In the first of Leesburg Today’s Sitting In With the Symphony series, we spoke with Mark Allen McCoy, conductor and music director of the Loudoun Symphony Orchestra. In addition to sharing insights about his personal life, McCoy also got down to the nitty gritty of orchestral operations, including details on his conducting style, the make-up of the orchestra and more. Below, find our extended conversation.
Leesburg Today: How did you develop your style? Do you always use a baton?
Maestro McCoy: I’ve gone through different stages in my career where I’ve dropped the baton. I know one season very early on [with the Loudoun Symphony] I worked without a baton for the entire season. I was looking at different conductors and studying with different people, trying to be more expressive, more communicative…I thought that by getting rid of the baton and having two hands available, as opposed to just having a stick in one hand, I thought I could be more involved and more engaged with the orchestra.
I still [conduct without the baton] on occasion depending on the piece and the sound I want to get out of the orchestra. I found that after looking at lots of tape with the baton in my hand and the baton out of my hand, from the orchestra standpoint…visually it looks better to me to have [the baton].
I go back and forth. There’s not much of a technical difference—the baton is an extension of the arm, an extension of the hand. You do have to work to control the end of the baton, and without it you can create the same kind of gestures that the end of the baton would have…
I had a teacher who said ‘two people can’t talk at once.’ It’s the same with two hands—you’re trying to communicate with the orchestra and you have both your hands talking to the orchestra at once, doing different things. The orchestra is going to focus on [whichever hand] is the loudest or most obnoxious—the one that’s furthest out in front…
Without the baton, the hands are more equal, but he premise still applies—two people talking to you at the same time, at times, so you have to be very careful about trying to do too much with both hands at one time.
LT: Is there a difference between conducting just the orchestra and conducting an opera, ballet or chamber ensemble?
MM: Yes absolutely—it's not so much apples versus oranges, but there are differences; even between orchestras. [The Loudoun Symphony musicians and I have] been together a long time—they know me very well and there’s an extreme comfort level on both parts.
Guest conducing different levels of orchestra, whether it’s youth orchestras or the Baltimore Symphony, I always approach it the same way. But when you’re working with dancers—I’ve worked a lot with the Loudoun Ballet and always had an affinity for working with dancers…
You have to have some knowledge and be aware of what the dancers are doing, and you have to be a little more flexible in your repertoire and tempos and so forth. If you just stand in front of the orchestra and you decide this is the tempo were going to take [it won’t go well]. You have to be a bit more flexible.
Same thing when you’re doing opera. You have singers on stage, often dancers on stage—orchestrally there are so many different elements. And, now you have stage managers and stage directors that have even more power today than they did back in the day when everything kind of came from the music.
Now stage directors have an unbelievable amount of power, and everything comes from the action on the stage, and you’re winding up having to adjust Mozart’s great works to accommodate what’s going on on stage, and that’s a very frustrating aspect of modern-day opera.
For opera, it’s all about he singers and what you can do to accommodate and help with the singers, because they’re up there, totally exposed.
So, I think now flexibility is the key to conducting different groups and even orchestras outside of the country, depending on where you’re at. European orchestras react and act differently than Russian orchestras…Asian orchestras act differently than European orchestras, and so on.
LT: Are you ever looking for consistency when conducting different international orchestras? Should the music always sound the same no matter who is playing?
MM: I’m always looking for the best possible performance. Certain works I’ve conducted many, many, many, times—certainly I don’t want it to be the same as the last time I conducted it. I have an interpretation of what comes out of the score and how I feel things should go, but I’m always surprised by what orchestras and musicians will bring to a piece that maybe I hadn’t thought of before, and I have to evaluate very quickly if I like it or don’t like it, or if it fits with what were trying to do.
It’s more about how the orchestras are reacting to conductors. In this country, most orchestras now are so quick—American orchestras have the best-trained musicians in the world now. They react almost simultaneously when you show them something.
European orchestras will react a little bit later. When I was in Russia conducing for the first time, I was amazed at how late [the musicians] responded to my gestures. I was almost two beats ahead of them before they responded to my first suggestion, and I had to adjust a little bit to that. It was something I was not used to.
LT: What accounts for those differences?
