Neal Gittleman has led the Orchestra to new levels of artistic achievement and increasing national recognition. During his tenure, the DPO has received nine ASCAP Awards for adventurous programming, the prestigious Governor’s Award for the Arts, and the DPAA now joins four other U.S. orchestras as a recipient of a prestigious Music Alive grant from NewMusicUSA, supporting Stella Sung’s three-year term as the Alliance’s Music Alive Composer-in-Residence.
Before coming to Dayton, Gittleman was Assistant Conductor of the Oregon Symphony, Associate Conductor of the Syracuse Symphony, and Music Director of the Marion (IN) Philharmonic. He also served ten seasons with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, first as Associate Conductor and then as Resident Conductor.
Son of an English professor and a public school music teacher, Neal is a native of Brooklyn, New York. He graduated from Yale University in 1975 and then studied with Nadia Boulanger and Annette Dieudonnй in Paris, with Hugh Ross at the Manhattan School of Music, and with Charles Bruck at both the Pierre Monteux School and the Hartt School of Music, where he was a Karl Bцhm Fellow.
At home in the pit as well as on stage, Neal has led productions for Dayton Opera, the Human Race Theatre Company, Syracuse Opera, and Milwaukee’s Skylight Opera Theatre. He has also conducted for performances of Dayton Ballet, DCDC, Rhythm in Shoes, Milwaukee Ballet, Hartford Ballet, Chicago City Ballet, Ballet Arizona, and Theatre Ballet of Canada.
When not on the podium, Neal is an avid player of golf, squash and t’ai chi ch’uan and does yoga, too. He and his wife, Lisa Fry, have been Dayton residents since 1997.
Neal recently took the time to chat with Dayton Artists United.
DAU—Neal Gittleman, you’ve been interviewed a lot. Is there any question you’ve always wanted to be asked that hasn’t been?
NG–“What’s the secret of comedy?” Actually, that’s a component of one of my favorite jokes. People who know the joke will understand… (I suppose that’s a way of answering your question with a “No.” But looking backwards from further down the line, your “What’s your favorite Metropark?” is a pretty good question that I’ve never been asked before!)
DAU—You and the DPO have won multiple ASCAP awards for adventurous programming. Thinking about programming, what’s your starting point. Do you start with a piece or a theme, give me an idea of your process when you are putting a program together?
NG–Every concert program is different. Sometimes (but rarely) a theme comes first. Sometimes I build a program around a particular piece, asking myself, “What other piece—or pieces—fit well with _______?” But no matter where I start, the bottom-line question is, “What music can we play on this concert that can make for an involving, engaging listener experience?”
DAU—What has been your most challenging piece to date?
NG—That’s probably down to two fairly recent performances: Richard Strauss’ opera Salome (with Dayton Opera in May 2019 and Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla (DPO, October 2019). They’re both incredibly complex pieces, where a conductor has to concentrate at 100% for a 90-minute stretch. They’re both very difficult for the musicians, which means the conductor needs to be continually high alert, ready to step in with the look, a cue, or a particularly clear beat that any musician might need at any given moment. But both Salome and Turangalîla are very beautiful pieces, so all the incredibly hard work that goes into performing them is well worth it!
DAU—Everyone has a song that bugs them. What is your least favorite song?
NG—Funny you should ask that, because it just came to mind recently. A couple of weeks ago the DPO had a “Nat and Natalie” pops concert, with two guest artists who sang songs from the Nat King Cole and Natalie Cole repertoire. Great singers, and a great concert (which I got to enjoy from the audience, since DPO Associate Condcutor Pat Reynolds was on the podium). And also great because if I have a least-favorite song, it’s a Nat King Cole song: “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer”. Fortunately, it wasn’t on the set list! And one of my favorite songs (also by Nat King Cole) was on the set list: “Straighten Up and Fly Right”. Plus I got to know a new favorite song: Natalie Cole’s heartbreaker, “No Plans for the Future”.
DAU—Part of your adventurous programming has been the Halloween concerts, and you dress up in costume. What is your favorite Philharmonster costume?
NG–Each Philharmonster costume is always linked either to some schtick or to a particular piece. So, the costumes that involve flying (Superman, Spiderman) are always fun. Yoda is another perennial favorite (partly because my old conducting teacher kind of looked like Yoda). Another one that was really fun was the PhilharMonster concert where the premise of the whole show was that I was Mozart, sharing with the audience my favorite pieces by my fellow dead composers. For that one, I was in full Mozart regalia (wig, etc.) but about 20 minutes before show time the stagehands brought me out onstage in a coffin. Then I had to lie there in the coffin until the concert started…and leap out. Lots of deep breathing and maybe even a catnap. But nothing dramatic like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill…
DAU—Speaking of how you dress for concerts, it’s an odd thing for a performer to spend his time onstage with his back to the audience. Do you ever worry about what you look like from the back?
You know, “Does my backside look big in these pants?” sort of thing.
NG–Not really. But as my hair has thinned over the years, I sometimes joke about the “spotlight” that I shine up at the patrons in the balcony!
DAU— Are you a Harry Potter fan? You know, the wand chooses the wizard…does the baton choose the conductor? Do you have more than one baton? Do you have a favorite? Does it have a name?
