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In Conversation with Maestro Michael Repper


Michael Repper

Michael Repper is an American orchestral conductor. From 2017 to 2023, Repper was the Music Director of the New York Youth Symphony. During his tenure, he led the orchestra on a tour of Spain as well as in dozens of performances at Carnegie Hall. In 2023, Repper and the New York Youth Symphony won the Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Recording for their recording of works by Florence Price, Jessie Montgomery, and Valerie Coleman. Repper, 32, is currently the music director of the Ashland Symphony Orchestra, the Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra, and the Northern Neck Orchestra of Virginia.





Enthralled by his recording with the New York Youth Symphony, I reached out to Repper's management in 2023 for an interview. They kindly invited me to his farewell concert at Carnegie Hall, after which I had the privilege of speaking with him.

 

Interview by Alkis Karmpaliotis, Junior at Fieldston School, New York

June 30, 2023


Alkis Karmpaliotis: What sparked your interest in music, and when did you know you wanted to become a conductor?


Michael Repper: Well, I was first introduced to music because my grandmother used to take me to concerts for kids at the Pacific Symphony, where I grew up. I was only three or four years old, but my grandmother noticed that I was completely locked into what was happening on stage and she suggested to my mom that I take piano lessons. So, that’s how I first got involved in music. Really, my love for conducting came from a very early age: I was eight years old and I was at a children’s concert and someone handed me a baton and said “go conduct the orchestra,” and there was something so special in that moment that I decided I had to study it. Now the rest is history. So, case in point, those experiences from when I was an incredibly young person, very fortunate to have been given those opportunities and that I was in a place to be able to pursue them, were something of incredible fortune and I’m very, very lucky. Those experiences also inform a huge part of what I think music directing is, and how we should be looking out for young people, always.


AK: In 2017, you became the Music Director of the New York Youth Symphony. Tell me about your relationship with them over the last seven years.


MR: As I said, a huge part of my career and what has made me who I am are the experiences I had as a young musician. Everything I try to do as a conductor and as a music director is to pave forward the energy that people paved for me when I was a young kid, and so this was an opportunity of a lifetime to be the music director of the New York Youth Symphony. My first season started in 2017 and I concluded in 2023, this past year. It’s been an amazing experience for everybody. I have learned about myself and I have become a better musician because of these young people. We have all grown together and we have accomplished some tremendous things: we went on a tour of Spain, we won a Grammy award, we gave over a dozen world premieres at Carnegie Hall. It took the orchestra to exciting new levels. At my last rehearsal with them, I told them that it really was the opportunity of a lifetime to work with them and that, if I could leave them with a parting message, it would be to always have music be something that you can come to with joy and passion, and to never let the joy of music-making get lost. To be there, every Sunday, working with these wonderful young people was the opportunity of a lifetime.

Michael Repper Farewell Concert
Repper's Farewell Concert at Carnegie Hall

AK: In 2023, you won the Grammy award for Best Orchestral Recording for a recording that included works by Florence Price, Jessie Montgomery, and Valerie Coleman, beating out big names such as Gustavo Dudamel with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and John Williams with the Berlin Philharmonic. What went into making the album, and what did winning a Grammy mean to you and the orchestra?


MR: The logistics of making the album were far more complicated than making an album typically is, simply because we were doing it in November 2020. This was before there were any vaccines, so a method of recording a full orchestra had to be devised in such a way that it could be safe. The impetus behind doing the project, which came to me in April or May of 2020, was to try to provide an educational experience for the musicians — something that we could do that would be compelling during a pandemic. We never could have envisioned that that would end up winning a Grammy award and that wasn’t really the goal. So, we were thrilled for it and we were honored and shocked in a great way. For the young musicians and for me, it proves that there's really nothing young people can’t do when they put their minds to it and give it their all, and, maybe most importantly, have the resources to do it. Not all young people have those resources. It’s a great story of resiliency, fight, and drive, despite all the circumstances. You can hear it in the sound; I’m incredibly proud of the energy that that group played with over the last many years. Even for their standards — because the New York Youth Symphony is such a good orchestra, an insanely good orchestra — after the award, they played with a new level of energy, confidence, excitement, and joy, and that’s really something that can only happen after an award like that. That will follow them forever and it will follow me forever.


