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Conducting Energy

Jayce Ogren has been a consistent bright spot during the dark days of New York City Opera's retrenchment. WILLIAM R. BRAUN talks to the up-and-coming maestro about his ability to accentuate the positive in the face of so many daunting challenges.

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Steady Beat: NYCO maestro Jayce Ogren
© Roger Mastroianni 2013
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© Roger Mastroianni 2013

New York City Opera has invested a significant part of its musical future in a young conductor, thirty-four-year-old Jayce Ogren. The pared-down season of 2013 offers only four operas, and Ogren will be in the pit for two of them — Rossini's Mosè in Egitto and Britten's The Turn of the Screw. Ogren has already led two of the company's highest-profile productions of recent seasons, Leonard Bernstein's A Quiet Place in 2010 and singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright's Prima Donna in 2012. Formerly a protégé of Franz Welser-Möst in Cleveland and Alan Gilbert in Stockholm, Ogren has mostly left his days as a standby conductor behind him, but before he sat for an interview at Lincoln Center last October, he apologized for having to leave his cell phone on vibrate, explaining that he might suddenly have to step in for Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos to conduct the New York Philharmonic in Mahler's First Symphony. Polite and soft-spoken, the Washington State native offered a very specific thank-you on his way out the door: "I really enjoyed talking about A Quiet Place."

OPERA NEWS: You're still young. Did you know the reputation A Quiet Place had as a problem piece — one that had to be "fixed"? Did you go into it thinking about the travails it had been through twenty-five years earlier?

JAYCE OGREN: I was well aware that it had not received rave reviews in its first performances, and I certainly could look at the performance history and see that it was performed a few times right after it was written and then basically not at all in twenty years. But once I got the score, I just put that aside and approached it as a piece by Leonard Bernstein. And I just fell in love with it. There's such a richness in the piece. I feel like all of his styles are in there — his jazziest, poppiest side, his most serious Mahlerian side, and also his sardonic, critical side. So I think that, more than any other of his pieces, it's really a portrait of that guy, of Leonard Bernstein, and I just approached it on that level, as music by a great composer and a great musician.

ON: Some people felt that, with Trouble in Tahiti right in the middle of Act II, there was such a discrepancy in the communicative power of the music that they had a hard time looking at A Quiet Place as a whole.

JO: I think that Trouble in Tahiti works very well as a flashback, and as a flashback in the world of A Quiet Place. In the story, but also in the style, it's very logical that way to me. It makes me think of when Stravinsky died, in 1971, and Time magazine ran this article that described Stravinsky's music as getting less good throughout his career. And of course that wasn't the case at all. If anything, it got even greater. But what this really was a graph of was the accessibility of Stravinsky's music. And I think in A Quiet Place the music from the early '80s — the Quiet Place music versus the Trouble in Tahiti music — is more esoteric and more daring and goes to odd worlds of expression inside of Bernstein. So I think that on a first hearing or a second hearing it's just less easy to understand.

ON: What do you feel you learned about Bernstein from doing his opera, compared with the orchestral pieces that you already knew?

JO: I think it reinforced for me the complexity of the man, inwardly and outwardly. He had so much passion and energy to give — that was always clear to me — but there were also a lot of demons in there, and I think there were a lot of forces pushing him in different directions, and I think a lot of that came out in the piece. 

ON: I'm a huge fan of Rufus Wainwright. I'd put his song "Dinner at Eight"up against any song by anybody. It seemed to me that so many people had their knives sharpened for Prima Donna before they'd even heard it, before they even knew what it was. Do you think resentment that he wasn't a "real opera composer" prevented you from getting a fair shake with the piece?

JO: I think there was a certain amount of resentment about this guy getting his opera staged in high-profile venues, that he wasn't a "serious" classical composer. But, similar to A Quiet Place, where the piece had a troubled past, I didn't approach it that way. I just approached it as a piece of music by someone who I knew was extremely gifted. I know that Rufus was absolutely in love with opera and had been for his whole life — someone who on a gut level understood the genre. And I just took it for what it was. There's so much beautiful music in it, and I fell in love with it.

ON: Is there a part of Prima Donna that you feel works especially well in the way that he wants to write an opera — a place that shows what the piece really is?

