Conductor  Kenneth  Jean

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Born in New York City October 25, 1952, Kenneth Jean grew up in Hong Kong and returned to the United States in 1967. After violin studies at San Francisco State University, he entered the Julliard School at the age of nineteen and was accepted into the conducting class of Jean Morel. The following year he made his Carnegie Hall début with the Youth Symphony Orchestra of New York and was immediately engaged as the orchestra’s music director.

In 1984 Jean won the prestigious Leopold Stokowski Conducting Award. For two seasons, Jean was conducting assistant to Lorin Maazel of the Cleveland Orchestra. From 1979 until 1985, he served as resident conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, working with Antal Dorati. In 1990, he was one of two recipients of the prestigious Seaver/National Endowment for the Arts Conductor Award, which is given biannually to exceptional American conductors.

Jean was the music director of the Florida Symphony Orchestra (1986–1992), associate conductor of the Chicago Symphony (1986–1993), appointed by Sir Georg Solti, and working with him as well as his successor Daniel Barenboim, principal guest conductor of the Hong Kong Philharmonic (1984–1993) and music director of the Tulsa Philharmonic (1997–2001).

Jean recorded a number of works by Chinese composers, and among them, the album Colourful Clouds [shown at left] achieved bestseller status when it was first released in 1982. With Japanese violinist Takako Nishizaki he recorded the violin concertos of Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky. Jean also recorded works by Da Falla, Ravel, Brahms, Massenet and Berlioz.

In November of 1989, I had the pleasure of meeting with Kenneth Jean.  Besides all of his usual activities, he was very busy with preparations for an all-French program with the Chicago Symphony.

He was clear when responding to my questions, but since he did not often verbally speak to audiences, he noted that he hoped he would not embarrass the radio listeners . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Do you ever embarrass the audience by what you conduct?

Kenneth Jean:   That’s up for them to say.  I wouldn’t know!  [Laughs]

BD:   Obviously you try not to embarrass yourself or the audience...

Jean:   Oh, quite honestly, I don’t know.  These things are beyond my control.

BD:   You’re the conductor of the symphony orchestra, so what all is in your control?

Jean:   A great deal, of course, starting with the programming, from everything the audience gets to hear, to the way every note that the last stand second violin gets to play.

BD:   Not the notes they play but the way they play them?

Jean:   The way they play them, indeed.  Whether it’s together or not together, whether it’s soft or loud or somewhere in between, all of that wide expanse is my job.

BD:   Are you always correct in where you come down in your judgment?

Jean:   One always tries one’s best.  One hopes so.  A lot of that is in the heat of the battle, and you really can’t tell.  Amazingly enough, especially here in Orchestra Hall, where we have the famous podium problem, we don’t hear the true balance that goes out into the audience.

BD:   Actually, I would think that it would be the worst place for you to hear.

Jean:   It is the worst seat in the house.  People selling stereo systems say,
“With this stereo system you hear what the conductor hears!  That’s not a good way to sell it.  [Both laugh]  We don’t have the best seat in the house at all.  One would gather from common sense that you would hear so much string playing, because you’re close to it.  Here in Orchestra Hall there’s an exaggerated difference between the woodwind and the brass balance as we hear it on the podium, as opposed to what it is in the house.

BD:   Where in Orchestra Hall is the best seat?

Jean:   For me, in other normal halls as well, the higher up you go the more you take in the volume of the hall.  That helps.  I love sitting in the lower balcony because that’s a good balance between what you can see and what you can hear.

BD:   In your position, you’re forced to conduct a number of programs that you didn’t select, and you’re also privileged to be able to conduct a lot of programs that you do select.  What is the biggest difference?

Jean:   Since you bring it up, I suppose what you’re saying is absolutely dead-on true, but I don’t see it that way.  For example, the programs that I’m
forced to conduct are some of the greatest works in civilization.  So forced is hardly the right word.  But you’re right, I sometimes don’t have a choice if I inherit a program from Sir Georg, or someone like that.

