Peter Bay – The Creativity of Interpretation
I have so many questions to ask Beethoven and Mozart about a certain piece.
It’s not possible, which is why I so value working with creators who are alive today.
Peter Bay, the conductor of the Austin Symphony Orchestra, has been a fixture of the Austin creative scene since the early nineties. I met Peter five years ago when he was conducting a music festival in Hot Springs, Arkansas and I was giving a talk and creating an interactive exhibit there. When we first met, I was blown away by his modesty and quiet, intelligent personality. I had grown up thinking of conductors as people with larger-than-life, brash, bombastic personalities. Peter feels like the opposite of that. In his years in Austin, he has completely transformed the Austin Symphony Orchestra into a community treasure fitting for the Live Music Capitol of the World.
Listen to the podcast and learn more about Peter and his thoughts on creativity, working with composers and the interpretation of classical music.
Here are the contemporary composers that Peter mentioned in the interview. They are all definitely worth a listen:
Goldberg Variations Aria & Variation 11 by JS Bach; Songs Without Words #1 by Mendelssohn; Isabel by N Guda
Performed by N Guda
Peter Bay: I have so many questions to ask Beethoven and Mozart about a certain piece. It’s not possible, which is why I really value working with a creator that is alive, that I can question, that can teach me something about how music should go.
Nelson Guda: Welcome to ATX UnBound! I’m Nelson Guda – Artist, former scientist and your host for ATX UnBound. A podcast from unbound online that explores the creative world of Austin, Texas – one of the fastest growing creative cities in the US. Today’s episode is really meaningful to me personally. This interview is with Peter Bay the conductor of the Austin Symphony Orchestra. I actually did this interview with Peter over a year ago, but I was trying to make it into a video and I was never able to get the video overlay of the Symphony Orchestra to go along with it, so I’ve decided to publish it as a podcast.
Nelson: Peter’s one of those people who is absolutely incredible at what he does and yet kind of unbelievably modest about himself and his career. I was really excited to talk to him about conducting and how you got started and what his instrument was and what he thinks about the creative side or conducting. I’ve only known Peter for a few years, but when I came to Austin about the same time and I’ve been able to see the symphony orchestra grow and change a mature under his leadership and it is truly a phenomenal change.
Peter: One of the first questions I asked Peter was, what instrument did he play in? How did he get into conducting? How does somebody get into conducting? I, I just really don’t have any idea. So let’s start the interview from there.
I’m a flutist, and I did not come to the flute until my freshman year in high school, which for a musician is way too late. But I had the um, the disadvantage of growing up in an apartment building or to two different apartment buildings, neither of which allowed instruments because they, you know, the neighbors don’t want to hear banging away at a trumpet or a drum or God forbid a piano or some loud instruments.
So I went to high school. I’m only having had an experience as a chorister. I sang in a boy’s and men’s choir in Washington DC as a kid, and then when my voice changed, I stayed for a few more years, so I started off as a choir singer, but my, my goal really was to be an orchestra conductor since I was nine. Usually that’s followed by a laugh! Like that’s, that’s a very bizarre thing for a kid to want to do and it is.
Peter: But again, that’s where television comes into play. Having seen Leonard Bernstein on television, I had, I had exposure to a conductor as a child because CBS, the CBS network had the audacity and the smarts to put a Leonard Bernstein young people’s concert with the New York Philharmonic on four times a year on network television. Of course, these were Sunday afternoons, but, um, having been able to see a conductor, have a conductor talk to an audience of young people and explain how music works, how music is put together, what is American music? And to have a conductor like him with his persona, with is over the top passion for conducting. And having the camera on his face while he was conducting and just seeing the excitement he had. I just latched onto that so easily. Like, this is cool, this is exciting. I want to do that.
This. There’s an odd story, but the, the… I had as a kid, I couldn’t get conducting lessons because no conductor, conducting teacher would take a kid. Seriously. I mean you have to really learn how to play an instrument and learn the ins and outs of music. But the one thing that I have to say that was a major influence in my youth was the local public library.
The library had many, many records and I grew up listening to records, but they a lot of records that I didn’t have, but they had a small, a shelf of miniature scores. Now I don’t know why they had these scores. It’s the only public library, like a neighborhood public library that had orchestral scores. Like why did they have these? Where did they get them? It didn’t matter, but they had an array of scores from Bach to Mozart, Haydn, Copeland, some contemporary things, but mostly classical things. And it wasn’t all orchestral stuff, there were Hayden string quartets, it could be a Mozart symphony or a piano concerto.