JO: Dramatically, I feel that the piece works really well all the way through. I think the ending is stunning, the aria while she's watching the fireworks — it's simple and moving. I think Rufus hasn't been given enough credit for writing an opera that's through-composed and that builds in a really satisfying way. I think a lot of people expected that it would be a lot of songs strung together, which it's not. 

ON: What is appealing to you about the serious Rossini operas such as Mosè in Egitto?

JO: There's a certain seriousness and heft to the orchestral writing that I was immediately attracted to. There are a lot of moments that foreshadow Verdi, like the way he writes for the trombones. This opera is so sorrowful and stunning and beautiful. The success of the piece rests largely on the way the orchestra sounds, the beauty and vitality and the colors you can get out of them.

ON: I've always thought of The Turn of the Screw as such a great starter opera, for anybody — conductor, director, stage designer, orchestral player, audience member.

JO: It's such a compelling story. The music is so accessible yet has such a drive to it all the time. There isn't anything extra in it. It's a piece that holds your attention from start to finish, and it's psychologically just terrifying. I find that even now, having known the story for a long time, having known the piece, I find myself in my head just going in circles trying to look at what really occurs from different angles.

ON: When you're doing The Turn of the Screw, when you're doing A Quiet Place, you have a recording of the composer conducting his own opera. Is this constricting for a conductor, or do you ignore it, or do you incorporate it in some way?

JO: Well, I'm a composer myself, and I know that when I've conducted my own pieces, I haven't always taken the exact tempos that I've written. Sometimes, because I choose to, or because of the environment that day and what the orchestra was giving back to me, I end up going a little faster or slower than I probably should. Certain members of the orchestra may be doing things that work for me and make sense to me but maybe aren't what I ideally had in mind. So I know to listen to a recording conducted by a composer as something that has some truth in it and also some things to be suspicious of. In the end, I think any composer wants an interpreter to look at what they've written and honor it by giving it really strong consideration, and by really trying to make what's written work. And if there's an instinct, a really strong interpretive instinct, to take a little bit of liberty, then you should go for it. I've also had performers do my music when I wasn't conducting and do things that I hadn't written and didn't expect — and they were better!

ON: Is there any sense of a New York City Opera Orchestra now? It isn't a full-time job for anybody anymore. Is there a core of players that is being kept together?

JO: Yes. When I conducted Prima Donna last season, there was still that familiar core of players. There's the same spirit. They're very professional, very well prepared, very alert in the performances.

ON: Is there anything you as a conductor can do to foster a sense of a company when the season is a fraction of what it once was?

JO: I think the number-one thing I can do is to go in with a very strong musical vision, and to try to get that vision from the orchestra — to ask for a really high standard, and to get them sounding as good as possible. The orchestra has been through a lot with contract negotiations and such, with the nature of the job changing. So I also definitely go in with a sense of kindness. I want the rehearsals I do with them to be something positive, and to be about the music, about working together, and nothing external.

ON: If you're a student sitting in the library of St. Olaf College, as you were, and you decide to be a conductor, you have a certain concept of what the career would be like. Now, you have the actuality of what it really is. How is the career different from what you thought it would be?

JO: I didn't think it would be this hard. Being a professional musician, regardless of being an instrumentalist or a conductor or a singer, takes tremendously hard work. When I started to realize that a career in music was for me, I was fourteen or fifteen years old, and I knew that this was going to be my passion, but at that time it was about the people I was making music with and the relationships I was having with other musicians, making music with my friends. And what I've come to realize now is, especially with all the traveling, with going to orchestras for the first time, it has to be about my love for music, about being so passionate about these pieces and believing in them so much that I just want to share them. That's what's different — that I've realized it has to be about the music. Because sometimes I'll go to an orchestra and we get along wonderfully from the first day, and it's fantastic. But sometimes in the first hour you can tell that the blend of personalities isn't ideal, and as a young conductor that can be very hard to deal with. Especially in that moment, you have to be one hundred percent about the music. You have to be there to make these pieces sound the best they can, and to put everything you have into it. spacer

WILLIAM R. BRAUN is a pianist and writer based in Connecticut.

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Current Issue: September 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 3