BD:   In other words, when you’re given a program, it would be something you would have selected perhaps another time?

Jean:   Yes, exactly.  My tastes are wide-ranging as well, so that helps.  But still, anything that Solti conducts is not going be bad, so there’s never a problem there.  [Much laughter]

jean To celebrate Sir Georg Solti’s seventy-fifth birthday in 1987, associate conductor Kenneth Jean led the Orchestra in the world premiere of Campane di Ravello. Written by John Corigliano while on vacation in Ravello, Italy, the composer remarked, “On Sundays, the multitude of churches in Ravello and the surrounding towns play their bells, each in a different key and rhythm. The cacophony is gorgeous, and uniquely festive. My tribute to Sir Georg attempts to make the sections of the symphony orchestra sound like pealing bells: that tolling, filigreed with birdcalls in the woodwinds, provides the backdrop for a theme that grows more and more familiar as it is clarified. At the end, it is clear and joyous—a tribute to a great man.” Jean also led the work on the Centennial Gala concert on October 6, 1990, and current music director Riccardo Muti conducted it on September 19, 2015, on the Symphony Ball concert launching the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 125th season.

[Photo at right]  To launch the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 100th season, an all-star cast of conductors and soloists was assembled for a gala opening concert on October 6, 1990. Pictured from left to right, back row: Associate Conductor Kenneth Jean, András Schiff, Lorin Maazel, Gary Lakes, Sylvia McNair, Samuel Ramey; middle row: Music Director Designate Daniel Barenboim, Lady Valerie Solti, Music Director Sir Georg Solti, Leonard Slatkin, Yo-Yo Ma; front row: Isaac Stern, Mstislav Rostropovich, Susanne Mentzer, and Murray Perahia. Lady Solti served as host of the program.

BD:   If Sir Georg has rehearsed a program for two or three days, and then you have to conduct one of those concerts in the series, then do you have to not only prepare your own interpretation, but have them unlearn what he has shown them?

Jean:   I wouldn’t be so bold.  Both Michael Morgan and I have had to do this trick.  It is actually much less of a trick than one would believe only because it involved the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  They are the most flexible orchestra I’ve ever seen in my life, and it’s also to our credit that since we do so many children’s concerts and other concerts with them, they know us very well.  Therefore, that’s such a wonderful experience that when we stand on the podium, they know we are not exactly like the boss in temperament, and they will give us everything we ask for, which is really wonderful.
BD:   If it’s the same music, is it going to be completely different?
Jean:   There are, of course, things that you can only do after you’ve rehearsed, but I must say, what we do with the Chicago Symphony without rehearsal really amazes even ourselves, in that they are that flexible.  They are such good musicians that if you give just the hint of something that could be one of four variants to the way a phrase could be, they immediately sense what it could be.  It’s their experience as well, and what comes out is a combination of everything.  It’s the combination of Solti, of the orchestra and what they bring to it, as well as what we bring to it.  When I listen to Michael Morgan take over a program, I find it’s tremendous fun to hear what is going on.  What is the best is what live performance is all about, and things that happen on the spur of the moment.

BD:   Let’s come back to the concerts where you have all of the rehearsals for a concert.  Do you rehearse every little detail, or do you leave something for that moment of performance?

Jean:   Ah!  Now that’s an interesting question.  There are certain of my colleagues that are in one or the other camp.  In my case at least, and I can only speak personally, I don’t intentionally leave things for the performance.  But at the performance, I find that there are things that happen which we did not discuss.  I try to cover as much as I can in rehearsals.  Most of the time, and especially with modern scheduling, there is a minimum of time anyway.

BD:   Do you ever get too little time to rehearse?

