The Memphis Symphony Orchestra’s recent performance of Ravel’s Bolero marked Robert Moody’s last visit to the Bluff City as a guest artist. Moody, who has served as Music Director for the Winston-Salem Symphony, Artistic Director of Arizona Musicfest, and Music Director of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, has been named to succeed Mei Ann Chen as the conductor of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. And the MSO’s newly announced 2016-17 season has Moody’s fingerprints all over it. The MSO and Moody have been courting since 2006, when he was first invited to guest conduct a special concert in honor of Elvis Presley's birthday. Here’s what Moody had to say about joining the MSO and his slow but steady journey to Memphis.
MM: Well, it took you long enough...
Robert Moody: First, I’m terribly excited. I’m a mammoth fan of the Memphis Symphony. I’ve been around and connected to the Memphis Symphony family going all the way back to 2006 when I first came and conducted the Elvis birthday concert. I went from the Elvis concert to other pops concerts, to masterworks concerts, to classic accents chamber concerts, and now to principal conductor and basically music directorship. I’ve run the gamut.
Was your first Elvis concert one where the orchestra backs up the enormous film projection of Elvis singing?
No. The ones I did were on Elvis’ birthday in January. And I’ve done them with Terry Mike Jeffrey who’s one of the key Elvis tribute artists, and one of the very few sanctioned by Graceland. One of my favorite memories: a special limited edition Elvis Harley Davidson was commissioned. There were only a very few of them and I got to ride out onto the stage of the Canon center on an Elvis Presley Harley. When I was studying at the Eastman School of Music I never thought that would happen.
What are the kinds of things you think about when you’re planning a concert season?
I think of a concert as being this amazing journey that all of us are on together in the room. The players in the orchestra, the conductor, the soloists, and the audience. It’s the one time in eternity that this group of people is all going to be together at one time under one roof. I want it to feel like we’re on a journey together. So I like for there to be a thread connecting the works together. Also, I tried to go go after repertory that I feel like I can say the most about. I wanted to bring that plus what I know about the Memphis Symphony, which is a lot. I wanted to bring what I know to be their great strengths to a repertory that will enable them to create buzz within the community. FInally I went looking for guest artists who are the best world class artists I can get my hands on, and also who tend to be some of my closest friends and colleagues. This is my 25th year out of grad school and I’ve gotten to a point where I have artists who are world class, and who are also world class human beings. They are friends and I simply love working with them.
Christoph Koncz is coming to be a guest conductor and violinist on one of the Classic Accents concerts. He is the principal violinist of the Vienna Philharmonic and he became famous for being the prodigy violinist in the movie The Red Violin. I can also tell you that he’s one of my closest friends and that three months ago I went hiking with him and his brother in the Vienna woods. I could also tell you that Ricardo Morales is arguably the finest clarinetist alive. He’s one of the funniest guys you’ve ever met. He plays with me at my festival in Arizona every year. He’s the greatest jokester in the world and making music with him is so easy. From 30,000 feet — instead of talking about too many concerts in detail — these are some of the things I’m excited about.
The MSO has some history of musician-driven initiatives, and innovative performance. I’m wondering what sorts of things you might have in mind that take advantage of that.
That might be a key reason, if not THE key reason, at the end of the day, that Memphis reached out to me. Because of my own experience of pushing out of the box experiences. My great interest and the conversations I love to have are about how can an orchestra be the most exciting, indispensable, and relevant 21st-Century orchestra it can be. I’ve said those words many times.
We have to be the keepers of the greatest music. We have to play Tchaikovsky, and Wagner, and Brahms, and play them at the highest levels. We have to. But we also have to push the envelope. We have to find out what living composers are doing and we have to find out what kinds of collaborations exist that nobody thought of 10, 20, or 100 years ago.
Can you provide some examples.
We’re doing a piece on Classic Accents called “Head Case.” It’s a piece written by a composer named Brett Dietz. Brett is now in his early 40s. He was 28-years-old and thought he was in perfect health when, one day out of the blue, he had a major stroke. It took him two months to learn to speak again, and feed himself, and write. Well, more like a two year process in all. He ended up taking his journals and turning his experience into a 40-minute work for a small orchestra and one singer. Electronic sounds infiltrate the piece. Also there’s a visual presentation on a screen above the ensemble. So you’re listening to audio clips of him learning to speak again, or looking at images of his writing while we play. The piece starts out with this attack on the brain — this chaos in the music — and ends 40-minutes later with him beginning to come back to a sense of sanity and calmness. It takes the listener and performers on a journey that’s unbelievable.
That sounds fantastic.
Another thing — Mason Bates is one of the most successful composers alive. He just finished five years in residence with Chicago Symphony and has just begun as composer in residence for the Kennedy Center. He’s writing a new opera about the life of Steve Jobs that premieres with the Santa Fe Orchestra in 2017. I’ve known Mason since he was 15 and I was a groomsman at his wedding. He’s one of my very best friends on the planet and he’s written a cello concerto that we’re doing next year. Josh Roman, a phenomenal cellist is coming to play it. Jason also moonlights as a deejay in San Francisco. He spins in clubs and has turned this amazing art of electronica into another instrument or color pallette that he uses along with orchestral instruments. So, in addition to the cello concerto we’re doing a piece called “Mothership” which calls for a traditional orchestra, but also calls for electronica. So Mason will be in Memphis with us He’ll be back up in the percussion section with a laptop and drum pad creating these sounds that really fill out the piece.
You also anticipate collaborations with local musicians?
In Memphis we can — it’s not a “we have to” it’s a “we can” and excitedly so — do more to connect Beale St. to the Cannon Center. And I mean “Beale St.” in quotes, right? Because I’m talking about music that comes from other parts of the city. We’ve got to get it into the orchestra and have fun doing it. Memphis is such a music town and there’s so much great music in so many different genres. And we want to be one of the key collaborators and partners in all kinds of music.