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American conductor Joel Revzen


Joel Revzen has received numerous accolades from the press for his conducting prowess:

Richard Dyer of The Boston Globe called him '... a musician of substance who knows Rossini style and can make it sparkle' in his critique of L'Italiana in Algeri at Berkshire Opera. In reviewing The Consul at The Washington National Opera in the magazine Opera News, Tim Smith said 'Joel Revzen conducted with clarity, propulsion and abundant feeling.' Writing of Arizona Opera's rendition of The Flying Dutchman, Dimitri Drobatschewski of The Arizona Republic called Revzen '... a knowledgeable conductor who kept things lively but under control.'

Joel Revzen. Photo © John Hall
Joel Revzen. Photo © John Hall

Thus it was with great anticipation that I arrived to interview the revered conductor in his Phoenix, Arizona, office on a warm late autumn day.

Maria Nockin: Did you come from a musical family?

Joel Revzen: I did in a way. My parents were both in business, but my mother was an amateur violinist. When other families had their friends come over to play cards, my mother invited her friends to play string quartets. I started piano lessons when I was five years old and kept it up through my years at Juilliard, so I studied piano for well over twenty years. I also studied cello for three years while I was in Chicago because I wanted to have a grounding in a stringed instrument.

After high school, I spent one year at the University of Illinois as a psychology major, although I also studied piano there with Igor Stravinsky's son, Soulima. I remained interested in psychology even after I switched my major to music, and I took psychology courses throughout my time at Juilliard. After that first year of college in Illinois, however, I realized that I would either have to give up music completely or pursue it as a vocation. I knew that music was not something I could 'dabble' in and be satisfied.

MN: When did you begin to study conducting?

JR: After my year at the University of Illinois, I returned to Chicago and began to study with Maestro Jean Martinon, who was then the Music Director of the Chicago Symphony. I was his only student, and we often had sessions in which he helped me learn how to analyze scores. Obviously, he could not let me practice conducting with his orchestra, but he did arrange for me to attend rehearsals which were usually closed to almost everyone. Thus, I got to watch him work several times a week.

Eventually, Maestro Martinon recommended that I attend Leopold Stokowski's seminars in New York and I was privileged to do so. I also felt that I needed to continue pursuing my degree, and so I auditioned late in the summer for the Juilliard School, and was lucky enough to be accepted there three weeks before the fall term began. I earned both my Bachelors and Masters degrees there.

When I arrived at Juilliard, my colleagues included many conducting students. James Conlon, Dennis Russell Davies, Leonard Slatkin, and John Nelson were among them. It was a golden age of instrumentalists. Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman were there, as well as Misha Dichter, Emanuel Ax, and Garrick Ohlsson. At that time the school only accepted five hundred students, so many of us knew each other. I happened to be in a conducting class with Itzhak. I remember that one time when it was my turn to conduct, he picked up his violin and played the first movement of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, which he had already played with major orchestras throughout the world. I had many rich musical experiences during my degree programs.

MN: How did you happen to form an orchestra?

JR: The only problem with my schooling was that there was no way of getting enough practice time in front of an orchestra. For that reason, I started the Claremont Chamber Orchestra. Although I had no way of paying them, some of the best instrumentalists came to play for me. Violinists Ani Kavafian and Linda Kwan came, along with Eric Wilson, the original cellist of the Emerson Quartet, and Martin Smith who became the principal French horn player of the New York Philharmonic.

They all became part of that orchestra. I persuaded the Jewish Theological Seminary across the street to let us use their space on Sunday evenings, and I did everything. I set up chairs and music stands, marked parts, etc. The musicians had only to come and make music. They came every week for two years! I told them I was doing this because I wanted to learn my craft, so they were generous and forthcoming with constructive suggestions which I welcomed.

Joel Revzen conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in music by Libby Larsen at Abbey Road Studios in January 1996. Photo © Libby Larsen
Joel Revzen conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in music by Libby Larsen at Abbey Road Studios in January 1996. Photo © Libby Larsen

At Juilliard, I studied both choral and orchestral conducting. While there, I won the Frank Damrosch Prize for Excellence in Choral Conducting. However, I knew that I wanted to focus primarily on orchestral conducting. It is my belief that if you are a conductor, you need to know how to work with all of your forces: orchestra, choral and vocal, so that you are able to conduct operas and symphonies as well as masterpieces of the choral-orchestral repertoire such as the Brahms and Verdi Requiems.

Just as opera pianist/coaches, when conducting, need to know how to deal with the orchestra effectively; symphonic conductors who find themselves working in opera have to learn to deal with singers. That includes knowing how to breathe with them and, of course, a knowledge of the languages involved. In reality, by the time singers are in performance on stage they have learned their musical phrasing, articulation, etc. They are concentrating on movement and bringing their characters to life. Although they may need occasional entrance cues, the conductor can still give real attention to the orchestra.