Peter: And so when I got interested in conducting as a nine year old, what I would do is I borrow three or four of these scores to, to try to figure out how they worked. And of course I couldn’t. I took out a recording of a heightened symphony. I remember this very well. The clocks symphony, 101. Took the record out from the library and the score, put the record on and open the score. And there’s, you know, how the scores are set up. There’s a line for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, timpani, violin, one violin, viola, cello and bass. So I listened to the music, uh, try to make heads or tails of the score and I would always start looking at the top line only. But the flute doesn’t always have the melody. Sometimes the melody goes to the clarinet and the flute stops playing.
So, you know, it was, follow the bouncing note. I’d look at one line and jump down to this line and go back up to the line. Sometimes four lines of players were playing the same thing, so after time I could see more peripherally how the score worked and that’s, that’s how I developed a sense of score. Reading was basically just by trial and error, trying to read these lines of music all at once.
So it’s not, it’s not unusual to me, but I had this exposure to music. I had this exposure to Bernstein, and there are a lot of conductors of my generation, my age group who all point to Bernstein saying if they hadn’t seen him somehow, whether it was live in concert or seeing those television broadcast, they may not have had a career in, as a conductor. Or they may have had a career in music, but he was such a major influence to hundreds… literally hundreds of conductors currently working.
But you can’t really be a conductor unless you, you have mastered some instrument, preferably an orchestral instrument because you work with orchestras. Piano of course is fine. Uh, there are a few singers that have become conductors Placido Domingo is one. And he’s the only one that I can think of currently that had a decent career as a singer, conductor.
But mostly, conductors are instrumentalists. And um, so I was behind the eight ball when I started flute. I was, uh, my muscles were not developed, or it was too late to develop them in the way a fourth grader you know starts the violin or the piano and, or four year old even. So, um, in high school I was very, very behind. And I had to catch up quickly, but I knew my career as a musician would not be as an instrumentalist. I gave up the instrument by the time I was in graduate school .
Peter: Oh, by the time, you know, I went to the peabody institute in Baltimore and that’s a music conservatory. And the flutists that were there could play circles around me. But I would say that the conducting students that were there may not have had the same kind of experience I’ve had because that was my goal as a kid. So I learned about conducting, I watched conductors, I read about conductors, I did whatever I could with a pencil, learning the beat patterns, studying scores while others were learning their piano scales or violin arpeggios or things like that.
Nelson: That’s fascinating. You know, I just can’t imagine working through a score without a piano for example.
Peter: Well, I can, I, I don’t play piano in public, but I can figure out chords and melodies on the piano. I have electronic piano in my office, um, because sometimes I can’t always figure out what the harmonies are in a, in a, in a score without going to the piano and getting that sound in my head.
But over over years staring at scores, I’ve trained myself to be able to hear what’s on the page and the combination of instruments that are on the score page. I can sort of tell what it should sound like and I wish I could do half the things that you’re three quarters of the things you know how to do. Um, I wish that I were a concert pianist because that would open up more avenues for me as a performer. I could play chamber music or I could play concertos with my own orchestra, um, but that just, that wasn’t my, it wasn’t my interests, number one, and it just wasn’t my fate to be a performer in it per se. And then also that leads me to, to working with an orchestra. I have so much respect for the players that sit in an orchestra that went through the years, the hours of painful practice in order to win a job in an orchestra.
So an audition process is so difficult and there is so much competition for any one seat in an orchestra. Um, I have such respect for the players in the orchestra who have to produce at concerts a flawless performance, playing very difficult music, having to practice for hours and hours on their own. In a way. It’s easy for me to show up with my score. I don’t make any sound. I just beat time. Um, I, yes, I have to rehearse the orchestra to get it ready to play, but I don’t make the sound. I just, I’m like the coach of a football team. I don’t, I don’t run the plays, I don’t score the touchdowns, I don’t get tackled over and over again. I just try to get everyone on the same page. They should get the glory and they do get the glory. I just happened to be the conduit between the composer and the orchestra.
Peter: I’m the, I’m the coach. They should get all the glory and they deserve all the glory. I’m just, I’m lucky to be the coach.
Nelson: One of the things that is really interested in asking Peter was about the creative process that goes into interpreting a piece of classical music. I think we tend to think of creativity as making something new and really different, but I lived in Japan for awhile and and there there’s this big emphasis on their creativity of reinterpreting older things are classical pieces like classical music and I was really interested to see what Peter’s take on that was and how he goes about that.