Jean:   Most people think that as a staff conductor, one gets too little time to rehearse, but I don’t think that’s true either.  Let’s put it this way... if Sir Georg, or Günter Wand, or somebody else comes in and has five rehearsals for a Bruckner symphony, for me to have five rehearsals for a  Bruckner symphony is not the point at this stage.  More often than not, I don’t request five rehearsals for something like that because, to be perfectly honest, I don’t think my ultimate interpretation of a Bruckner symphony, or whatever I’m going to do, is going to be established right now at this age.  So, beyond that, as you mention, one rehearses a great deal of detail, and works on the things that are different.  After all, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, you don’t have to rehearse for competence anymore.  You worry much less about notes that are sour, or something like that here and there.

BD:   It’s just balance and interpretation?

Jean:   Yes, essentially not to shock them.  With some works they know that I want this slower here, or I do that there.  As they are such an experienced orchestra, fifty per cent of the conductors slow down at the end of this phrase, and the other fifty per cent don’t.  So, on the rehearsal they find out.  They see that Jean is one of those that doesn’t, or Jean is one of those that does.  For the first program I ever did with the Chicago Symphony, I had forty-four minutes to rehearse ninety minutes of music.  [Both laugh]  But it was all the war horses.

BD:   Just play on a wing and a prayer!

Jean:   [Laughs]  Almost, yes, so you talk through it all.  That’s rehearsal, too, and it takes a lot less time to talk through what I’m going to do here.  By many standards that’s not enough rehearsal time.  On the other hand, from what they know of me, and our work together, often that is just the right amount of rehearsal time.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let’s talk a little bit about programming.  You have this huge expanse of music to choose from.  How do you select what works will be on each program?

Jean:   Curiously, when I’m programming for my own orchestra in Florida, for example, there is a great deal of the repertoire that hasn’t been played, and needs to be played, and the orchestra should play.  That’s not a problem, however, in Chicago.  [Laughs]  This orchestra has played everything under the sun, so that no longer needs to be a consideration.  I must consider the balance of a season, because every piece you can imagine in the repertoire has been played either this year, or within the last five years.


BD:   Wouldn’t it pique your interest to go back through the annals, and find a specific Haydn symphony, or a specific this or that, and be able to put the little star in the program to indicate its first performance?

Jean:   And how!  If you notice, every program I’ve ever conducted here in Chicago has at least one piece on it that the Chicago Symphony has never played.  As you say, maybe it will be a Haydn symphony, and we have a list of pieces like that.  For example, it’s absolutely mind-boggling that Tapiola, the symphonic poem of Sibelius has never been played by the Chicago Symphony.

BD:   [Genuinely surprised]  Really???

Jean:   Yes.  It’s a difficult piece to program around.  That’s why it has not been here nor at Ravinia that I know of.  That’s something that Philip Huscher, our program annotator, had dug up exactly because I was making up programs.  For example, later on in this season I’m doing the world premiere of a Liszt concerto, so all of that comes into it.


Franz Liszt was a kind of Mephistopheles, Casanova, Byron and St. Francis rolled into one singular musician.  He single-handedly invented the piano recital, and his staggering prowess at the keyboard had all of mid-19th Century Europe's salong society at his feet.

Under his fingers, the piano thundered and purred with a seductive power that had adoring women throwing their jewelry at him. Many did not stop there: His liaisons were nearly as legendary as his piano playing. One admirer observed that if his rival, Sigismond Thalberg, was the best pianist in the world, Liszt was the only one. Musical poet, genius, innovator and revolutionary, Liszt somehow found time to compose an enormous amount of music. Some Liszt scores are nothing but gallumphing bombast and tinselly glitter. But there is much else that ventured far beyond the known formal and harmonic boundaries of the Romantic era, uncannily anticipating the music of our own time.

For years, it was universally assumed that Liszt wrote only two piano concertos, No. 1 in E-flat and No. 2 in A Major. Now, thanks to some shrewd and persistent detective work by a University of Chicago student, we know otherwise.