AK: Earlier this year, you gave your last performance as Music Director of the New York Youth Symphony with a performance that featured Mahler’s First Symphony, as well as Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and a world premiere by Sofia Rocha. I was at that concert — thank you for your invitation — and it was amazing. Tell me about the program.


MR: You mentioned we had a world premiere; the New York Youth Symphony, going back decades, has had a wonderful commissioning program, and every concert always has a world premiere on it that the New York Youth Symphony commissions. It’s very exciting that the New York Youth Symphony has the opportunity to work with young composers who haven’t had their music played at Carnegie Hall. It’s a phenomenal opportunity for everyone, for the young musicians in the orchestra to have the experience of playing this music is critical because [playing new music] is something that’s not done enough, I think, in high school and even conservatory. Having that experience as a teenager or as a conservatory student is critical, and the composers are always amazing. On this particular program, we had a piece by Sofia Rocha, who is a phenomenal, really excellent young composer. Her music is being played all over the country, and, in fact, the week before she came to us, her music was played at the Atlanta Symphony. She wrote a really great piece called Lies I told you four days ago. Then, we moved into two pieces that… Well, everyone has those pieces that, no matter how many times you hear it, no matter how many times it comes on the radio, no matter how many times it will play on your phone, you’ll listen to the entire thing because it just grabs you. Both, in the case of Chichester Psalms and Mahler-One, that’s the case. On a pure sonic level, I can’t really describe it, but it just hooks you. The first time I studied Chichester Psalms intently was when I was covering the late Bramwell Tovey at the St. Louis Symphony. I had heard it many times before, obviously, but that was the first time I’d studied it. That was maybe a decade ago, and I fell in love with it all over again. Fundamentally, both Mahler’s First Symphony and also Chichester Psalms are — I think I said this at the concert — about finding peace. With Mahler, it’s more a matter of finding peace from a self point of view, Mahler trying to search for the meaning of life and the meaning of peace within himself; Bernstein was making a little more of an outward gesture, in a sense, being very clear about how peace, love, and our future are in children, giving the second movement solo to a young soloist, for example, and the final message of the chorus being ‘behold, how good and wonderful it is when people dwell in unity.’ That’s the message of today. It’s said that it needs to be said but it is what it is. For so many reasons, both the Chichester Psalms and Mahler-One speak to me. I was excited to finally do Mahler-One with the New York Youth Symphony because we had been scheduled to do it in 2020, and it was one of those things that just constantly kept getting pushed until, finally, we made it to 2023 and were able to do it. It’s sad that it was my last concert, but I’m very proud of what we were able to accomplish.

Michael Repper Accepting a Grammy

AK: Now that your tenure with the New York Youth Symphony is over, what’s next?


MR: Last season, which is to say in 2022, I took two music directorships, one with the Ashland Symphony in Ohio and the other with the Mid-Atlantic Symphony in Maryland and Delaware. These are two professional orchestras, so it’s very exciting that I’ll be at the helm of both of those orchestras. I’m also the music director of the Northern Neck Orchestra of Virginia; this is an orchestra that I took over in 2015, when it was a community orchestra and I was a student at Peabody. That was my first music directorship; now it’s a professional orchestra. We’ve grown the orchestra like crazy over the last eight years; it’s completely unrecognizable from what it was, in a good way, and has a flourishing budget. I’m very proud of the development of the Northern Neck Orchestra, in particular, and for what it does for the community, which is maybe the most important thing. I’m also a guest conductor. I am going back to Brazil in August — I conducted OSESP, the São Paulo Symphony, several years ago — to conduct the Porto Alegre Symphony. That will be my debut with them. Then, in September, I’m going to China for the first time to perform, which will be great. I have many other concerts this year with a lot of exciting ensembles; I’m going to the Colorado Springs Philharmonic for the first time this season and the Lima Symphony for the first time. It’s exciting, but I think the work that gets me most excited is the work that I can do as a music director. That’s because the role of a music director is so much more than just conducting; the role of a music director really is to bring the organization into the community, and that’s how orchestras can thrive, that’s how orchestras can flourish. That’s the work that I’m looking forward to the most over the next couple of years.


AK: What are some of the differences between working with a Youth Orchestra versus orchestras with older musicians?


