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They conduct classical, but they love pop and rock too

When Gustavo Dudamel, Richard Egarr, Michael Tilson Thomas and other classical conductors let their hair down, it's to the sounds of Aerosmith, Prince, Brian Wilson and more.

January 05, 2013|By Rick Schultz, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Ever wonder what longhairs listen to when they let their hair down? Once upon a time, when conductors were regarded as remote intellectual titans, no one would have thought to ask. Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony, once described the archetypal image of a conductor as "this inaccessible person with an accent and an ascot."

All that has changed. At least since the 1960s, when Leonard Bernstein praised the Beatles and other pop groups, budding conductors have taken seriously the popular music of their day. And today's conductors don't care who knows it.

One reason for the change in attitude is the Internet, which gives busy conductors easy access to different musical genres. Another is simply that for baby boom conductors such as Alsop and Fabio Luisi, principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, pop and rock was in the air during their formative years. Even much of an earlier generation of conductors was swept up.

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The Times asked 17 conductors, ages 26 to 71, what they listen to off the podium. Most of the responses came via email, with a few done by phone. Some responses were eloquent and quirky, others short and sweet.

Alsop, 56, said she likes the 1960s and '70s hard rock band Deep Purple, whose music often fused rock with classical influences. "We're as valid as anything by Beethoven," the group's cofounder Jon Lord, who died in July, declared in 1973.

"The connection between rock and classical is a strong one," Alsop said. "So many people have used the same tunes — Bach's 'Toccata and Fugue,' Beethoven's Symphony No. 5; Holst's 'Mars' from 'The Planets,' 'O Fortuna' from 'Carmina Burana' — as inspiration for new creations."

Since Bernstein's day, distinguished conductors have become outright fans of pop stars. When Luisi, 53, learned that Icelandic singer-songwriter Björk was in the audience for his 2010 Met performance of "Lulu," he was hoping she would accept an invitation to visit him during intermission. But her shyness prevailed.

"My first knowledge of Björk's music was through iTunes," said Luisi, who especially admires the songs "Oceania" and "It's Oh So Quiet." "I love her approach to new sounds made just with her voice."

In August, Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel, 31, shared the Hollywood Bowl stage with one of the pop music idols of his youth, Dominican star Juan Luis Guerra.

Dudamel also happens to admire Aerosmith. "I've downloaded everything I can by them," he said, "and I'm amazed at their character and vocal sounds."

Alan Gilbert, 45, the New York Philharmonic's music director, said he's is a huge admirer of Elvis Costello. He also avidly watches YouTube videos of pianist Art Tatum. "I'm blown away by his facility and musicality," Gilbert said.

Richard Egarr, music director of the Academy of Ancient Music, a period-instrument orchestra based in Cambridge, England, said he's seen Prince perform many times and has taken his daughter to concerts.

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"Prince is one of the most phenomenal people I've ever seen onstage," said Egarr, 49. The early-music specialist was also blown away by a 1987 Sting concert at Wembley Stadium in London.

"Sting had just come out of Chile and had this massive array of South American percussionists with him," Egarr, recalled, "and he just let them go."

For Egarr, "Good musicians recognize other good musicians, whatever kind of music they play."

Michael Tilson Thomas, 67, music director of the San Francisco Symphony, said he admires Brian Wilson's work, and he calls Bonnie Raitt's new album, "Slipstream," "outstanding."

Thomas Wilkins, 56, music director of the Omaha Symphony and principal guest conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, said he is "a huge James Taylor fan.... I know the lyrics of everything he's recorded."

Nicholas McGegan, music director of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, a San Francisco-based period performance ensemble, grew up listening to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. "I love Ian Dury," said McGegan, 62, "an English punk-rock singer of great wit, with a peppery sense of humor and fun."

The music director of the Vancouver Symphony, Bramwell Tovey, 59, said he largely avoids modern pop music, preferring "the rich vein of popular music from the years between the wars... Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Ivor Novello and Noel Coward."

For some conductors, early pop enthusiasms failed to thrive after classical music came into their lives.

One of the most eloquent responses in this regard came from JoAnn Falletta, music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic, who said that from age 13, her immersion in classical music became total.

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