With Canadian pianist Janina Fialkowska as soloist, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the direction of associate conductor Kenneth Jean will present the world premiere of a third Liszt concerto - in E-flat Major, Opus Posthumous - at subscription concerts Thursday, Saturday and Tuesday nights in Orchestra Hall.

It's a commonplace that there are no undiscovered musical masterpieces. Nevertheless, whenever any unknown work by a major composer is unearthed, that is Big News. The news first broke in January of last year, when it was announced that Jay Rosenblatt, a doctoral candidate in historical musicology at the U. of C., had pieced together a forgotten and unheard Liszt composition for piano and orchestra while researching materials for his dissertation at archives in Central Europe. "It was this kind of moment . . . when you know you're holding in your hand something significant to the music world," the 34-year-old Rosenblatt told the Associated Press.

As is so often the case in musicology, making a positive identification and reconstructing the lost score depended on long hard work, intimate knowledge of the piano concertos - and pure luck.

How was it possible for the concerto to be overlooked for more than a century? The confusion stemmed partly from the fact that both the "new" work and the familiar Concerto No. 1 share the key of E-flat, thus leading careless archivists to assume that the work was a rejected movement from the latter concerto. Also, no complete version of the concerto had ever been discovered: The manuscripts were dispersed in Weimar, East Germany; Nuremberg, West Germany, and Leningrad.

"When I traveled to Central Europe in the winter of 1988 to gather materials on Liszt's works for piano and orchestra, I did not expect to unearth a new concerto," says Rosenblatt. "I must have spent several hundred hours in the Weimar archive, and while I was there I came across a copyist's manuscript identified as part of the First Piano Concerto but never published. Like everyone else, I assumed it was a rejected movement from that concerto. But as I worked with the manuscript, it became pretty clear that it was a self-contained concerto in one movement, with nothing whatsoever to do with the First Concerto."

There were, however, serious problems with the manuscript: A number of measures were missing from the piano part, and errors abounded. Small wonder that so many scholars had long dismissed it as an unusable sketch.

Moving on to Budapest to continue his research, Rosenblatt asked to examine photocopies the archive had received from Leningrad of an early version of the known E-flat concerto. The first page was readily identifiable as the "quasi adagio" section of that work. Suspecting the pages were out of order, Rosenblatt delved further in the stack of photocopies.

Surprise turned to astonishment. "What should I see staring me in the face," he recalls, "but the music from this other concerto I had identified in Weimar, this time in Liszt's hand." Here was the missing autograph, its pages mixed together with the manuscript of the Concerto No. 1.

Closer examination revealed that the manuscript contained the solo passages missing from the Weimar copy. Those measures had been struck out by Liszt; evidently he had intended to revise them and instructed the copyist to leave the staves blank. But the canceled notes were clearly decipherable.

Like a musicological Sherlock Holmes, Rosenblatt set off for Nuremberg, where he managed to track down one of the missing autograph pages. Two more turned up among loose scraps in Weimar. Even with those, gaps remained, which he was able to fill by consulting the copyist's score. Among the four sources, every note was accounted for.

That’s the fun about working with the Chicago Symphony is that you can add to it.  It’s not false modesty, but to hear Kenneth Jean conduct Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is not so interesting right now.  It eventually may be if I grow in the right way, but it’s much more interesting if I bring something that the audience hasn’t heard in twenty-something years.  Ironically, when I did Pines of Rome, it had not been done in Orchestra Hall since 1963.  So things like that make it very interesting.

BD:   You say
grow in the right way.  Are you trying to grow in the right way, or are you finding that you just grow whatever way you can?

Jean:   One grows.  It’s like how one grows physically as a child.  You cannot help it.  One simply grows, so I exercise a great deal of self-discipline, and I learn, and I watch.  It is unbelievable to be able to watch some of the world’s greatest conductors come through and rehearse an orchestra that I know.  That’s the side of the equation that Michael Morgan and I have as a luxury.  We know this orchestra very, very well.
BD:   Do you learn from every man who stands in front of the orchestra?

