A Maestro's Mind and Musings on Jewish Music

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Kenneth Kiesler (Source: Artist Website)

Maestro Kenneth Kiesler's talent and vision have been invaluable gifts in the Milken Archive's 30-year history. Along with his significant accomplishments in music, the Grammy-nominated conductor is also a superb educator as Director of Orchestras at the University of Michigan. We last spoke with the maestro in 2004, when he was heading up the Conductors Retreat at Medomak.

Since our last conversation in 2004, update us on your career and what you've been working on. What are some of the highlights or accomplishments of which you're particularly proud?

The highlight for me would be the Grammy nomination in 2014 for the three-disc set of Milhaud's L'Orestie d'Eschyle. It's a work that is tremendously challenging to listen to and to perform. It was a project ten years in the making, and we had about 400 people involved on the stage and the performance. It's quite an achievement for everybody who was involved because it was so tremendously difficult. I've also been guest conducting and teaching conducting.

Highlights from the Milken Archive's recording of The Golem featuring Kenneth Kiesler.

A big part of my career is teaching. I was director of the conducting program for the National Arts Center of Canada in Ottawa; Pinchas Zukerman invited me there. Then I was director of the Conducting Academy in Paris for eight years, and at the Manhattan School of Music also for eight years simultaneously with my time at Michigan. Since that time, I was also music director of the New Hampshire Symphony and have been guest conducting all over and doing more recording.

Soon to come out is a complete recording of works by the wonderful female Czech composer, Kapralova. She lived only twenty-five years from 1915 to 1940. The recording features some premieres and will be out soon on Naxos. Another recording due to come out features two operas by James P. Johnson, the African-American composer who wrote the Charleston! We actually recorded the two one-act operas with all African-American casts in 2006 and for various reasons they'd been held up, so this is an exciting step forward.

In our 2004 interview, you mentioned that you didn’t know any of the music featured in the Milken Archive recording at the time and you had been on a “quest” to learn more about Jewish music. Has that quest continued since your experience with the Archive?

One of the challenges and one of the blessings of being a conductor is learning more and more repertoire. And if you think about our responsibility, our job these days, as compared to let's say Toscanini, Reiner or Monteux, great conductors all, we have vastly more repertoire to cover. First of all, the orchestras aren't playing a very narrow segment of the repertoire anymore. They're not playing only, say Mozart through Strauss. They're playing much earlier music and much later music and all the music that has been written since those conductors passed away. So there's a lot to do!

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Kenneth Kiesler at Carnegie Hall (Source)

I have done other performances of works I recorded for the Milken Archive, and I became interested enough to program some other music by those composers. But I think that's been the extent of it, because I see myself as pluralist in a way. I have a specialty in Baroque music, but I also have a specialty in Mahler and a specialty in Jewish music and a specialty in Italian opera. Like many of my colleagues, I cover a lot of territory.

Did working with the Milken Archive change your connection or conception of Jewish music?

Yes, I honestly had only thought of programming very few works prior to this. And when I programmed them, it was not because they were Jewish composers, but repertoire that I knew. So I became more conscious of it, and I think I became more conscious of it in teaching my students, many of whom are out there in the world doing the music now. So yes, it has had an influence in my career and in my work.

What stands out when you reflect on your Archive experience? Can you share any memories or anecdotes? 

After doing some instrumental recordings I was asked by Neil Levin to go to London and record some repertoire with the BBC Singers. I knew of the BBC Singers, but had never worked with them. I’ve never worked with a choir that read better, that rehearsed more quickly than this choir. They’re professional singers and they’re full-time four or five hours every single day. So we did the recording. I thought it went quite well.

The maestro talks about recording in London with the BBC Singers. Milken Archive interview excerpt.

When the whole thing was over, maybe two or three days after the sessions and I came home, Neil Levin called me and he said:

"Now I want to tell you why I asked you to do this recording among many other reasons. I knew you would do a great job with the music, but it wasn't about that exclusively. You kept the BBC Singers working every minute of every five-hour session. No one ever does that with the BBC Singers. Everybody is a little cautious with them and lets them out very early. I didn't tell you that in advance and I knew you would work on the music to the very last moment and get it to be the best you could make it."

There was a very funny moment during one of the sessions, the producer said over the speaker system, "Let's go back to [for example] measure 350.” And I said, "Okay, good. If we're going back to measure 350, I would also like to include measure 347 because something happened there, I'd like to start a little earlier." The producer replied, "Well, if we're going to do bar 347, let's go back to bar 340, because I think we can do better with the altos or the tenors." And then I said, "Well, if we're going to do 340…," and so on. At this point, a tenor in the choir just got so impatient with this and said, "Excuse me, we are professionals and if you keep going back and doing more and more music, we are going to run. We will not be able to do it. We will refuse to do it. We just can't keep recording over and over and over.”