NG—Yes, I’m a Harry Potter fan. More of the books (all of which I’ve read) than of the movies (only three of which I’ve seen). But for me, it’s definitely that I choose the baton, rather than the other way around. I tried many different ones over the years before I found one that was perfect—mostly because it was custom made for me by a baton maker. I sent him one of the batons that I was using, plus another one that I liked but wasn’t quite right, and said “Can you make me something that’s like Baton A, but has a handle like Baton B?” He sent me a demo, I suggested some tweaks, and we had a “NealG Model”. I had him send me a bunch of them, which was a good thing, since he went out of business or died or something several years ago. So unless I work until I’m 107 years old or I go on a jag of baton-breaking, I should be set baton-wise for the rest of my career. On a practical basis, just in case of breakage, I carry three batons in my baton case. One’s “the good one”, which I only use for performances. Then there are two others that I use in rehearsals and as just-in-case spares.
DAU–You’ve lived in Dayton for 25 years, what is your favorite thing about the Miami Valley?
NG—If I had to pick just one favorite thing in the Miami Valley it would be the Schuster Center. Having the Schuster Center, with its world-class acoustics, as the Philharmonic’s home was an absolute game changer. And it’s great in every way. Great for concerts. Great for Broadway. Great for opera. Great for dance. Great for the audience. Great for the stagehands. Just simply great.
DAU—What is your favorite Metropark and why?
NG—I love to play golf, and Community is my “home course” (and the course closest to my home), so I supposed my favorite Metropark is Hills and Dales. But each year my wife and I vow to walk in each and every Metropark. I don’t think we’ve ever hit all of them, but we have committed to make 2020 the year that we pull it off.
DAU—We have lots of public art in Dayton, much of it celebrates the great inventions in our patent history, which of the “patent project” pieces resonates with you and why?
NG—I’m not sure if these count as “patent pieces”, but two of my favorite pieces of public art in the region are Flyover on Main Street in Downtown Dayton and Michael Bashaw’s Wings/Lift Compounded (Defy the Impossible) on Shafer Avenue in Oakwood.
DAU—You once said in a Daytonian of the week interview that Dayton needed to build a stronger sense of community, to develop greater pride and solidarity. The catastrophic events of the last year have built our community and we’re all together, have you any thoughts about what we can we do to sustain and build on this community feeling? What can artists do to help sustain and build community?
NG—The “problem” with the solidarity communities forge in the wake of tragedy is that once the tragedy starts to fade in the collective memory, the solidarity starts to fade, too. So I hope people remember the sense of unity that we’ve felt at times in 2019, hold on to it, and build on it. All artists can do is what we always do—try to speak to people through the art we do and try to bring people together through our art.
DAU— You’ve conducted, and guest conducted in cities all over. Have you seen anything in your travels that you think Dayton should emulate?
NG—It’s more the other way around. I’ve seen plenty of things in other cities where I thought, “You should be more like Dayton.” (Of course, as a diplomat, I kept those thoughts to myself.) Dorothy was right: there’s no place like home.
DAU–Dayton and the Five River’s Metroparks are working to make use of Dayton’s rivers. Have you ever boated down the Miami?
NG—Never. Canoeing or kayaking on the Miami would probably be fun. Though I’m not sure if I’d trust my paddle skills…
DAU—You have said before that music should be “interesting, Involving, and transformative,” as an artist, working in a collaborative, how do you keep that goal in front of you when you’re working on the details of performance?
NG—You hit on it in the question. For me, the performance is mostly about the details. Getting a piece’s details right means getting the piece right. And by “details”, I don’t just mean the little stuff. The long arc of a piece of music is a detail, too. But I think that the performer’s job is to work the details and make the interesting/involving/transformative happen by attention to the details and by absolute and fierce dedication to the performance itself. Audience can sense when an orchestra and conductor are giving their all and when they’re “phoning it in”. I don’t think we’ve ever phoned it in, and I hope we never do!
DAU—The DPO often collaborates with other community organizations—besides the formal collaborations of the DPAA. What collaboration was the most unexpected? What collaboration would you like to see happen in the future?
NG—Well, there’s never an artistic collaboration that’s unexpected, because they take so much planning. But sometimes something turns out to be so magical that it is, strictly speaking, unexpected. The one that sticks out the most in my mind was doing Bolero with Rhythm in Shoes in May 2010. It was our last performance together before RiS disbanded. I had come up with the crazy idea that we do Bolero with Sharon Leahy doing the snare drum part as a tap solo and where each phrase of the melody would be a snippet from one of the many dances in RiS’s history. Sharon loved the idea and it was just incredible. It nearly brought me to tears every time I saw it in the studio, and although I had my back to the whole thing in performance, I could tell that it was doing the same thing to the audience. As for the future, I think it would be great fun to do a DPO/Rhythm in Shoes redux performance. But beyond that, I wonder the best future collaborations are the ones you haven’t imagined yet… Short-term, I’m really looking forward to our upcoming collaboration with Wyclef Jean. “A Night of Symphonic Hip-Hop” sounds like a lot of fun to me!
DAU—Being the director of the DPO is more than just conducting the orchestra—you are a manager, a financial planner, a fundraiser, a performer, and I don’t know how many elements to the job there are. What part of your job is the most challenging? If you could go back in time and offer yourself advice about your job, what would say?
NG—-That one’s easy to answer. The most challenging part of my job is time management. The music work—studying scores and preparing for rehearsals and concerts—is critically important. If we’re not giving great performances, then none of the fundraising or PR or planning is going to matter. All that is important, but I always have to make sure I’m carving out time to get the music work done. Sometimes it works out just fine. Other times I’m getting up in the middle of the night to get some music work done while the phone isn’t ringing and my e-mail in-box isn’t dinging at me every few minutes.
DAU–Thank you, Neal Gittleman, for sharing your time with us, it’s been a real pleasure!