If Ryan McAdams becomes the new music director of Eugene Symphony next season, we can probably expect to attend unusual performances in unusual musical spaces.
We can also expect articulate talks from the podium.
McAdams, who conducted the orchestra last night at the Hult Center in a concert with works by Mozart, Barber and Brahms, is one of three finalists trying out with the orchestra to replace music director Danail Rachev when he leaves the symphony at the end of this season.
On the podium McAdams was energetic and assured, cutting an almost too-perfect figure of the handsome young conductor. If he has a flaw, it may be that he’s almost corporate slick.
Much like last month’s performance by Dina Gilbert, the first of the three finalists to conduct a public concert here, his music got noticeably better and more comfortable by the final piece, Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, which he had selected (the other two were assigned).
I talked with McAdams for half an hour on Monday at the symphony’s downtown office, and began by asking him to expand on his vision for including contemporary classical music in the orchestra’s performance schedule.
“This is not a question of repertoire,” he said. “It’s a question of format.”
By that, he meant that rethought productions of standard fare can feel as contemporary as new works.
As an example, he offered a performance he conducted in 2015 of the tried and true Don Giovanni with New York’s Venture Opera.
“We did this Don Giovanni on the Lower East Side in a dilapidated synagogue (perhaps better known as Angel Orensanz Center) with no sets,” he said. “The costumes were simple, large pieces of fabric. And the audience felt this was new, cutting-edge material.”
Opera News called the production “by far the most enjoyable and thought-provoking Don Giovanni New York has heard in many a year.”
In conventional performance spaces, he said, the audience can feel removed from the process of making music — a passive recipient of performance rather than an active participant.
All orchestras need to consider unconventional performance spaces, he said, if only to accommodate the large number of contemporary works that don’t fit into conventional venues such as the Hult Center.
“Composers are creating pieces that interact with very specific environments,” he said.
Those new works should be seen as not just an advertisement for the “real” performance in the main hall, but musical experiences that stand on their own.
Asked for an example of a small orchestra doing the kind of work he admires, McAdams immediately cited the Louisville Orchestra, under Teddy Abrams. In 2014 the orchestra performed Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana with a choir of hundreds of singers cobbled together from professional and school groups.
“It was enormous,” McAdams said. “The concert became the definition of a community event.”
McAdams has deep personal roots in performance. His father was a theatre director; his mother, an opera singer. “I think of everything in terms of theater,” he said.
McAdams, who arrived in town late last week for a whirlwind of interviews, receptions and conducting, didn’t get to join the Women’s March in Eugene on Saturday. He was busy rehearsing the orchestra that day, though he got to see the marchers go by.
But his wife of a year and a half, dancer and performer Laura Careless, did join in, having flown in from New York just for the weekend.
McAdams chose his words carefully in taking about the pink-hatted protest and deftly turned the conversation from politics back to art.
“That’s part of what the march meant to me,” he said. “It was a group of people coming together to create the world we want to live in.”