I thought for a moment and said, "We're all just trying to make this recording something that we all, including all of you, can be proud of." And that was the end of it for a moment. "Let's take a break, we'll come back in fifteen minutes," I said. And during the break, one of the sopranos who had been in the choir for over twenty years started coming towards me and she had several people behind her. She had her finger in the air and said, "Maestro. I'm speaking with [the tenor], because the truth is...the truth is, you're raising our game!" And when the next period of our recording started, she asked that gentleman to come forward and apologize.

You're credited on over eleven recordings for the Milken Archive, directly collaborating with several brilliant composers. Could you describe how that experience was?

From left: Artistic director Neil Levin, David Schiff, and David Amram at a composer symposium in the University of Michigan, 2001

The first recording I did for the Milken Archive was a recording of four excerpts from Jewish operas. One of [the composers], Paul Schoenfield is here at the University of Michigan where I am working. And so, we have an ongoing relationship of sorts. David Schiff and I became very close after that. He joined me on the faculty of my summer program that I've been running for conductors since 1997 in Maine and was with us for the next ten years. David Amram and I collaborated about a year and a half ago on a new piece, for which we commissioned a double concerto for violin and cello. So I've had this ongoing relationship with these people and later recorded a full version of David Schiff's opera, Gimpel the Fool with Third Angle in Portland, Oregon.

I have to say they were so warm and so generous, kind, and supportive. Here they were coming to a university to do this recording. These were the very first recordings that I did here [at the University of Michigan]. Now we have 14 or 15 recordings, but at the time, this was the beginning and they were very kind and generous and complimentary. And also, we connected on a deeper level. We connected personally and through the music. Paul Schoenfield and I didn't speak a great deal [during the session], but he was inspiring to the group with his words and his presence.

You mentioned in your previous interview that Paul Schoenfield was helping you coach some singers while recording The Merchant and the Pauper.

Composer Paul Schoenfield (left) and Kenneth Kiesler at the Merchant and the Pauper recording session.

He did, he played piano a bit while I was coaching. I coached, he added comments and so forth. Those composers are each unique in every way, but they share a kind of humanity that I value. And so they became very close to me, musically and personally. Paul comes to my performances or sometimes even for rehearsals here. Always the conversation is centered around an interesting question, some observation, some very acute insightful observation about the music. He’ll tell me, “You know, Ken, I've heard fifty performances of this work and everybody does X, Y or Z, but you don't do X, Y or Z. Is it because of...?” He's such a brilliant listener and so aware of everything that's going on. I think in all three of the cases, they're not only composers, they're performers. That helped me relate to them and helped them relate to me and helped us connect with one another.

How do you think the Milken Archive has impacted the field of Jewish music in general?

It's enormous, the impact. First of all, the music is available, which it wasn't before and the editions were not usable in many cases. So the music has become big through these recordings; people are cognizant of them and have learned or grown to appreciate them. I can't speak for all the recordings; I hear about the ones I've done mostly from others. And so I think obviously there's a wider audience for Jewish music and a wider audience for all of the pieces that were recorded. If I remember correctly, the project ended up being much larger than it was originally intended to be.

Do you have any favorite recording from the Archive’s collection?

I've listened to probably twenty different recordings, some of them several times. And frankly, I haven't listened to recordings of any kind for a little while. I live with so much music in my head: music that I've learned over the years and music that I'm working on currently. We conductors are putting other people's music into our heads all the time, filling up, becoming as familiar as possible with every aspect. The music becomes a little bit like a sculpture in our heads, and we're constantly walking around it, looking at it from different perspectives. My head is so filled with music happily, this is not some torment. I just honestly prefer to be in quiet while listening to the performances in my head.

Maestro Kiesler shares his perspective on how he approaches music as a conductor.

And I honestly rarely listen to music. I will say that going back to some of the music that I was honored to record, I'm very moved by some of it in particular. David Schiff's Gimpel the Fool, is brilliant and very entertaining. The a cappella music in Merchant and the Pauper blows me away. I'm moved by it every time. David Amram's music, The Final Ingredient, is particularly affecting to me because of the topic and the music and the drama of it.

Anything else you would like to add, maestro?

I'm continually grateful for having had the opportunity to collaborate with all the composers and the artists that I was able to work with during the project. They're fun memories. It definitely had an impact on my life and my career and my artistic work, my sensibilities as an artist through the people I've met and what I learned from them. I think each one of us leaves something with others and they leave something with us. These people really left a great deal with me that I cherish. So I'm grateful to the Milken Archive for inviting me to be a part of the project.

Listen on Spotify:

Milken Archive Presents: Kenneth Kiesler

Explore Further:

Kenneth Kiesler's Artist Profile


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