Peter: So while it’s very difficult to do, if there’s a piece of music that is standard literature, let’s say for example, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which has been done, as you said, millions of times I have to force myself when I open the score again to look at it and see what Beethoven was thinking about.
I have to sort of forget all the studying I’ve done before. Even though my score’s marked up with all of my own personal marking’s, what to do, I sort of have to start fresh and think what, what was he thinking when he wrote this piece? And sometimes the decisions I make in revisiting a piece, I might alter the speed of the tempo that I once used to do. Or I might remember that I took that segment too fast or too slow, or I changed the way I phrase a melody, for example. Um, the second movement starts with a beautiful tune in the Cellos, “da Da da Da da Da”. I might sing it to myself enough times that I might go “tee da dot”. I just find a new way, a fresh way to, to have the orchestra sing a phrase that is on paper, black and white, but doesn’t have all kinds of directions on how to shape a phrase.
Nelson: You’ve got this amazing library upstairs of recorded music cds. Right? And I’m, I’m curious about whether you. Obviously you’ve listened to probably all the same thing,
Peter: 99 percent of that room. I listened to at least once.
Nelson: At least I’m sure you have favorite recordings of different concepts and and I’m curious how, how that works into your process of interpreting something because you know there’s all these different interpretations out there.
Nelson: Do you listen to one piece? Do you feel like. I know it’s hard to know exactly how it works, but if you feel like you, you create an interpretations with the base on one particular interpretation that you liked, or…?
Peter: Usually not. In fact, my rule is that if I’m, let’s say I’m learning a score that I’ve never conducted before, I will sit and it’s painstaking process. It’s probably like an actor sits with a script and read the lines, read some lines over and over again trying to figure out how to, how to deliver the line. So I have a score and I, I learned the notes first I learned what the shape of the phrase is, how long the phrases are, like eight bars or eight bars. Are they 13 bars? Whereas the climax of the movement or does it relax and all those kinds of things. And that’s also proceeded by some historical study. I research the composer, the time in which he wrote the piece. Why did he write the piece? I listened to the music that surrounds that particular piece. What did he write, or she, uh, before that piece, after that piece.
So that I understand the context of that piece. And after I’ve learned all the music, all the notes and done all the nitty gritty work, then I kind of hum it or sing it to myself. I turn the pages, I sing the lines. I can imagine what the, what the orchestra will sound like based on what I see on the paper. Then once I’ve done that three or four layers of study, then I might go to a recording. And it’s usually five or six different performances of the same piece rather than one. And and the reason for that is I don’t want to pair it, I don’t want to Mimic Leonard Bernstein’s recording of such and such a piece. And Bernstein always had a very interesting way of conducting a work. Sometimes he doesn’t always follow what the composer says because he was a composer himself and he liked to shape things the way he thought the composer was trying to say.
Even though it may not say that in the score. If it is a work by, let’s say Stravinsky. Stravinsky recorded nearly every piece that he wrote. So naturally I will want to hear how the composer interpreted his own piece. And oftentimes I find that the composer will contradict something that he’s written. Like he’ll say, I’m in the music speed up gradually over the next 20 bars and then I’ll listen to the composers recording and he doesn’t speed up at all. Or he’ll say, metronome marking equals 88 to a quarter note. And then I’ll listen to the recording, it’s nowhere near 88 to a quarter note, so that’s why I won’t listen to just one recording. I’ll try to listen to as many as possible. And um, I might borrow someone’s phrasing, but an a second conductors way of, of, uh, accelerating to the end of a piece or slowing down to the end of a piece.
I might have absorb many different aspects of their, um, their recordings, their interpretations. And oftentimes I will say, Gosh, I wish, why did he do that? Which just reinforces my own interpretation. So I kind of approach a recording with an interpretation already in my head and I’ll, I’ll, I’ll see how their interpretation goes against mine or goes with mine just to get a sound picture because it’s, you know, I can sort of imagine what a score sounds like by just looking at the page. But it always helps to hear a live recording of a piece to see if did I miss something?
It’s, I guess it would be like if, if I’m, if I’m an actor and I’m studying Henry the fifth and I’m about to do a performance, I might want to see Laurence Olivier’s film of it just to see if there was something in the way he delivered a line that I missed or there’s a context or something that I missed or I might be informed by a director’s angle shot a way that it was filmed that might make me appreciate that scene better. So I, I’m just trying to absorb and accumulate as much information about that particular piece of music before I get in front of the orchestra. So this could take months, years, weeks, sometimes days to learn something very quickly. It all depends on how long the piece is. For example, I’m studying Mahler’s six symphony right now. I’ve never done it. I’m doing it in March, I believe, and I started several months ago because his music is so full.
