certain things.”

So Wolfie, Ludvig Van and Antonio V. walk into a bar…

As he moves into position to lead the 2024-2025 season, Mitchell recounts receiving invaluable advice from none other than Ara Guzelimian, current Artistic Director of the Ojai Music Festival and former Dean and Provost of The Julliard School, who previously served as Artistic Advisor and Senior Director for Carnegie Hall.

“On the subject of programming and how to build a compelling program that will bring the folks to the hall, Ara told me to picture three pieces of music as entities sidling up to a bar. Would the three have anything to say to each other? If the pieces are too similar, there isn’t much excitement, although you’d have something very harmonious. If the pieces are radically different, that can be interesting, but it might be difficult to find common ground.”  For the approaching season, Mitchell promises a “varied diet” of music, pulling from a broad spectrum and a broadening palette.

In addition to overseeing all artistic aspects of the Pasadena Symphony, Mitchell will collaborate on the orchestra’s highly regarded community and education programs, including the Pasadena Youth Symphony Orchestras, which encompass eleven award-winning ensembles serving students of all musical abilities in grades 5-12.      

On the subject of relating to kids, he says, “I grew up listening to the pop music of my parents’ generation, then I listened to Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and then I listened to Beethoven. That’s when I began to understand what music actually is. It’s all emotion. In listening to Beethoven, I felt that the artist was someone having a hard time with something. As an artist, he was able to articulate it without words, and hearing that makes the rest of us feel less alone.”

Orchestrating a Graceful Future

Andrew Brown accepted the role of Chief Executive Officer of the Pasadena Symphony and POPS. He manages the Pasadena Symphony, the Pasadena POPS, under the direction of Principal Pops Conductor Michael Feinstein, and the Pasadena Youth Symphony Orchestras (PYSO), serving over 800 students in the San Gabriel Valley.

We spoke with Brown this week, who commented, “After a few years without a music director, we are honored and delighted to welcome Brett as our partner in building out our ensemble. His resume is superb, but beyond that, he’s both creative and pragmatic, and he brings planning, leadership, and organizational intelligence to the role in addition to his impeccable musical credentials.”

Brown says that Mitchell’s arrival brings with it a new sense of opportunity, as well as challenge. “We’ve relied for so long on the subscription model, but all of that was disrupted by the pandemic. There’s no denying the fact that thanks to digital technology, we can all enjoy incredible music while sitting at home in our pajamas, and of course, people got comfortable doing that for a few years of COVID-19. But now we’re inviting people to come back out into the world for an immersive musical experience, even if it’s only a couple of times a year. In the presence of live performance before a live audience, there’s a momentum, those goosebumps that you really can’t replicate any other way.”

He describes the programming as “…this three-legged stool that we love so much. There are the classics, both familiar and unfamiliar. Then there is the POPS program with Michael Feinstein in the Arboretum—movie music, ABBA night, real crowd-pleasers. Then there’s PYSO, our youth arts arm. On Saturday, April 27, at the Ambassador Auditorium, the public is invited to get a glimpse of this, free of charge. From 9 AM until 9 PM, 11 different student ensembles will perform several types of music throughout the day as an all-day musical marathon.”

“We’re changing some expectations about our programming,” says Brown. “Today’s audience is multi-generational and less elitist. We’re finding ways to make the experience welcoming and comfortable for a broad range of music lovers.” Partnering with the Pasadena Unified School District to provide after-school coaching to music students, a newly launched community engagement program, and offering more matinees and informative talks before and after concerts throughout the year are further steps in making the music more widely accessible.”

Perhaps another key element in the success of the Pasadena Symphony as it evolves today has to do with sizing, with an annual program of six major performances per season versus the 20 to 30 evening concerts typically hosted by other companies.

“Young families don’t have that kind of time,” says Brown. “While we are loyal to our customer base, which tends to trend older, we are also committed to making the experience of live music available to young people, young families with kids, and kids themselves. With Brett’s arrival, we’re hoping for a bit of grace as we approach the new season. The experience might be less formal in some respects, but we feel positive that what we offer the community will be truly reflective of Pasadena as the magical place we know it to be.”

Pasadena Symphony and POPS
Phone (626) 793-7172, text (626) 531-1401

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Victoria Thomas

Victoria has been a journalist since her college years when she wrote for Rolling Stone and CREEM. Victoria describes the view of Mt. Wilson from her front step as “staggering,” and she is a defender of peacocks everywhere.
Email: [email protected]

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