Jean:   Oh, absolutely.  Sometimes it is what not to do, and sometimes it is what to do.  In Chicago, more often than not, it’s what to do.  My days in other orchestras can be the other way, but it’s still very valuable.

BD:   Is it at all frustrating to be up here one week, and then be in conducting in Florida the next week, where they are perhaps more interested, but obviously less polished?

Jean:   It is different.  When you stand in front of the Chicago Symphony and we do Beethoven together, they’ve played it more times than I’ve heard it.  What I bring is a great deal of respect for what they do.  I also learn from this, and what comes out as an interpretation is like with other conductors, but in my case it would be a little larger percentage of what the orchestra gives me.  They’ve heard me say, “I had it in my mind to do it this other way, but what you had was so wonderful, so why don’t we just keep it that way.”  It’s not my orchestra, so it is my job to push the right buttons, and we get, I hope, very good performances, and occasionally revolutionary performances as well.  I have a great deal of respect for my senior colleagues here, as opposed to the other part of the learning process when it’s ‘my orchestra’ in Florida.  But the approach is different, and everybody who understands me will agree that it is much more fun to shape an orchestra into your own performance in your own image.  This is far more challenging and more fun.  I usually ask for five or six rehearsals in Florida for those reasons, and nothing escapes scrutiny, even to the way a pizzicato should sound.  This is what I try to do with them.  Here in Chicago, I don’t need to do that kind of work, quite frankly.

BD:   Are there ever times in Chicago where you either bring a strange idea to them, or experiment with them?

Jean:   Oh, very often.  Much more often, in fact, than anywhere else where I conduct, because here in Chicago I am the Associate Conductor, so I can take chances.  That is, for me, a tremendous luxury.

BD:   You can experiment and see what works and what doesn’t work?

Jean:   Exactly.  For example, when we do children’s concerts, and we do a certain piece ten times in a row, I can find out a lot about what I can do, what sounds good and what doesn’t.  It’s a great laboratory for us.

BD:   Is this what keeps the back-stand string players interested
to do a piece ten times in a row, each one a little different?  [Note that the Chicago Symphony utilizes a rotating seating arrangement for the strings, so none of the players remain near the back (or near the front) very long.  Every two weeks the players behind the first desk (first two desks in the violin sections) change position.]

Jean:   I don’t manipulate it that way, but you’re right, it is very difficult to sustain that kind of interest.  I don’t do it to make them interested, and sometimes they don’t even notice the subtle differences.  They go along with it, and when asked, they will probably say, “Yes, it was a little different.”  They may not even notice a little bit slower tempo to set up the climax in a certain way, but that’s part of the learning process.  It’s refined to that degree, so that’s all part of it.  But with my own orchestra, that’s different, and is actually much more satisfying.  I know that every note that came off the stage on a given night I put there with intent, whereas here in Chicago, every note that comes off the stage I admire, because it’s unbelievable that an orchestra is that good.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You don’t admire your performances in Florida?

Jean:   Yes, but in a different way.  It is an accomplishment, whereas here it’s what Maazel used to say when he had assistants conducting his orchestra in Cleveland, “He doesn’t deserve it going so well!”  [Much laughter]  This is a little bit of what I feel when I am in awe of what goes back to Theodore Thomas [who founded what would become the Chicago Symphony in 1891].  For every beat I give, I am inheriting the work that has been done before.

BD:   Do you deserve it?