MR: I’ve done both for many, many years. Even when I was music director of the New York Youth Symphony, I was constantly working with adults and with professional orchestras of all kinds. I think that, always, the conductor has to bring passion and energy into the performance. Then, no matter whether you’re working with young people or working with older people, that energy will come through in the performance. I don’t really change how I operate; if I’m working with the New York Youth Symphony, I treat them as if I were working with the Baltimore Symphony. To me, it’s the same. Your expectations may change depending on what ensemble you’re working with and what may be possible but that doesn’t change how you act and how you go about the job. I don’t really switch anything on or off when I go work with different ensembles — I just try to be myself.


AK: Obviously, with an orchestra as amazing as the New York Youth Symphony, anything is possible.


MR: Even if it were an orchestra that weren't quite as advanced in terms of their abilities, it wouldn’t change how I go about it. It may change the top-level expectation that the conductor might have for the ensemble — the conductor might know that they may never get to a certain level — but you still approach it with the same level of energy and drive.


AK: Now let’s dive into the music. What composers and works would you identify as staples of your repertoire, and how have you developed your repertoire over time?


MR: This is a corny answer, and I’m sure you get it all the time, but I don’t really have anything that I would consider to be my staple; I have music that I’m particularly passionate to share. I’m very passionate about sharing American music. I think that it is really incumbent on American orchestras to be playing American music by American composers — in particular, music not just by dead white men or even living white men. I think that it’s incumbent on conductors to be sharing great works that represent the diversity of this wonderful country. That’s something that I’m very invested in, in general, and I take a great amount of pride in it. For example, when I go to Brazil in several weeks, I’m taking a piece that I did for the first time with the New York Youth Symphony, by Gabriela Lena Frank, that has never been done [in Brazil]. The idea is that, as an American composer going abroad, I want to bring something from here to there. Of course, I’ll never turn down doing a Rachmaninoff symphony or anything that really allows you to explore color. I’m just as passionate about music of the 18th and 17th centuries as well. I frequently conduct from the piano or the harpsichord. I just did a baroque concert a couple weeks ago where I conducted from the harpsichord — I really enjoy doing that as well. I just get excited about anything that’s exciting! I get excited working with repertoire that allows me to get out into the community. In that [baroque] concert, we did Bach and we also did a version of Handel’s Messiah called Too Hot to Handle, which is a gospel Messiah. We formed a chorus of community members from all over the country to come together to sing along with professional soloists and I got to conduct from the piano. I get just excited about that as I do conducting Mahler. I don’t really have an answer to what is my staple, but I’m particularly excited about working with composers who are living today and doing what I can from my position on the podium to make sure that the music we’re presenting is representative of the entire world.

Michael Repper playing the harpsichord

AK: That’s a wonderful project. It’s so amazing how music can engage and unite a community.


MR: I think it’s also the answer to how we increase our audience and our interest. That’s really what it is. People do respond to engagement.

Michael Repper with a young student

AK: On the topic of repertoire, do you happen to remember some of the earliest pieces you did, perhaps as a student? Are there certain pieces you’re waiting to tackle later on in your career?


MR: The very first thing that I ever conducted was at that kids concert where someone handed me a baton. The part of the story that I didn’t tell you was that they had me do the second movement of the Surprise Symphony by Haydn. I didn’t know it, so the surprise was just as much a surprise to me as it was to everyone else! There was something very shocking in that moment. If you count that, that would be the first thing that I ever conducted. Once I started studying officially with a teacher, the first pieces that we studied were the Bach orchestral suites and Beethoven-One. My first teacher was very wise to start this way because the suites, in the same way as studying Haydn chamber music or something like that, allow you to really think about your body. There’s nothing in that music that musicians really need a conductor for, more or less — you could easily perform them without a conductor — so it allows you to think about how you’re moving your body efficiently — or not efficiently, and how to fix it. One mistake that many conductors make is jumping immediately into doing something that is very complex. The reality is that you wouldn’t step in front of a piano and immediately start playing Beethoven sonatas or Rachmaninoff. You have to physically learn how to move your body in a way that you’re not used to. As for future pieces, there are some pieces coming up that I haven’t done yet in concert that I’m looking forward to doing. I mentioned I’m going to Brazil to do Shostakovich-Nine. I haven’t done Shostakovich-Nine before, so I’m looking forward to that; a really wonderful piece. In the fall, I’m doing a new piano concerto by Jessie Montgomery called Rounds for piano and strings; such a cool piece. It just premiered not long ago, and I’m going to perform it in October, conducting from the piano. This interview is actually a break for me from practicing that! I’m also looking forward to [performing] a piece I’ve done before: in Colorado Springs in April, Michelle Cann and I will be reunited; she’s going to do the Florence Price piano concerto, and that’ll be the first time we’ve done the Price concerto since we recorded it. That is something that’s on the radar that’s coming up.