Chock full of details. Eight or nine melodies happening at once. Um, the moods change on a dime and I’m trying to make heads or tails of what he’s trying to, that the story he’s trying to tell through this music and I don’t always get it. I don’t always understand it while I’m studying a piece. So I might go 10 pages, it might take a week to just study 10 pages out of 350 that I have to learn. Then I go back to those ten, look at those 10 pages over again over again over again. I, oh, now I get it. This is what he’s trying to say. So it’s a long, painstaking process to try to recreate. I feel like I’m a recreator. It’s the composer created the piece. I have to figure out what he or she’s trying to say and I hope that my performance will be a, a viable recreation of that piece for the audience that’s hearing it there in the hall. I hope that answered the question. I was a long answer.
Nelson: I’m curious about whether you ever get any feedback from people regarding the way that you’vee interpreted something. So maybe you’re interpreting a classic. Do you ever have anybody come up and say “that was a really weird way to playthat!”?
Peter: Yes. Yes. They will say that they didn’t like a particular performance of mine and they’ll tell me why, but I don’t mind that. I don’t mind that, um, maybe I grew up listening to performance on a record or cd where the music went a certain way and I don’t, I didn’t follow that way. That’s. See, that’s the thing about music. Everyone has an opinion about it. Everyone has an opinion about music. I don’t like that rap or hip hop or I love hip hop. I can’t stand the Beatles. I love Mozart. I Hate Brahms. I love, I love, um, Aaron Copeland, but don’t for Gershwin. Everybody has an opinion about music. Um, and that is one of the challenges of my job is to try to cater to everyone. It’s not possible really to please everyone, whether it’s an interpretation of a standard work or slipping in something new here and there.
Um, that’s not to say that the Austin symphony doesn’t play any contemporary music. We do and we have, but if we, let’s say we have eight programs a year of classical music, there’s not, not including pops or educational concerts, but so I have a limited number of opportunities to introduce new things and I have to reintroduce old things because I, you know, there are people who will come to our Beethoven fifth concert next season who have never heard that piece live or maybe have never heard the piece that’s entirely possible. So I think it’s important to play the masterpieces, the, the, the acknowledged, um, works that everybody knows and loves because not everyone knows them. Not everyone has had the chance to experience them, but I think it’s my job to try to inject new things to keep, to keep the programs fresh or stimulating.
Nelson: I was also super curious about what it’s like for a conductor to work with a contemporary composer who’s written something and who’s there to actually talk to you about how they want it played. And how much creativity or creative latitude does a conductor have when they’re working with a current composer
Peter: Of the majority of the composers that I’ve worked with. I’d say they, they fit into the latter category. In other words, they have a pretty firm idea of what the piece is about and how fast it should go or how slow it should go. But then when they come to the rehearsals and they hear what I’ve done with the music, they might and they, they often come back up to the stage if they’re sitting out in the hall with a list of comments like, and a lot of them are directed towards members of the orchestra, like the Oboe Solo could be louder in this place or the brass are too loud in that place. Or, or Peter, I think, I feel like you’re, you’re, you’re slowing down here to make a point of this particular phrase. But I really, I really wanted it to just flow forward without putting a spotlight on it. And that’s what I really love about this interaction. Um, I have a take on the music they’ve written.
Peter: Of course they have their own take about it. And I will learn from them, from what they tell me about how a piece or to go in and might inform me when I go to another piece of music that’s not by them, by another composer.
Um, and sometimes they said, know I, I really imagined this piece going faster, but I like the way you did it because I hear more of the detail or because of this, particular, because of the long center where we play our concerts. There’s the acoustic of that hall. It sounds better when you played it a little bit slower because of just the room acoustic. Um, if it were a dryer acoustic, the piece might sound better if you did it faster. So there are all kinds of variables with a composer with a new piece of music.
I’m going to work with Dan Welcher very shortly on a new overture that he’s written and we’re playing. And, and, um, he’s already sent me the score and I’ve looked it over and I kind of have an idea of how it should go. But he, he certainly will have something to say when it comes to the rehearsals. I usually don’t like to have a composer come to the first couple of rehearsals. I want to get the piece in, in good enough shape so that when the composer does show up, it doesn’t sound like we’re still messing around with getting the right notes and things like that.