Jean:   That’s for someone else to judge!  [More laughter]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let me ask a big philosophical question.  What’s the purpose of music in society?
Jean:   I was just reading about this.  It is, shall we say, a mirror of the soul in a way that the other performing arts are notdirectly, that is.  It frees itself from the limitation of language.  It is a language all its own, and communicates on a completely different level.  The ultimate compliment that one hears as a performing musician was when a doctor actually did to come up to me and said, “If I could get more of my patients to attend these concerts, I would have such an easier job.”  It’s all related to the soul, and that helps everything else.  This is what we keep saying, and here in Chicago, one does not have to preach that it is not merely show business, and it’s not merely entertainment.  In places like Florida and elsewhere in the Mid-West, one has to be very careful about that, because most people think that it’s like going a Broadway show, or watching a comedy on television, that it merely is to entertain.  It is not!  If it were, we’re doing it all wrong.  [Both laugh]
BD:   Is there a balance between this artistic achievement and the entertainment value?

Jean:   Yes, because in any performance, everyone gets what they can out of it.  I do not mean to give the false impression that it is not entertaining at all.  On the contrary, it is extremely entertaining, but that is a by-product.  It entertains in a higher level because it doesn’t merely aim to entertain, and that is what we are very proud of.  Beyond that, we have very lucky jobs.  We do this for a living, and we get to touch so many things that most people forget.  Between nine and five, they worry about the profit margin, which, thank goodness, they do because if it were left to us, we would starve to death.  [Both laugh]  So, it’s the balance in society that we serve that function.

BD:   Is every concert that you give fit for the guy who’s been beating his brains out at the office every day?

Jean:   Oh, yes.  We insist!  But part of art is that the audience must bring something to it as well, as a participant, as a listener.  If one comes in and just sits in one’s seat, merely expecting to understand everything without ever doing the homework, they will get so much less out of it.  This is not just for music, it’s everything else as well.  Life should not be so simple.  The idea is that every concert, when you come to Orchestra Hall, we expect that it is for everyone.  Even the most abstract, or the highest-brow, or the most avant-garde piece is designed for everyone.  Somewhere along the line, in the last twenty years we have gotten off the track, and there has been a lot of what we call
angry music written, and that may be what turned people off.  But the intent is still that you come away from the evening feeling nourished somewhere inside.

BD:   Do you also come away nourished?

Jean:   Yes, most certainly.  That’s why conductors live so long!  [Both laugh]  There must be something to it.

BD:   You’ve made some recordings.  Do you conduct differently in the recording studio than you do in a live concert?

Jean:   I’m learning that.  It’s funny you should ask, because I observed Sir Georg, and Lorin Maazel when I worked for him in Cleveland, and noticed that it was a little different.  I had the audacity to ask these people, and they, of course, denied it.  But they did admit it is different in one sense.  When one records in a dry studio, where we are only human beings, you need to recreate the excitement of a performance
if not doubly sobecause the person hearing this recording will be in his living room, not in a concert hall where there would be that sense of excitement.  So, it’s a double whammy.  It’s very difficult, and, very honestly, I don’t do it well yet.  It’s a kind of discipline.  You have to know when you are working in a studio, that it will come out all right after it gets spliced, and cleaned up, and finally released.

BD:   Once you’ve got this thing that’s been assembled, when you give a live performance of the same piece, do you feel that you’re competing against that record, or any other record that’s been made?

Jean:   It would be natural to think that, but I don’t know why.  No, I don’t feel that, because when I have a live performance, that’s what you think about.  I am not plotting the whole performance, thinking, “Now this is what’s going to happen.”  I certainly react very much to an audience behind me.  I’m not the only who does that.  Most performers will say that’s true.  Especially with our back to the audience, we conductors can tell whether it’s a restless audience, or whether somebody is opening the crankily candy, etc.  It all adds to this sense of communication.  You know whether or not you have them in the palm of your hand.  This is why one of the major ad campaigns I have in Florida is that there’s nothing that beats a live performance.  There is that sense of occasion, and certainly we feel it from the stage, and much to everyone’s credit in the audience, they sense it first.  The proof of the pudding is that then when one goes home and listens to the broadcast, it sometimes isn’t nearly what you thought it was.  That is more often the case for me as a listen.  I will attend a concert and think this it is the best thing since buttered toast.  Then I wait and wait for the broadcast, and when the broadcast comes, I feel, well it was okay...  [Laughter]  It wasn’t bad, and I’ll be fair enough now, since I know that phenomenon, I can analyze it, and sit and understand what it was that made me so excited, even though I’m not ultra-excited now.  But I treasure those performances for that.

