Arts & Culture

Three partners, three profiles: Joseph Swensen


A concert violinist turned conductor, Swensen, 55, has had a dual career, winning awards and playing solo with most of America’s major orchestras before establishing himself as a successful conductor — and recently, taking up the violin again.

He has been principal guest conductor for the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris, principal conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (where he is conductor emeritus) and of Sweden’s Malmö Opera, among other positions.

He’s an active chamber musician and composer, and is a co-founding director of Habitat4Music, which brings music education to children in challenged areas around the world.

He teaches violin at the Jacobs School of Music, Indiana University. Now a resident of Hoboken, New Jersey, he was raised in New York’s Harlem neighborhood.

His first appearance with the Northwest Sinfonietta will be in April 2016, when he’ll lead the Brahms Violin Concerto from the soloist’s stand before conducting Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4.

Q: How has this model worked for other groups, in your experience?

A: No two orchestras are alike – some are more self-governing and collaborative than others.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra started out as self-governing, with musicians hiring management and making artistic decisions. That model is the absolute ideal for me because all music is collaborative, even symphonies.

It’s of tremendous importance that the people in those orchestras are not just employees — they’re artists trained at the highest level. … For any real collaboration, the musicians have to be in the driver’s seat.

Q: What do you focus on when leading an orchestra?

A: Everything! It’s like being a chef in the kitchen of a great restaurant — it’s entirely about communication, getting people onto the same page and inspiring them to give 110 percent. That’s one of the most exciting things in life. I feel very lucky to do it.

Q: Why did you choose that program (next May)?

A: They’re two of my very favorite pieces, out of over 100 favorite pieces!

For me, Beethoven’s fourth symphony is one of the greatest pieces one rarely hears. I think it takes a particularly special group to do that well.

And the Brahms has been in my repertoire for 35 years – it’s like my dearest friend. I can’t go very long without wanting to play it.

But it’s almost never done without a conductor; that’s very challenging for an orchestra. So they’ll have to have really studied the piece, to be on the edge of their seats and take a lot more responsibility for the outcome.

It makes the piece into a gigantic string quartet, if you will. That changes the piece from what one normally expects, and that’s good for the music and good for the players.

I’m coming in with my fingers crossed. When it works, it’s a very exciting thing.

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