What singers do need is someone who listens carefully to them, giving them support through orchestral accompaniment that provides balance, texture and graceful phrasing. Those are the things I focus on. On the other side of the coin, not having spent years as an opera coach, I am still building the size of my operatic repertoire. Just as I spent many years concentrating on symphonic literature, I now turn my complete attention to building my opera repertoire.

From 1972 to 1984, I was at the St Louis Conservatory of Music. For the latter ten of those twelve years, I was its dean. When I started there, we had eleven students and a budget of $50,000. When I left we had 120 students from 26 states and 13 foreign countries, and a budget of $2.74 million. Colin Graham did our staging and Stephen Lord was our opera coach. John Wustman was in charge of vocal literature and Edward Zambarra was one of our voice teachers. We did a great deal of opera, much of which I conducted.

MN: How did you meet Valery Gergiev?

JR: In 1984, I became Assistant Conductor of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO), as well as the Music Director of the Minnesota Chorale, the chorus for both the SPCO and the Minnesota Orchestra. A few years later, Gergiev came to conduct the Minnesota Orchestra and since there was no resident conductor at that time I was asked to cover and assist him. When I met him before a rehearsal, he asked me to start the rehearsal so he could listen to the acoustics. One of his strengths is that he is a genuine 'sound meister'. After ten minutes I looked back, but he motioned me to continue. He only conducted the last half hour, after which he thanked me and said my work was helpful.

At the end of the week, he asked if I had ever conducted Hector Berlioz' Damnation of Faust. When I replied that I had, he asked if I would like to join Esa-Pekka Salonen and some other conductors at the Russian White Nights Festival at the Mariinsky Theater in St Petersburg. I was there for five weeks conducting performances of the Berlioz work.

Another time Maestro Gerghiev called me when I was in North Dakota conducting the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony. When I picked up the phone I heard his deep, Russian accented voice asking if I had ever conducted Berlioz' Roméo et Juliette. He asked me to substitute for him on the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. It was my greatest thrill to stand where Berlioz himself had once stood conducting that piece.

Joel Revzen with Arleen Augér at Aspen in 1989. Photo © Charles Abbott
Joel Revzen with Arleen Augér at Aspen in 1989. Photo © Charles Abbott

Also, in the 1980s, I taught conducting in the summers at Aspen. That is where I met Arleen Augér and played recitals for her. A recording we made together, the Grammy winning Art of Arleen Augér, was taken from one of the Aspen recitals. In 1991, I began working at Berkshire Opera and I was there for fourteen years.

MN: When did you begin to work as an assistant conductor at the Met?

JR: 1999 was my first season at the Met. They engaged me to do two orchestral rehearsals of Tchaikovsky's Pique Dame (The Queen of Spades), performances of which were to be conducted by Gergiev. The next year I prepared Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier and covered Maestro James Levine. It was a great thrill working with Renée Fleming, Susan Graham and Heidi Grant Murphy. I rehearsed it for a month before Maestro Levine took over. Then, I saw this masterpiece through his eyes, and it was a revelation for me.

MN: When did you take over Arizona Opera?

JR: In 2003, I became the Artistic Director of Arizona Opera. We balanced our budget for 2007-2008, and we ended last season nineteen percent above the previous year. Current ticket sales are twelve percent ahead of last year, too. In a couple of years we hope to be totally debt free, so it is my belief that we are now in a better position to move the company forward than ever before. Our challenge is that we are pioneers in developing a tradition of cultural philanthropy here in this state.

There are few major corporate headquarters here, so we have to get most of the support for our $7 million budget from individuals. Many opera lovers who live here now still send their contributions back to the opera companies they grew up with, but we are building strong relationships with them here in Arizona.

Our outreach program helps build future audiences. This year we are offering a one-hour version of Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore. We will reach forty thousand kids with performances in middle schools by our Marion Roose Pullin Arizona Opera Studio artists.

Joel Revzen outside the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, before the Merola Grand Finale Concert on Saturday 16 August. Photo © 2008 Cynthia Rhys
Joel Revzen outside the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, before the Merola Grand Finale Concert on Saturday 16 August. Photo © 2008 Cynthia Rhys

MN: What will you conduct during the 2008-2009 season?

JR: After Arizona Opera's production of The Mikado in November, I go to Florida Grand Opera for Rossini's La Cenerentola. Then I come back to the Southwest to lead Arizona Opera's productions of Don Giovanni and Tosca in February and March. In April, I go to Italy for the San Remo Festival to conduct a concert of Beethoven and Respighi. After that, I go to Northwestern University and the Chautauqua Festival for productions of Menotti's The Consul.

Copyright © 7 December 2008 Maria Nockin, Arizona USA


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