Um, and certain notes, certain composers are fussier than others, you know, they want to be there all the time, a meddling in the rehearsal process and that, that could be also frustrating at times for me because I only have a certain amount of time to, um, to prepare a piece. And it might mean if he or she’s meddling too much, then I’m losing rehearsal time on the other piece. But I would say almost all the time, the work with a composer is, is a really educational and fulfilling and exciting one.
I wish I could talk to Brahms. I have so many questions to ask Beethoven and Mozart about a certain piece. It’s not possible, which is why I really value the working with a creator that is alive that I can question that can teach me something about how music should go.
Nelson: Peter and I also got into this really interesting discussion about musical styles and sort of what people want when they go to hear the symphony, how many people just want to hear the classics versus who is willing to listen to something new and different and and his conversation about this I thought was super interesting.
Peter: You know, we’re all, we’re just a slice of history, but as a. As a symphony conductor, I think the majority, I don’t think I’m saying anything controversial when I say the majority of our audience likes music of a certain part of that history. And the acceptance of things new in music is, is limited to a certain small percentage of our audience. Let’s say. I mean, our audience enjoys Tchaikovsky, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, the composers that most people know by heart, but the current living composers are not as familiar and people who come to concerts, don’t always want to be challenged by what’s new.
But I, I grew up with an, you know, with an eclectic taste in music. My parents played all kinds of stuff at the house from what I call elevator dentist office type music to Broadway shows to classical. I grew up a rock and roller, you know, loving the Beatles, the Monkeys, Steely Dan and on and on. So when, when I have to impose my eclectic taste onto an audience, my choices become limited.
But if I’m not studying a piece of music for an upcoming concert, I’m constantly listening to other music, whether it’s classical or pop, to stay in the know to stay, uh, informed about what’s going on. I’m listening to a lot of music by American composers like Mason Bates who likes to involve laptop, computer sounds with live orchestras. Uh, John Adams, who’s arguably one of the most famous, currently living American composer. He just turned 70, but he’s still writing music that seems very new. Um, I’m looking for pieces that I don’t know. I’m constantly looking for things that I’m not familiar with just to stay active in music, but I’d say the majority of my work as a conductor is learning and refreshing my memory about pieces that are the standard literature that it’s very difficult to label a piece brand new without any sort of foot in any traditional sound or period.
For example, I mentioned Mason Bates. He writes very tonal music, in other words, melodic. Yes, with a contemporary sound to it, but he doesn’t write atonal “bah bee boh boo bah beh” music that would be difficult for any listener to hold onto the grasp. He writes for standard Orchestra allbeit, he does write sort of computer sounds in it. Um, but again, he writes melodies. He writes traditional harmony. So if I’m, if I’m listening to a piece of Mason Bates, I hear influences of from composers in the past. Copeland, Tchaikovsky, you know, Oh, he uses that chord, the Tchaikovsky uses in such and such a piece.
So I don’t find that there are any sort of revolutionary composers that don’t have some link to the past. If I’m studying a piece of Mason Bates, I might relate it to Tchaikovsky somehow, or to Brahms or, or even to Leonard Bernstein who writes, you know, Broadway music, and as well as classical, serious, serious music, um, there’s always some link to the past in the music that I listened to and if it’s not linked to the past, I have a hard time relating to it.
Peter: Oh, Beethoven was contemporary at one time and he was revolutionary. People didn’t quite understand what he was writing back in the day, which sounds kind of funny to us, but he was a very revolutionary composer for his time. There is a book of reviews of what are now famous standard literature. But when Beethoven’s ninth was first performed in, in the United States in Boston, it got very bad reviews. Like, why is, why is there singing in a symphony that had never happened before? Why is, why did he write such a long piece of music? It was over 60 minutes and that had never happened before. So Beethoven wasn’t always understood and accepted in his day, so he was rather contemporary and revolutionary and we don’t think of that now. Um, and that’s why I have a hard time when audiences don’t accept what is new and fresh now because all music was new and fresh and one time. So I’m, you know, I’m, I’m trying to convince audiences to get out of their comfort zone and try something new.
Nelson: That was Peter Bay Conductor of the Austin Symphony Orchestra. Peter is an amazing man. He’s really done incredible things with the Austin symphony. If you’ve never been, you should go and go to a concert sometimes soon. His work is incredible. He’s modest, but he’s amazingly talented. If you haven’t listened to any of the recent episodes, definitely check them out. The last episode was with Michael Love, who’s a tap dancer here in town, doing some incredibly interesting things. Speaking of new works and I’ve got a ton of very interesting interviews coming up in the new year and hopefully we’ll have a couple over the holidays as well. Don’t forget to click subscribe and tell your friends about ATX UnBound.