MM: I think [the musicians]—again they react to what you do—American orchestras if you give them something, they almost anticipate where [your next direction is] going to be, so they’re almost right with you. Russian orchestras will wait until you change direction [with the baton]—they were actually responding at the top of my beat, where I change direction to go to the next beat.
There are advantages and disadvantages to that—you can show them everything way ahead of time, they’ll process it, and then they’ll play. But if you’re not used to it as a conductor, your first instinct is to wait for them, and if you wait for them, then you’re behind and everything grinds to a halt.
Same way with orchestras here—if you know they’re going to anticipate you a little bit, you don’t want to be behind, but you don’t want things to start to rush, either.
Every orchestra is a little different. Everyplace I go, for the most part, I’ve had great experiences all over the world with diff orchestras. It’s a joy to see how they work and feel the excitement of the performance.
LT: Talk a bit about how much of your job as conductor is a performance in and of itself.
MM: It’s interesting—the job of conducting, especially with young conductors just getting started, is they don’t realize the actual physical aspect of standing on the podium is about 10 percent. What you do in preparing for that 10 percent is 90 percent of the job. Preparation, programming, performing—all these things along with administrative things…
As far as when you’re actually on the podium, that’s changed and morphed over the years. Orchestras, search committees and so forth are looking to go younger with conductors. Some of the greatest conducting teachers now—I’ve talked with a couple of them and I’m getting a little frustrated because when they’re looking for conductors to train, they’re not so much looking for natural conducting talent, it’s all now about how tall or short or thin or fat, beautiful or ugly, and if you have musicality, and then we’ll train you as a conductor.
Back in the day, the greatest conductors didn’t really move a whole lot on the podium. You have this kind of visual picture of these grey-haired older conductors, with the tails- [Leopold] Stokowski with the wild hair and [Arturo] Toscanini kind of planting their feet on the podium…
I’ve never been that type of person. I dance a little bit on the podium, I tend to move around a little bit…that was kind of frowned upon when I was much younger, but now I don’t think its that big of a deal. I still try to stay focused on the podium, and there is certainly a visual aspect from the orchestra’s point of view….
From an audience standpoint I think it’s a much bigger deal, even though they’re seeing my backside most of the time [laughs]. People do go hear the orchestra based on perhaps what the conductor looks like, whether the conductor talks to them or turns around, what the soloist looks like—it has become a very visual aspect to the performance. Its’ no longer just the orchestra coming to the stage and playing—a lot of concerts are so multimedia in this day and age. You try and do a little bit of everything at your concerts, to get people’s attention and keep their attention.
LT: Describe all the parts of an orchestra—including the administrative side and what your job as Music Director entails.
MM: There are lots of moving parts. For the Loudoun Symphony, we only do a certain amount of concerts every year, and we don’t have a $1 million budget…yet. We still have a board, and the board is a great board—we have an executive director, office staff…I have two librarians that I work with. With the orchestra itself I have player representatives, an artistic committee…and that’s where the music director side [of my job] comes in.
[As Music Director] I’m providing a vision for the board, planning concerts, site visits of where were going to play, programming—I spend a lot of time thinking about programming. I’m responsible for [booking] all the soloists, and I assist the librarians with what they need to do.
On top of that I do pre-concert lectures, I write my own program notes for the concerts, doing interviews, promoting the symphony, meeting with donors…
For some time we’ve had a very good core group of folks—the board, the administrators—they all work well together.
We have about 60-65 members of the orchestra, and of course we can bulk up and bring in extra players if I’m doing a Bruckner or a Mahler symphony, or of course cut down to a chamber size group if we’re doing smaller works.
We have a basic orchestra—first, second violins, violoncello bass, winds. We have a core group for the winds—basically triple winds—and that’s kind of the extended orchestra. Three flutes, three oboes, three clarinets, three bassoons, along with the auxiliary instruments of piccolo, English horn, bass clarinet—our bass clarinet is also a doubler on saxophone, for if I do French works and need a sax—our contrabassoon player lives up in Pennsylvania, and he’ll come down if I need him. We also have four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, a tuba, and I carry about five to six people in the percussion section, along with if I need to bring in a harpist, or a pianist. So that’s kind of the core.
