Just over four years ago, Brett Mitchell and his then-fiancé, Angela, packed up their home in Houston and moved to Cleveland. While picking up their first round of groceries in University Heights, they told the cashier they were new in town. The cashier asked why they moved here. Brett said he was the new assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra.
“The Cleveland Orchestra?” the cashier said. “Oh my god, that’s awesome!”
Mitchell was stunned.
“I’ve never lived anywhere that takes such pride in their orchestra like Cleveland,” he said.
In July, Mitchell will say goodbye to Cleveland and replace Andrew Litton as music director of the Colorado Symphony. And this Friday, Mitchell will lead the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra (COYO) in their last concert of the season.
“I will never have another relationship with an orchestra like I do with COYO,” he said over the phone.
For Mitchell, leading some of the best young musicians in the country has had its share of rewards and challenges. Unlike most professional orchestras, youth orchestras have a high turnover rate.
“We have these kids for a maximum of six years. Once you’re done with high school, that’s it,” he said. “If somebody wins a job in the Cleveland Orchestra at the age of 28, they may well be there four decades later.”
Keeping a certain standard of excellence while adjusting to a constantly changing roster of players is a challenge every youth orchestra faces. But it’s a challenge that, when met, yields high returns.
“If you can do it like we have, then it becomes one of the most rewarding things,” Mitchell said. When players move on, he gets to watch some of them pursue careers as professional musicians.
“But it’s hard on a personal level,” he said. “It’s like saying goodbye to anybody.”
Unlike the young players he’s mentored for the last four years, Mitchell didn’t hear a live orchestra until his late teens.
“Like a lot of people born in 1979, I’m sure I’m not alone in saying the first orchestral music I ever heard was coming out of a TV,” he said. “It was Star Wars, and it was Superman, and it was Indiana Jones and it was E.T.”
Mitchell’s musical upbringing is also unconventional when compared to that of his peers.
“I know a lot of my colleagues began their musical journey when they were three years old playing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’ on their violin. I wasn’t doing that.”
Instead, Mitchell was listening to the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Elton John and Billy Joel.
“It was the pop music of my parents’ generation that I grew up around.”
Mitchell grew up in Seattle. Later, after winning his first job, he became close with the conductor of his hometown symphony, the legendary Gerard Schwarz.
“Every time I would go home to Seattle to visit my family, I would get together with Gerry at his house on Queen Anne Hill, which was wonderful. I learned a ton from him,” Mitchell said.
During his long tenure as conductor of the Seattle Symphony, Schwarz was a champion of composers like Walter Piston, Alan Hovhanness, Paul Creston, Peter Mennin and David Diamond. He programmed and recorded American music that most American orchestras, for whatever reason, won’t even touch.
In a way, Mitchell, whose first season with the Colorado Symphony will include the likes of Kevin Puts, Missy Mazzoli and Mason Bates, could be the next great champion for contemporary American orchestral music. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Orchestra, based on its next season, still prefers innovative pairings of standard repertoire over music that’s actually, well, innovative.
But Mitchell points out that some critics are taking too narrow a view by using a single season to make sweeping judgements about an orchestra’s programming decisions.
“I would always caution against looking at one season or one festival or one opera and saying, ‘Well, why don’t you do this or that?’”
And in a way, holding the Cleveland Orchestra to standards espoused by other groups is a moot comparison. Cleveland’s orchestra, much like its home city, is in a class all its own.
“I would come across the country to listen to the Cleveland Orchestra play the Beethoven symphonies precisely because they are one of the greatest orchestras in the world,” Mitchell said.
Still, there’s no denying Mitchell will soon be leading an orchestra that, as he puts it, doesn’t “just think outside the box, but will actually go outside the box.”
Two years after the state legalized recreational marijuana, the Colorado Symphony made a bold overture to a different kind of classical crowd with its “Classically Cannabis” series of concert-fundraisers.
“It is not an orchestra that insists on playing it safe,” Mitchell said.
According to the local press, a lot of that has to do with the orchestra’s colorful CEO, Jerome Kern (not the late Broadway composer).
As the music director, Mitchell sees his mission as a simple one: “We have to give people a reason to not stay at home.”
“I could put on a recording of Karajan and Berlin doing Beethoven 9, and I don’t have to put on pants and I could open a bottle of wine in my kitchen, and it’s an amazing, glorious sound,” he said.
But what you can’t get at home, said Mitchell, are thoughtful musical combinations that move you in unexpected ways.
“I love playing Beethoven,” he said. “But I think it’s a hell of a lot more effective if you play it in the context of what the Beethovens of today are trying to do.”
Mitchell recalls a concert he did with Colorado back in January.
“I programmed Kevin Puts’ second symphony. And then we took a little intermission, and then we did Beethoven 9.”
Juxtaposing the “Ode to Joy” with a present-day symphony written in response to 9/11? You can’t buy that off the record store shelf.
Things seem to happen quickly for Mitchell in the music world. Just two years into his tenure with the Cleveland Orchestra, he was promoted from assistant conductor to associate conductor. He was only the fifth person in the organization’s nearly 100 years to hold that title.
Mitchell’s audition for the Colorado Symphony was no exception. Last July, he flew to Denver to conduct a season preview concert that featured an eclectic mix of classical and pops repertoire.
“It was actually the perfect program for a music director audition,” he recalled.
Mitchell not only had immediate chemistry with the orchestra, but with the management and the audience.
The next afternoon, the symphony board chair called Mitchell to offer him the job.
“I think it was seeing me be able to work with the orchestra on all of this very different kind of repertoire” that impressed them, he said.
Even with all the excitement ahead, Mitchell said he and Angela are going to miss Cleveland.
“We’ve made so many great friends here,” he said.
Angela Mitchell, a presenter and producer at WCLV, has been Cleveland’s friend on the classical airwaves. And when she’s not on the air for six hours every day, she’s performing in operas and musicals all over the region.
“She has gone from city to city and proven herself totally invaluable both on the radio and on stage,” Mitchell said of his wife.
This Friday, Mitchell will lead COYO in a challenging program of Joan Tower, Maurice Ravel and Sergei Prokofiev. Mitchell has conducted Prokofiev’s fifth symphony a number of times, but he’s energized by the fact that it’s new and fresh to these young musicians.
“I have to remind myself it’s not just another Prokofiev 5,” Mitchell said. “This is the first time these kids are ever playing this piece. For some of them, it’s the first time they’ve ever played any music by Prokofiev. And it’s a hell of a first dive into the pool.”
Mitchell doesn’t start his new job in Denver until July 1st. But Friday’s concert will be a bittersweet occasion.
“As great as professional orchestras are, there’s something about working with young musicians exploring this music for the first time,” he said.
“You can never recapture that.”