April 2006

An Interview with Maestro Kerry Stratton
by Stanley Fefferman
In the course of his career, Maestro Stratton has conducted orchestras in France, Italy, Norway, Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic, Russia, Lithuania, Mexico, the United States and Canada.

In 1988 Kerry Stratton was appointed Conductor and Music Director of the Toronto Philharmonia, the orchestra-in- residence at the Toronto Centre for the Arts. In January 2001, he became the first Canadian to conduct the St. Petersburg Camerata in the Hermitage Theatre at the Winter Palace.

Recent guest engagements include concerts with the Janacek Philharmonic, as well as the Czech Radio Orchestra during the 2000-2001 season. For his services to Czech and Slovak culture, Mr. Stratton is the 2000 winner of the Masaryk Award.

The following interview took place on April 1st, 2006, in Toronto.

The Live Music Report Your repertoire includes many operas and full orchestral works. Right now, you are on a cross-Canada tour with a chamber ensemble, the Vienna Concert-Verein, which you have brought home to the Toronto Centre for the Arts for a performance on April 6.

What is your focus when conducting a chamber ensemble?

Kerry Stratton It is the difference between driving a huge luxury sedan, or getting into a quickly responding sports car. I like them both, but I’ve really enjoyed working with the smaller, agile ensemble. They can turn on a dime. I just love it.

LMR Would you care to say something about your new project, the 21 piece Grand Salon, Canada's Palm Court Orchestra?

KS Ah, that’s lots of fun. I’ve always wanted to do that. It’s a step away from the music I usually conduct, but it’s not a step away from the music I love.

LMR What is it about this music that you love?

KS In a few bars it is capable of conjuring up another time. I like that. I t seems to me this salon music comes from a time when people valued manners a bit more than we do now.

LMR By creating the Grand Salon, aren’t you are offering your audience a kind of cultural nudge?

KS It is exactly that — a cultural nudge. It’s personal, as all music ought to be. This is really from a time before muzak. That I like. At our first performance, people got up and danced to the music during the second half of the program, which pleased me no end. We played Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Victor Young, all that sort of era; and you can’t live without Gold and Silver by Franz Lehar — that’s a great waltz. During the first half we play operetta music such as you would have heard in the European theatres of the last century, with a nod to Vienna, to Budapest and Paris.

LMR Even when you are home, you are also somewhat on tour. Could you make a comment about your life as an itinerant musician?

KS (Laughs heartily) How wonderful! It’s true. I do have baton-will-travel. It’s exciting. In 5 weeks of January and early February this year, I was with 4 different orchestras, conducted 8 concerts, 4 programs to learn, rehearse and present. After this tour in Canada with the Vienna Concert-Verein is done, I go the next day to Prague, Karlsbad, Hanover, Nuremberg and then back to Toronto. And then back to Europe.

LMR What is it about such a hectic lifestyle that you like?

KS Well, I do like to conduct. This is the life I prayed for, though I miss my family so much: but I’ve seen 16 countries, worked with some wonderful musicians and I wouldn’t trade any of this experience.

LMR Your bio states that you are a long time devotee of Eastern Europe and its music.

KS I have always liked the Czechs. As Kafka said, “If you once go to Prague, she will get her claws into you like a mother cat.” It’s true. Prague is indescribable. Paris, they say, is a feminine city. In London you feel as though you are in the centre of the world. In Prague I feel as if they know me.

LMR You have broadened the repertoire of recorded orchestral music by recording on Dorian Records the works of the American composer Alan Hovhaness.

KS I’m a great fan of Alan Hohvaness. He did several things that impressed me. First is I love the sound of his music. Number two is, he stuck to his principles in a time during the 50’s and 60’s when the avant-garde was writing unattractive math music. Alan Hohvaness insisted on a melody, on a highly developed counterpoint, insisted on touching the human heart. That set him up as a target for everybody else.

LMR I read that Aaron Copeland and Leonard Bernstein both savaged him at Tanglewood while he played a recording of his first symphony. Bernstein, the composer of West Side Story, is quoted as saying, “I can’t stand this cheap ghetto music.”

KS When I read what Bernstein said, I find it impossible. If anybody understood what touches the human heart, it was Leonard Bernstein. I don’t get it. I mean, I wouldn’t be a conductor if it weren’t for Bernstein’s television broadcasts.

In the days before cable, on our farm, when you had to go out and pull on the wire to get the antenna aimed in the right direction, my grandfather would do that for me every Saturday when those Leonard Bernstein concerts were broadcast from northern New York State and we got them coming right across Lake Ontario. He’d say, “Do you want to watch that fellow from New York?” Did I ever want to watch that fellow from New York (Laughs). It was a major influence in my life.

But to get back to Alan Hohvaness, he became a project for me for the reasons I gave and because he anticipated our time. He was 20 years ahead of himself in the 20th Century. There has come in our time a great spiritual longing that his music addresses most satisfactorily. His is true spirituality and not the kind you get by signing up for a weekend seminar.