BD:   Does that make each following performance a little more exciting?

Jean:   Absolutely.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   What advice do you have for young conductors coming along who want to conduct orchestras either in Florida or Chicago?
Jean:   I’m a young conductor myself [he was thirty-seven at the time of this interview] and I’m not so arrogant as to pontificate, but all I can say is that it is a lonely profession.  Ironically, it is the one profession that you work with a hundred musicians every day of your life, but it’s very lonely.  One has to learn the balance between the humility and the arrogance of what you do.  I see so many colleaguesand I include myself in this through part of the growing processthat either think everything they do is great, which of course cannot be true, or everything they do is terrible, which also cannot be true.  Both are forms of self-indulgence.  It is more often that I see, especially in young conductors, that there is great deal of self-indulgence going on, and that’s only natural.  You don’t need to emphasize that.  The idea that a hundred people are going to play for you, and every time you wiggle the stick there is enough self-indulgence.  Beyond that, everything else is the balance.  That is what is so difficult.  You can always be self-critical, or self-indulgent, but it’s the balance.  I’m fond of saying that because you will always get well-meaning compliments and criticisms from all corners, and if you don’t have that balance in yourself, then you will take too much of it too literally.  Orchestra players are especially very sweet.  Most of the time they will compliment you, and then constructive criticism is so difficult to give that they would rather just not say it.  They’d say it was all right.  As a conductor, it’s very easy to just see your compliments and nothing else, and think that you’re great.  Well, that cannot be!  [Laughs]
BD:   Do you feel that when you’re conducting an orchestra, you’re a colleague, or are you a dictator, or where in between do you fit?

Jean:   I’m a colleague in Chicago, and I’m a dictator in Florida.  [Laughs]  I’m also a dictator when I lead the Civic Orchestra [training program for young professional musicians], for example, or something like that.  Of course, when you say that, I am still a colleague.  They bring to rehearsal something that I respect.  As a conductor, I’m one who likes to exploit what is there sitting in front of me.  Why not?  When we work together, you get the best possible performances out of a group.

BD:   But with orchestras like Florida or the Civic, are you more than just Head Colleague?

Jean:   Indeed!  It’s more than that, of course.  I insist on something going my way because I know that it’s better in the long run for the group, or for the interpretation of the music.  In fact, that is the difference sometimes.  Whether it’s something good for the long run of the health and musical growth of the group, or something that is merely for the one performance that we’re about to give.  That is something which comes when you get the responsibility.  To me, what is fascinating about the business is that you are constantly working with people with reactions and egos of their own, and to know how to play that is much more than knowing how to play an organ, or something that’s mechanical.

BD:   You’re playing an orchestra.

Jean:   Right, one is playing an orchestra, which is an instrument that consists of one hundred egos.  Jean Morel, my teacher, liked to say that out of those hundred people, if you’re very good then only maybe thirty percent of them think they can do a better job than you can!  Then, out of that thirty, probably ten people will actually conduct better than you, [laughs] but that is not the point.  If they happen to be good conductors, that’s fine, but if you are the one, you do what needs to be done at that time.

BD:   Is it possible that for this piece one of those people would conduct it better, but then another person would conduct a different piece better?

Jean:   Yes!  Absolutely!

BD:   So, you’re contending with different people all the time?

