If you can recall the moment when Dorothy opens the door of her battered grey house onto the Technicolor wonderland of Oz, then you know how new Cleveland Orchestra Assistant Conductor Brett Mitchell feels when he steps out the back door of his cubbyhole office, which opens directly into the Concert Hall.
Main floor. Row H. Emerald City.
“I’m the luckiest guy I know,” Mitchell says. “This building embodies a standard of excellence that is second to none. I get to come here every day and do what I love to do.”
That includes his duties as the new music director of the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra (COYO), a position for which he comes well-qualified. Mitchell’s experience includes four seasons as assistant conductor of the Houston Symphony, which he led in over 100 performances; three and a half years as assistant conductor of the Orchestra National de France in Paris; three years as music director of the Moores Opera Center in Houston; and four years as associate conductor of the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble. He just started his fourth season as music director of the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra, which has broken attendance records under his leadership.
And he’s only 34.
Mitchell’s charmed journey down the yellow brick road began with piano lessons at the age of six, which didn’t last long. “I wanted to play tunes, not scales,” he says. A band teacher, Lesley Moffat, rekindled his interest in music in high school, where he played saxophone and percussion in the pep band. Moffat also gave Mitchell his first taste of conducting, after he impressed her by transcribing a song the band had heard on a trip to Disneyland.
“You did all the work preparing this music,” she said, then handed him the baton. “Why don’t you conduct it too?”
Mitchell has been conducting orchestras of increasing size and importance ever since. When he started graduate studies at the University of Texas at Austin, he had aspirations of being a film composer. But his focus shifted after he was accepted into a masterclass at the Manhattan School of Music taught by German conductor Kurt Masur, who became an important mentor. In January 2006, Masur invited Mitchell to Paris to audition for the Orchestre National de France, where he was music director, then hired him as his assistant.
“I learned a ton from Masur,” Mitchell says, recalling in particular a class where a student pressed the conductor on why a piece should be done a certain way. “If Mozart wanted it played that way, why he didnʼt he write it?” the student asked. Masur replied: “Because if he wrote it down, you would do it from your head rather than your heart.”
Mitchell’s other formative conducting influence is a name well-known to Clevelanders: Lorin Maazel, with whom he studied at the Castleton Festival in the summers of 2009 and 2010. “It was a great pairing,” Mitchell says. “I think of it as the Dionysian and Apollonian sides of conducting. Masur emphasized interpretation, whereas Maazel is a master craftsman who views the score as a set of challenges to be met and solved. He taught me the importance of technical clarity.”
The two influences became the pillars of Mitchell’s style. “I’m very meticulous about what’s on the page,” he says. “The composers gave us these wonderful gifts, and what they wrote comes first. But there’s more to the music than dots on lines. There are a lot of meaningful details you can pick up doing research and hearing how other people played the piece, and to ignore all those would be foolish.”
Part of Mitchell’s fidelity to the score comes from his own experiences as a college composer. “Every time I consider doing something that’s not in the score, I’m back in 20-year-old Brett Mitchell’s shoes hearing a piece of mine being played and thinking, ʻThat’s not what I wrote,’” he says. “You should always feel like Beethoven or Shostakovich are standing over your shoulder, watching what you’re doing with their music.”
Last fall, when The Cleveland Orchestra began looking for a replacement for departing assistant conductor James Feddeck, Mitchell got an email from Cleveland asking if he would like to try out for the position. “I already had a couple jobs,” Mitchell says. “But how you can possibly turn down an invitation like that?”
He came to Northeast Ohio on an unseasonably warm day in January for a two-day marathon with three other candidates. The first day was devoted to meetings and interviews. The second was one of the most incredible days of Mitchell’s life.
He first had to conduct The Cleveland Orchestra in the slow movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 39, and the first and last scenes from Stravinsky’s Petrushka. “This is not the way you dream of getting your feet wet,” Mitchell says. “That Stravinsky is one of the hardest pieces in the repertoire, and I had never done it before.”
Nevertheless, he made the cut to the final round against one other competitor. They had a half hour to prepare to conduct the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra in the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. Not long after they finished, Mitchell was called into Music Director Franz Welser-Möst’s office and offered the jobs of assistant conductor of The Cleveland Orchestra and music director of COYO.
He still can’t put into words how he felt, though he recalls the surreal sensation of being a grand-prize winner on a television game show. “I’m looking for the camera and bright lights and thinking, where’s Art Linkletter?” After quickly accepting, Mitchell flew back to Houston, where that evening he conducted a performance of The Marriage of Figaro.
The heavy workload in Houston was good training for his new position in Cleveland, which began in mid-August. As assistant conductor, Mitchell must be ready to lead every subscription concert in case Welser-Möst or the visiting conductor is unable to perform. That means he has to attend rehearsals and know all the music intimately, even if he never takes the podium.
“One of my goals here is to be as prepared as I can possibly be for every single piece, with no exceptions, ever,” he says. “In my opinion, this is the greatest orchestra in the world, so thatʼs a responsibility that I take extraordinarily seriously.”
Mitchell will also be preparing and leading four COYO concerts, and is at Severance Hall every Saturday rehearsing with his young charges. So far, he is impressed by what he’s seen and heard. “The Youth Orchestra is just as responsive as most of the professional orchestras I’ve worked with.” he says. “They’re amazingly talented musicians.”
As for the city, Mitchell is already an ardent Cleveland booster. “I love it here,” he says. “I’m very glad to be in a place with four distinct seasons. In Houston, we had only two: hot and hotter.”
The North Coast climate and lifestyle are also comfortable for his fiancée, singer Angela Schmidt, who grew up in Wisconsin. They have an apartment near Shaker Square and have become regulars at the Saturday farmer’s market there. Devoted foodies, they are also having fun exploring Cleveland’s diverse restaurant scene. “We’ve been to Melt more times than I care to admit,” Mitchell says.
That is, when they have the time. Along with his double duties in Cleveland, Mitchell still has an orchestra in upper Michigan to run.
“I’m sleeping a lot less now than I used to,” he admits. “But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
If you would like to follow Brett on Twitter, he's at: @MaestroMitchell
by Frank Kuznik
Frank Kuznik is a longtime journalist and culture writer covering Northeast Ohio's vibrant arts and entertainment scene. Born and raised in Cleveland, Frank has worked extensively throughout the U.S. and Europe, most recently in Prague as the editor-in-chief and culture editor of The Prague Post. He also writes about music on CulturedCleveland.blogspot.com.