LMR Are you are referring to his orthodox religious practice and his long service to the church as an organist?

KS I’m talking about something less than that. It touches something that’s universal. I know he’s smitten with his Catholicism, and that’s fine. But the real spirituality of the music has less to do with organized religion and more to do with the human heart.

LMR Would you say a few words about your April 6th concert program? Schubert’s 5th Symphony in B flat is lightly instrumented. Did that aspect recommend the piece for your program with the Vienna Concert-Verein?

KS From a non musical point of view, it did. I had to keep the orchestra within certain instrumental confines. On the other hand, this symphony has been described as “a pearl of great price.” It is so lightly scored, but it misses nothing. Also, it is one of the few symphonies that was orchestrated because of Napoleon’s resurgence in 1815.

What instruments are missing? Trumpets, drums, clarinets. Where are they? They are at Waterloo, sir. It’s 1815: England, and Prussia, and Austria are in the field against Napoleon, and the army bands needed those instruments to assist in the defeat of the dictator. Sure martial music is thrilling, but those instruments had a genuine function in battle in 1815.

I also think here is music that bespeaks its composer clearly and shows Schubert’s gift for melody. That goes without saying. It also shows that there are no keys remote to Schubert. Every key is a possibility, and he’ll show you how easy it is to visit them.

LMR Could you touch on what Schubert says to you personally?

KS If I listen to the song cycle “Winterreise”, I think this is the most personal Schubert there is. When he sets Mueller’s lyric of “Der Leiermann” (“The Organ grinder”) — how this man is playing his heart out in the snow and no one hears his music, and you come to the lines “maybe, organ grinder, you will play one of my tunes” — O my god, it is deep, it is to weep to hear that. Can you imagine feeling that unloved and believing it? It is heart rending.

Then again, the man is capable of ‘Czech’ joy — I would have to call it —indescribable happiness in some of his music.

LMR It has been said that the chromaticism and some progressions Schubert wrote into the menuetto of the 5th owe a considerable debt to Mozart’s 40th symphony.

KS That is very true. The alternate symphony to the 5th Schubert on this concert tour is Mozart’s 40th. The architecture of both works are similar, the spirit is similar, even the melodic curve is similar. As we know, Schubert was aware of Mozart. But I think it’s still Schubert’s own voice. We should connect through the joy of it rather than to make some analytical implication.

LMR Let’s move on to the composition by Sir Malcolm Arnold. Arnold’s first Sinfonietta was composed in 1954 on commission from the Boyd Neel Orchestra. The commission came to Arnold just as Neel was appointed Dean of Music at Toronto University and was preparing to leave for Canada. Is there any connection?

KS It was on my mind when I programmed it. I wanted to make an interesting Canadian connection for this program. And I think I succeeded. Also, I wanted to make a connection with Boyd Neel who was not only a fine conductor, but understood the chamber orchestra genre so well. I couldn’t see a better way to connect up than to take something as exuberant as this piece.

It’s full of good humour, and if ever there was a man I wish I could have a beer with, it’s Malcolm Arnold. Such good wit. He knows how to write for the instruments, and he’s got a lot to say. The Sinfonietta has a viola trio in the second movement that is worthy of real attention and real respect. And the first viola in the Concert-Verein, if she ever becomes a singer and applies the same technique, the world is in trouble. All the mezzos will have to run and hide. She is an amazing player.

LMR Apparently hearing Louis Armstrong play the horn live in concert inspired the young Arnold to become England’s greatest horn player. Could you comment on Arnold’s legendary facility with the horn and how that relates to his writing in the Sinfonietta?

KS If you want to hear facility with the horn, you should have seen the horn players look up at me when I first put this piece on (Laughs heartily). It was one of those looks that say, “Maestro, what have you done to me.” It was new music to them. Its notation that says “I know exactly what the horn can do and you can do this.” Well these two fellows in the Concert-Verein are up to it. They’re both superb.

In the third movement, what the horn must do is the real test of it. You have the counter-rhythms, the high tessitura; there is no time to relax. It’s quasi hunting horn if the horn went on steroids.

LMR My last question has to do with your stated preference for the novels of Kingsley Amis and Milan Kundera.

KS Amis and Kundera are both drunk with words. I want to hear someone use words as if they were intoxicated. Milan Kundera, of course, expressed the Czech spirit for me. From him I learn.

Kinglsey Amis wrote a novel called The Alteration. He speaks of an alteration in history where there is no Reformation. The novel opens with a performance of Mozart’s 2nd Requiem Mass. Because there was no Reformation, there were many Catholic Courts and Mozart did get a job and lived well into his fifties. I like that because history turns on a dime, and here is a big ‘what if’?

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Stanley Fefferman
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The Live Music Report
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