LT: How do you choose which musicians will become section chairs?
MM: To play in the orchestra everyone has to audition at some point. We don’t re-audition the orchestra every year, but we do hold auditions every year because, for example, somebody who is in a principal chair, or an assistant principal chair, may move on or we may have room for other players in a section. But all the chairs whether they’re principal chairs, assistant principal chairs or section chairs, they’re all auditioned.
I [conduct the auditions alongside] members of my artistic committee. I think all of us are looking for something different than the next person. [Musicians] have to have the basics, first of all. You have to be able to play the right notes in the right rhythms…if you don’t play the right notes at the right time, then the audition is very short, and you don’t have a chance.
Beyond that, certain members of the committee are looking for a certain sound, and I am too a little bit. I’m looking for the best musician. It all comes down to musicality…they all may have a little different sound depending on which instrument they play, but if it’s an acceptable versus a very beautiful sound, that comes down to musicality. And the person with the best musicality wins the job.
We have set excerpts that are available way before the audition date comes, If I’m auditioning for a concert master, the list [of what the musician has to play] is going to be longer, there’s going to be some solo works, a little bit of a concerto…if we’re looking for section players or assisting players, the list tends to be shorter. And we’ve auditioned section players with just three or four excerpts, but everybody has to play the same excerpts. That’s the only way you can really compare. If you say bring in whatever you want, you’ll get everything under the sun, and that really doesn’t show us anything.
LT: The Loudoun Symphony Orchestra does many different kinds of concerts, ones that perhaps fall outside the typical realm, such as the family concert. How do you pick the music for your programs and, is it all you, or do you collaborate with the musicians?
MM: I guess the whole process starts with me and it ends with me, but there are a lot more people involved in between. I’m always open to suggestions from orchestra members. I’ve had suggestions from board members saying ‘I’d love to hear this or that…’ My board is really great, and over the 14 years there have been times where we’ve butted heads a little bit, but those are isolated situations and for the most part the board lets me do what I do.
Over the years I have gotten very good suggestions and I have taken those suggestions and programmed those pieces. The artistic committee has the biggest say—as I’m programming next season and thinking about all the collaborations we’re going to do with outside groups, when I’m starting the process I’ll say send me what you guys would like to do, and certain members of the artistic committee will send me a couple things, and others will send me pages!
I will kind of think about the dates we have, the type of programs we need to do…if they’re purely classical concerts, pops concerts, the family concert, or a mix of things. Or whether we’re doing a composer competition, introducing a new work, and how to program with that.
So there’s a lot of hours spent trying to put those programs together and once I have an outline of what kind of events we’ll do, I’ll put everything on paper. For some concerts I will actually program three different options for that date, then meet with artistic committee. I’ll let them look at everything and we’ll discuss and see what their thoughts are—whether they feel very strongly that we’re all in agreement, or we’ll discuss certain things and I may move this or that piece off, and in the end I’ll make the final decision of what we’re going to do, and we’ll go with that.
If there are any changes that have to be made during the year, at any time, depending on what they are, if they’re minor things I’ll just change it. But if they’re major changes in the program I’ll meet with [the artistic committee] and say we have a problem…actually, a lot of orchestras are struggling with rental costs. We might need the music for an extended period of time and the publishing houses are not being all that helpful and so, if I change a certain piece, we can save $1,000 in rental costs.
We did it this season with our concert in April…I ran into a problem with a couple of the publishing houses. The rental fees were much higher than I had anticipated or planned on, and we needed some things for an extended amount of time and they wouldn’t give us a break. And I hate changing programs once they’re in print—I spent a lot of time coming up with that program, so I hate to change it!
If there’s a problem like that, or we’re running into personnel problems, I’ll look at it and say, look, I think we should make a change. I’ve maybe done that once or twice in my 14 years and for this April we did it. We saved about $1,200 in rental costs, and the program is still intact and it’s still an exciting program, but it was just the reality of the situation—it had to be done.
LT: How long do you have to rehearse a program?
MM: It varies according to the program. We’ve done anywhere from two rehearsals for pops, family, special events, to, including dress rehearsal, maybe six rehearsals for bigger programs.
