Orlando orchestra’s leader leaps from cellist to conductor

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — As a young classical music conductor in a town known more for Mickey Mouse than Mahler, Eric Jacobsen faces a double challenge: Live up to the promise of his youth and innovative background, and somehow discover the magic formula to lure young audiences to the concert hall.

“Some people feel that since I’m young, I’m going to somehow have the answers for bringing in a younger audience,” Jacobsen said recently in an interview at a converted Space Age movie-house that’s now the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra’s administrative home. “That’s a challenge, always.”

Beginning his second year as music director of the Orlando Philharmonic, the 33-year-old Jacobsen is many things that modern classical music traditionally isn’t: young, accessible and willing to be a tad goofy. His shirt is untucked when he’s not performing and unruly brown curls crown his head.

He’s spent most of his career as a cellist with New York-based, boundary-breaking ensembles, exploring new directions in an art form that cherishes tradition.

A decade ago he co-founded the string quartet, Brooklyn Rider, with his older brother and two other classmates from the Juilliard School. But this summer, Jacobsen is leaving Brooklyn Rider, “which is painful and bittersweet,” so he can focus on conducting.

With Brooklyn Rider, along with The Knights orchestral collective and the Silk Road Ensemble, Jacobsen carved out an innovative, experimental course in classical music. The three groups have mixed the traditional classical canon with original works by new composers, made forays into other musical genres and been at the forefront of musical cross-pollination.

The Knights, which Jacobsen conducts, have toured with some of classical music’s biggest names, such as violinist Gil Shaham and singer Dawn Upshaw. The Silk Road Ensemble, originally formed under the direction of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, includes musicians from more than 20 countries and emphasizes cross-cultural music-making.

Each group, in a way, brings fresh energy to old traditions.

Jacobsen believes millennials would like classical music if they gave it a chance, but he is still trying to figure out, “How do we get them to give it a chance?”

That’s an urgent question for orchestras across the United States seeking to revitalize their audiences. A study sponsored by the League of American Orchestras showed ticket subscriptions declined by 3.6 percent from 2005 to 2014. The study recommended that orchestras give more flexibility to potential concert subscribers on the number and type of concerts, increase interactions between musicians and subscribers to give audience members an emotional connection to the orchestra and use technology the way Amazon does to figure out what listeners enjoy.

Jacobsen’s departure from Brooklyn Rider signals his commitment to conducting after years of struggling with the idea. His father, a violinist with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, hated conductors and considered many of them imperious fraudsters, more concerned with posing than finding the honesty in the music.

“I grew up hearing about horrible conductors,” Jacobsen said. “I think it took me a long time to say, ‘I’m a conductor.'”

The New York-born Jacobson, who this summer is marrying singer-songwriter Aoife O’Donovan, is also committing to Orlando: He recently purchased his first house, a five-bedroom bungalow downtown.

He says Orlando is at a pivotal point with a developing cultural and restaurant scene, alongside its famous theme parks. Leading the Orlando Philharmonic was an opportunity to grow with a traditional orchestra, and he wanted to put down some roots after spending his career on the road.

Jacobsen represents a new path for many young conductors, said Jesse Rosen, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras. In the past, a would-be conductor trained professionally and sought a job in an orchestra as an assistant conductor or director of a youth orchestra, while preparing for bigger, more prestigious orchestras. Nowadays, many future orchestra conductors are creating their own ensembles with different types of community-based programming, Rosen said.

Jacobsen’s presence in Orlando gives him the chance to influence a regional cultural institution and gives him the latitude to experiment outside the spotlight of New York, Rosen added.

“If you want to take a first job as a music director of a full symphony orchestra, many conductors would rather do it where they are a little under the radar,” Rosen said. “So when they are in a high-visibility place, they have mastered some of the repertoire and they’ve made whatever mistakes they are going to make.”

As Jacobson looks ahead to the upcoming season, he says programs might combine music with visual artists, performing artists and literary works.

“My biggest fear is, if people don’t know about it because they weren’t exposed to it, then how will they eventually come to it?” Jacobsen said.


Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter: http://twitter.com/mikeschneiderap

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