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From Classic Rock to Conductor: Tristan Rais-Sherman on his Background and WYSO’s First Week

WYSO is back in full force, opening the season with Tristan Rais-Sherman conducting Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.

On short notice due to illness, Rais-Sherman comes to Interlochen from the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he’s a conducting fellow.

Rais-Sherman, known for his efforts to reach new audiences through innovative, interactive combinations of music and technology, has served as cover conductor for the NEC Philharmonia, the St. Louis Symphony and the Tulsa Opera.

He's also an experienced youth ensemble conductor; he’s spent time in New York City, serving as director of orchestras at the Kaufman Music Center’s Special Music School, assistant conductor of the New York Youth Symphony and conductor of the Harmony Program Youth Orchestra.

IPR’s Nancy Deneen spoke with Rais-Sherman to find out more about his background, hopes for students and Sunday’s concert.

Listen to the entire interview or read the edited transcript below.

Attend in person or tune in to Classical IPR to hear the entire concert; it starts at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday.

On first rehearsals

The first rehearsal with a youth orchestra will always be a challenge. Often, students have just gotten their parts. They've never played the piece, and some have never heard it. So I always use that first rehearsal with youth groups as a sight-reading workshop.

Sight-reading is a really important skill that sometimes we ignore or don't want to work on. But to me, sight-reading is much more than just being able to survive the first session. It's improving your interpretive skills and ability to look at something and get to the heart of it. So the better you get at sight-reading, the faster you can consume and process music. And a first rehearsal like this is a perfect time to work on it because sight-reading should happen under pressure when you have to force yourself to scan through it and keep moving along. Like I was telling them over and over again, you're not going to play all the notes. It's not possible. Just keep moving, just leave it behind. So that's really my approach on the first day: working on sight-reading.

On his musical goals for the group

I think the main challenge of orchestra playing is knowing your part and being able to manage it technically, but also elevating yourself way beyond that to listen to and absorb everybody's part. It's about understanding where you're fitting into this giant organism that's moving and shifting and all these crazy colors, especially in a piece like this. And that is the biggest challenge.

I think the ultimate work of playing an orchestra is understanding how you're part of this group at all times. So that is where we're going to do a lot of work this week, thinking about how far we can elevate above playing our own parts into supporting each other, listening to each other and creating a cohesive whole.

On his decision to be a conductor and philosophy on conducting

I decided I wanted to be a conductor immediately upon seeing a concert of Mahler's Second Symphony when I was around 14, so it was pretty late. But I immediately shifted towards classical music and conducting because I just needed to be surrounded by this power, noise and incredible sound. I wanted to be at the center of all of it.

Because I started late and came from an upbringing in rock music, I always felt a little bit different, like I didn't quite fit in with my colleagues' backgrounds. And I think what I've discovered and want to share with the groups that I work with is that the conductor can be anybody. A conductor can look like anything and come from any background. The only thing that matters on the podium is the relationship this person has developed with the music, the depth of their feeling about it, the clarity of their perception of the piece and their ability to communicate that and encourage the orchestra to play their best. So that can come in any shape, size, attitude or presentation. So yeah, I understand I'm a little bit different, a little bit young. I like to have fun in rehearsal and on the podium. It's serious work, but it's also serious play. So that's really what I go for.

On his unconventional musical upbringing 

I discovered the guitar, and I got really good at it. A really good friend of mine had started to play, and out of sheer rivalry, I just wanted to be better than him at it and started practicing a lot. And I fell in love with the instrument and the music.

My tastes in the popular music realm started with classic rock: Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. But then, as I got a little older, they drifted off into the weird, experimental far reaches of the pop music umbrella. And that was the right sort of mind expansion that prepared me for classical music. Because pop music and classical music can actually do equally powerful things, but they go about it in very, very different ways. So often, if we grow up listening to pop music or have a defined aesthetic point of view of the music we like, something like Symphonie Fantastique or a Mozart concerto is a completely different universe from what we're used to. And I think that's part of the challenge that our organizations have: to help people understand the meaning behind what we're playing.

On his pandemic project – streaming on Twitch

When the pandemic happened, I started to stream on Twitch. Twitch is a live streaming platform that Amazon now owns. But originally, its main focus was video game content. I enjoyed it a lot, and it made me think about how it could be used in our art form because it provides a very modern, highly direct, interactive form of communication. You can talk directly to your audience, and they can talk directly back in the chat, so the chat can steer the stream in certain ways. If I'm on stream talking about Symphonie Fantastique, people in the chat can ask me a question, and I can directly respond to them. So during the pandemic, I thought it would be fun to start playing around with this. Because my goal - my ideal audience member - is the person that's never been to an orchestra concert, never listened to a second of Berlioz, doesn't know who Berlioz is and maybe doesn't care. I want the person who's completely unfamiliar because that was me at some point. And I needed the right moment for it to click.

I sometimes feel like orchestral concerts aren't the most user-friendly for brand new people. You sit down and basically immediately have homework. You have a program with notes and a history lesson about the piece you're about to hear. Some program notes are fantastic. Others, I think, maybe miss the mark on really communicating why this piece is being played. So the Twitch stream has been a way for me to explore this and try and speak directly, informally to a completely different audience, but one that I've found is receptive and interested.

Video game music is this weird subset of the music world that is extraordinarily innovative and has a surprising amount of depth. People in the video game world love the music and have soundtracks that are major parts of their lives, so they've already experienced this deep connection with music. So, in my opinion, they're ready to go, ready to receive something intense like a Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique or Mahler or Tchaikovsky. Twitch has been my main way of exploring this, and it's been a lot of fun.

On Symphonie Fantastique

This is a piece about being young and wildly in love to the point that you're tortured and driven insane by it. There's a very clear story behind the piece, which you'll read in the program. But, all that aside, to me, it's a piece about rebellion. It's a piece about being a young person who understands that they are different and don't fit in. And they want so badly to express themselves and make a statement that says, "This is who I am. I am different. I am not part of the established academic order, and this is my massive artistic statement. I'm going to write something longer, crazier, more terrifying, more beautiful, more insane than anything ever written." And that was Berlioz's approach here. He was a 25-year-old who desperately wanted to succeed and gain recognition as a composer. He wanted to be accepted and honored by the academic establishment, which had strict rules around composition.

This piece is his first original statement in that direction. It's a real kind of flag in the ground. You'll hear terrifying music, you'll hear beautiful music and you'll hear how he explores every extreme of the emotional range in this piece. It's just a roller coaster. So that, to me, is the overarching message of the piece beyond the explicit story that he lays out.

On his hopes for students' takeaways from the piece 

I want them to take the spirit of abandon because that's what's required to deliver this piece. It's such a good one to start this six-week process because it requires them to really get out of their comfort zone and push themselves. They'll have to get angry, sad, happy - all of that is required of each person individually. So I want them to understand that in an orchestra, you're not just playing the notes on the page; your individual emotional attitude contributes to the whole, and you have to give that extra heart to it in this piece. I want them to take that with them as orchestral players - they should play with guts; they matter.

Nancy Deneen is the host of Music at Midday and Music by Request.
Kacie Brown was IPR's Digital Content Manager until 2023.