Jean:   Yes, and patience is everything, especially when one is growing.  This is not just advice for conductors.  You read reviews, and if they’re very upsetting one has to really understand that the bottom line is posterity.  Time is the only judge.  It’s not by choice, but it simply is, and there are very few people who have fooled that across a twenty-five career.  There are very few people that can fool everyone for twenty-five years, and one needs to understand those things.  The balance of it is that sometimes you give a better performance, or they give a better performance, and so forth and so on.  Sometimes you get a good review and you didn’t deserve it, and sometimes you get a bad review and you didn’t deserve it.  But somehow it all evens out at the end.  I say this not because I am an optimist.  It’s because I’m the ultimate cynic, which is to say you never get away with anything!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of music?

Jean:   When the question is put that way, yes.  If you asked me if I’m optimistic about the future of orchestras, I would say I’m less optimistic, because it requires that we now grow and change as a society does, and nobody has shown the way.  There are many, many articles about how orchestras are in trouble.

BD:   Is there any chance that there is no way, and that we’re looking for a way, and it’s not there?

Jean:   I don’t think so because, as we discussed earlier, there will always be a need for music in an organized manner, even if it is to be exclusively rock, which I doubt, quite frankly, because throughout music history, it was never exclusively anything.  That’s the point.  It is somehow the formula.  It may involve television and radio much more, because this is what technology has brought us, and there are those of us who sit and pout, and say how horrible it all is, but that’s nonsense.  You can use a cash card and get money out of a machine.  You cannot argue that anymore, and so it’s best that you join, and figure out how best to serve that.  After all, with millions and millions of cable channels there must be possibilities there for performing arts in general, and music in particular.

BD:   Then you have to hope that people will select that channel.

Jean:   Yes, that’s part of the growth, and figuring out how to do that in a way that expands viewership.  A&E is a very good example.  Nobody thought that kind of a channel would ever work.  [Remember, this interview was held in 1989, and the box below shows what might be called The Artistic Rise and Fall of A&E.]

A&E is an American basic cable network, the flagship television property of A&E Networks. The network was originally founded in 1984 as the Arts & Entertainment Network, initially focusing on fine arts, documentaries, dramas, and educational entertainment. Today, the network deals primarily in non-fiction programming, including reality docusoaps, true crime, documentaries, and miniseries.

In May 1995, the channel's name officially changed to the A&E Network, to reflect its declining focus on arts and entertainment. The following year, the network had branded itself as simply A&E, using the slogans "Time Well Spent" and "Escape the Ordinary."
Whitney Goit, executive vice president for sales and marketing, stated, "The word 'arts,' in regard to television, has associations such as 'sometimes elitist,' 'sometimes boring,' 'sometimes overly refined' and 'doesn't translate well to TV,'"  He continued, "Even the arts patron often finds arts on TV not as satisfying as it should be ... And the word 'entertainment' is too vague. Therefore, much like ESPN uses its letters rather than what they stand for – Entertainment Sports (Programming) Network – we decided to go to just A&E." Of the network's tagline, Goit said, "Intellectually, 'Time well spent' defines a comparison between those who view a lot of television as a wasteland, and their acknowledgment that there are good things on TV and that they'd like to watch more thought-provoking TV."

On December 11, 2013, A&E unveiled a new on-air brand identity built around the slogan "Be Original", emphasizing the network's lineup of original productions and positioning it as a "much lighter, more fun place to come and spend time"

BD:   And now it sells wonderfully!

Jean:   It does very well!  [Both laugh]  It is a combination of things, and then one understands that.

BD:   Is that the secret
to have both A and E?

Jean:   I think so.  They must be part of that, and to me when you say A&E, when there is more A than E, nobody notices.  [Laughs]

BD:   But you don’t look for it to get more E than A?

Jean:   Indeed not!  That’s why, with public stations, one realizes that a lot of the apprehension comes from thinking that we’re about to take medicine.  If you tell someone that they’re just having candy, and it turns out that it is medicine as well, nobody ever complains.  [Much laughter]

BD:   Good to meet you.  Thank you for the conversation.

Jean:   Nice to meet you as well.



© 1989 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on November 11, 1989.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB three days later, and again the following year, and in 1997.  This transcription was made in 2022, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.