I always try, if we have soloists, to have two rehearsals with them. Early on there were a couple of occasions where the soloists couldn’t make themselves avail for two rehearsals, so they came in for one and it [made the performance] uncomfortable…
LT: How far in advance are you figuring out the next season’s program?
MM: Ours is a working orchestra during the season, and we’re off in the summertime. We have shortened our season a little bit the last couple years just to survive, like many orchestras. [The season used to be] May to June, but we decided we needed to eliminate that. This year we added a concert earlier with the 1812 [An American Celebration Concert], and for next season we’re looking at adding more concerts, because the viability, feasibility and economic situation has gotten better for the symphony…
July and August are really hard to do concerts. We have talked about trying based on the success of the 1812 concert…perhaps to hold them at Ida Lee, perhaps of doing a short summer concert series…In the back of my mind I have some ideas for maybe a one- or two-concert series in collaboration with the ballet or something like that. A lot of musicians leave or go on vacation during the summer, go on vacation…frankly I take the whole month of July off for vacation. But, we’re not closed to the idea of those types of things.
LT: Are Loudoun Symphony musicians paid or volunteer?
MM: We have a very unique tiering system with the orchestra because of the way it started. The orchestra was established 23 years ago purely as a community orchestra, and it has morphed from that. When I came here there was so much excitement about moving the orchestra forward, and they were at a time where they needed to stop thinking of themselves as a little ma and pa family orchestra, and start thinking as a business. If they wanted to survive and go forward, they had to be a business.
So I convinced them to drop the ‘community’ out of the title and just become the Loudoun Symphony. That being said, we have a very unique system where we have people that are still volunteers in the orchestra—we even have a couple of original members from those years ago, I think—maybe one or two that are still playing.
Early on they set up a tiering system where they realized that to have some talent in the orchestra there were going to have to be some paid chairs. Over the years we have increased the number of paid chairs—some people get an honorarium assignment, plus mileage, some people are only paid mileage and some don’t get paid anything.
And if the need arises we also have a per-service fee we pay players if we need to bring them in. So it’s a very unique system, and it’s a very fine line to walk with the orchestra, with those who are being compensated, those who are being somewhat compensated and those who aren’t being compensated at all. But I think over the years we’ve had a very good atmosphere in the orchestra…and for the most part, we don’t have a problem with [the tiered payment system].
LT: Is any music off-base when you’re figuring out programming?
MM: Not really. Early on there was a lot, and there were a lot of things I wouldn’t program because the orchestra wasn’t ready, and there were a few pieces I didn’t program because I wasn’t ready.
And I think for conductors it’s all a little different. You don’t do something until it speaks to you and you’re ready to do it. For some conductors it’s modern repertoire, for others it’s a Brahms Symphony—very standard, but that particular conductor may be fine doing Stravinsky and Boulez, really complicated stuff, but they’re not ready to do a Brahms Symphony, because it doesn’t speak to him.
I trained really well. I studied really hard and I had a big repertoire ready to go when I first got into the business. But, there were certain things here, because of the technical level of the orchestra that I wouldn’t think of.
Now this orchestra could play about anything, frankly. Certain pieces I don’t do because of other forces—it’s too expensive, we can’t afford to bring in all the extra players, or two harps to do most of the French music—so it becomes more of a cost consideration.
As far as the talent level [of the Loudoun Symphony Orchestra], the last two years the Mahler and the Bruckner Symphonies show me they can play just about anything. And we’ve done a lot of new music, contemporary music and some premieres and they have done really well with that also.
LT: What conductors/musicians/musical bodies inspire you?
MM: When I was very young—maybe eighth grade—I saw Zubin Mehta, who used to be the Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, conducting Beethoven’s [Symphony No.] 9 on TV, and I was just in awe. I was inspired, and I told my mother, that’s what I want to do.
My parents are not musicians, but I always remembered that. I can still see myself in front of the TV… so that was always in the back of my mind.
[The famous classical guitarist] Christopher Parkening was a huge influence on me growing up, not just from a guitar standpoint, but also from a musicality standpoint. I wore out his recordings. In college I got to play a master class for him, and it was his incredible sense of musicality that got to me.