AK: Many readers are interested in learning more about the lifestyle that comes with being a professional musician. How do you balance the workload and travel of your career with other aspects of your life?


MR: That’s a really good question. It’s both easy and difficult. There are easy things about it and there are difficult things about it. You get used to the travel; it becomes a part of the job. For me, it becomes a fun part of the job because I’m frequently getting to see new places that I haven’t been to. Then, there are places that I’ve been to that I’ll go back to and get to experience again. The travel part of it is fun, but it can be difficult to be away from home for a long time. There are people you love — and your pets. I just try to always be present. It’s part of being a conductor, and it’s exciting. You just try to take your life one day at a time.

Michael Repper

AK: One thing that we have in common is that we both strive to make classical music more appealing and accessible to young audiences – you with your incredible music-making and work with the New York Youth Symphony, and me here on AppreciateOpera.org. What are some suggestions or tips you have that might encourage children to give such music a chance?


MR: To answer your first question, I actually think that young people are more interested in classical music now than they’ve ever been. There’s actually an amazing study that came out in the BBC that actually shows that there’s immense interest from young people — this was from the United Kingdom but I think it’s representative. The interest from young people is there. Look on TikTok: there’s an unbelievable amount of young people who are there for classical music. The problem is that classical music institutions have put up walls. There are basic ones, like the fact that going to the hall is expensive. Many orchestras have attempted to combat this by having special ticket packages — we do that at the Ashland Symphony and at the Mid-Atlantic Symphony. When I was in Baltimore, the Baltimore Symphony had this amazing thing called the Passport that let you get a ton of tickets for free. In Ashland, we have what’s called the Fan Club, where you can pay a little bit of money and discounted tickets to everything. But if we want people — not just young people but all people — to get more interested, we need to make it more accessible, we need to make it more engaging, we need to entertain better, we need to teach people better. We need to make it so that coming to the concert hall is a rewarding experience that is fun and engaging and educational. I’ll give you an example of something I’ve done that’s worked. In Ashland, we have this thing called the Fan Club. It started really as a marketing thing, but part of the perks of joining the Fan Club — this was for high school students and college kids — was that they got to go to dinner with the music director. The first time we did this, the group was small, but we went for dinner. We were chatting and one of the young women — she was sixteen — said, “more than anything else, I want to be a conductor.” I was like, “great, why don’t you be my conducting student? I will teach you how to do it, I will let you conduct in a concert,” and she did an amazing job. Another one was interested in being a luthier, so I texted my friends to figure out who in the Cleveland area was a luthier, and we got internships set up. Another one was interested in being a drummer in musicals, so I connected him with people that he could chat with. We invited them to rehearsals and let them sit on the stage and learn. Wouldn’t you know that word of this engagement spread, the Fan Club has grown significantly, and there is now this contingent of high school and college kids who bring their families. It has now become the cool hangout spot for young people in Ashland, Ohio. This was done without all that much effort. In the classical music field, we do a lot of building and hoping people will come; but we have to actually take what we’ve built and bring it to people. A lot of that means tearing down the walls, erasing the rules about clapping during performances, erasing dress codes. It means doing everything that we can do to make the concert experience accessible and engaging. Orchestras need to be community-focused.

 

I'm Alkis Karmpaliotis, and I'm a Junior at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York. I hope you enjoyed this interview! I founded AppreciateOpera.org in 2019, and you can support my work by signing up and reading some of my other articles!

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A trove of incredible ideas on engaging young people and enriching their lives with the highest art ever produced by humanity

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Well-written and engaging article! Congrats!

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very insightful

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