Modern-day conductors—I always have been a big admirer of Claudio Abbado, Simon Rattle…
I’ve never tried to imitate them. I think I enjoy their work because of their interpretations. They’re smart, knowledgeable interpretations. They really know the score. Both of them are so incredibly musical—physically they don’t look anything like one another, but I think it’s the musicality [that I most enjoy].
LT: What’s your favorite thing to conduct?
MM: Whatever I’m conducting at the time! [laughs] I really enjoy the varied aspect of conducting and programming.
I told [my wife] I enjoy doing pop concerts as much as I do conducting big romantic works like Rachmaninoff, I have an affinity for Haydn Symphonies and for Haydn in general—those two composers are 150, 200 years apart!
But I also enjoy the pop stuff. I’ve been told that I’m very good at [conducting] it…I don’t know if that’s good or not. [laughs]
I really try and make whatever I’m conducting at the moment the most important thing at that moment
LT: You mentioned you refrain from listening to recordings of pieces you’re about to conduct—do you liken that to, for example, an actor not wanting to watch another’s performance of the same role, in order to not be unduly influenced in his own interpretation?
MM: It is a little bit like that. If I am thinking about a certain piece down the road and I have time and it’s a long ways out, or I’m kind of interested in what a conductor does here or there, and it’s way ahead of time, I’ll listen to it. Then I have time to say, oh that’s interesting or I don’t like that and I’ll think about it.
But once I really start forming an opinion about the interpretation of a piece, I try not to [listen] to it.
LT: That’s interesting, because I think most people think of the symphony’s interpretation of a piece of music, rather than the conductor’s interpretation. When you do listen to a recording, are you visualizing what the conductor is doing to make a certain piece of music sound a certain way?
MM: It’s not picturing what he’s doing, because I’ve never tired to imitate physical movements. That’s one thing about recordings—especially now there’s so much on YouTube and DVD—you can actually see [the conductor]. But on CDs or albums, all you have is the music coming through.
And if you have the score in front of you and you know the music really well, you can say oh, well, the music slows up a little bit here or it speeds up a little bit here, and it may not be in the score, it’s the conductor and the orchestra deciding how much to do.
Or from an orchestration standpoint, on one recording, you can’t hear the horns at all, versus this recording the horns are very prominent and they’re more of a priority. So, musically, why is that? Was it a good decision or a bad one? Does it fit with your model of that piece?
When I was younger I did use recordings, but only when I was learning concertos. I would start with a score, learn and study the score. I had a teacher who said ‘Memorize the solo part. If you memorize the solo part you will be able to stay with any soloist and that’s the most important thing. That’s where you start.’
When I was younger I would learn these concertos, then get about half a dozen different recordings, with six different soloists, then put on the recording and conduct and see if I could stay with the soloist, because they all have different interpretations.
When the soloist comes in for rehearsal, you don’t have time to get to know them. You might have half an hour before the rehearsal to talk about a few spots, then you just go. So that technique actually helped me be very flexible with different soloists.
[When I began to consider a piece] the music had already been learned. I did not listen and watch the music until I thoroughly knew the score and thoroughly knew the solo part, down to the 16th note, and then it was more of a casual activity. Kind of throw the recording on, walk around the living room, anticipate the tempo changes, put the next recording on, dig into that spot again, make the adjustments…It helps to know that not every soloist plays this concerto exactly the same. Some people are really wild and you have to be really flexible, some are very easy.
I only did that with concertos, not with any other of the repertoire. If I was interested in a piece I would either listen to a recording way, way before I even began to form an opinion about the piece, or I would wait until after the performance, and then at some point pull it out and listen to it.
If I can’t [work out the orchestration just by studying it], I’ll stick it on the keyboard and pound out some different things to figure out what’s going on so I can hear it a little better. I’ll imagine the textures or some of the harmonies—if the harmonies are very difficult, I’ll see what the progressions are and play through some of the harmonies, sing the melodies as I play them through to see how they all fit together.
LT: Do you still play the guitar?
MM: Occasionally I will take out the guitar and work on repertoire…I’ll take the keyboard out, sit and pick through scores…As far as performing, I really don’t do it anymore. I don’t have the time to keep up the level that I would like to have and be able to continue to perform.