Interview by Mary Jarrett

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QUESTION: What kinds of music were played around your house when you were a child?

JEAN-MARIE ZEITOUNI: It was actually a good combination. My mom’s father was a conductor, an arranger and a trumpet player for the radio in the 1940s in Montréal. They were a French family who moved to Montréal. So classical music was playing all the time, and my mom sang in choirs. And then there’s my dad’s side of the family. They’re Egyptian, from Alexandria, and they like music that’s more traditional. This was very rhythmic music. In those Middle Eastern orchestras they play different scales, and they play with a different intonation, but it’s very well organized, with a rhythm section, with a string section, with all sorts of traditional Egyptian percussions: tambourine, darbuka, tabla. So basically, I’m not surprised that as a kid I played string instruments, but as I got into high school, I chose percussion for many reasons. There was really kind of a world-music vibe in my house as I was growing up.


Did you have any percussion instruments at home that were not the standard Western band instruments?

We always had a few percussion instruments around the house. Of course I got a drum set when I was 12 years old, and it pissed off my parents. I was changing instruments every year, so when I picked up the drum set, they were hoping, “OK, this is going to last for six months.”

Recently I started playing traditional instruments again, just for my pleasure and as a way to honor the memory of my grandmother. She and I were born on the same day but 70 years apart. In Egyptian families the grandparents don’t go into [retirement] homes. They stay in the family, and they’re actually kind of the psychological or philosophical head of the family. So my grandmother lived with us, and she was that lady cooking and baking and bossing everybody around. She was born in a time when girls went to school for a few years just to learn how to be a good housewife, but she spoke fluent French, English, Arabic, Greek and Italian. She had an unbelievable sense of rhythm and she was very musical. Although we always say that the musical [talent] comes from my mother’s side of the family, because it’s the Western music and the orchestra, that’s not true. And something that made me want to start playing again is my vivid memory of my grandmother using her knuckles and palms to play on the table along with her cassettes. Honestly, she was grooving. My grandmother was groovy, you know?


Since you’re from such a musical family, were they happy when you decided to become a music student and pursue it as your career?

I think my parents would have supported my brother and me no matter what we wanted to do, but he’s also a professional musician—an organist. It seems like, in our household, music became our main vocabulary, our way of engaging with others, our way of learning about ourselves, our discipline. It was so built in that it was never a question.

[From second grade through high school, both Zeitouni brothers auditioned into special schools where they did music and arts for half the day and academic subjects the other half.] You know when you’re in high school and you take aptitude tests to see if you’d be a good fireman? For us it was like, “I don’t need this. I know my path is in music.”

Another aspect of my family life was that my dad is an artist and a jeweler, and we had jewelry stores. When I was eight years old I started working at the store, answering phones and repairing watches and all of that. That was parallel to music. And I think the idea of working with people and having interaction with people also became something that was natural to me. So in the end, I ended up working in music, but in a job where you interact with people a lot. As a conductor, my instrument is made of people playing instruments. That kind of sums up what I’m about, you know? When I speak to somebody, I say, “I have two passions. I have music and people.” Or you can sum it up by saying I’m passionate about passion in general. Everybody that’s really into what they do, whether it’s making coffee or growing vegetables, and they find a way to be artful in that, it’s what rocks my world. And so it’s important that music becomes kind of a vocabulary to express all my passions. It becomes my vocabulary to make my contribution in the world.


Do you believe that to become a conductor, rather than a vocal or instrumental musician, a person needs to be differently wired in some way? What makes a conductor?

I think one needs to learn to wire oneself differently. What makes a conductor is multi-dimensional, but the required competence to be a conductor is different now than it was 50 or 100 years ago. If you look at it from a historical point of view, the need for a conductor arose when the ensemble got bigger and the music more complex. So there was a need to have somebody that was dedicated to keep the time [and maintain] the coherence of the ensemble. And with the individualism that developed in the era that followed the French Revolution, I think that we gave too much importance to the conductor as being a mythic figure. Suddenly, we became against the kings who were ruling the world and doing whatever they pleased, but we were putting outstandingly accomplished athletes on a pedestal, and the conductor had the same treatment. I’m not sure precisely when and how it happened, but the conductor became this kind of superhero that has the power of telling people what to do, and he’s on the top of the pyramid. I think that’s wrong.

Of course, there was a time when the technical level of the musicians was at a lower level than it is right now, and there was indeed the need for a conductor to rehearse them. What I’m doing right now is an extrapolation on that. In ensemble playing, everybody has a specific role to play, and these roles are not rigidly formed; they move with the requirements of a certain score or a certain [group of musicians]. The conductor also has a job to do. The conductor is the only one who physically has [in his score] every note that everybody should play, while the players in the orchestra have only their own lines. But having all the lines is not a reason to try to dominate everybody. I think it’s a reason to try to support everybody.

Basically, the conductor is in charge of the big picture, and helping everybody to see how they relate to the big picture—kind of the guardian of the coherence of a score. It doesn’t mean that other people’s creativity has to be at the service of the conductor’s. On the contrary, I think that’s where we individually put our talents and our creativity in the service of the work, with everybody doing their own responsibility. So this is how I see my job, as a more collegial approach to conducting.
Of course there’s authority, but it’s not an authority in the name of the ego of the conductor. It’s an authority that is lent to the conductor, as if to say “You take care of the ensemble,” and meaning by that “Balance us.” Because if I’m the concertmaster and I’m playing a duet with the horn player and we’re 60 feet apart, we have no idea if we are together. And we have no idea if the person sitting in the 30th row hears us in a way that seems balanced. I mean, from where I am playing the violin, I hear myself much more than the horn player. And where he is, he doesn’t hear me. How does it sound up there? Can you make sure that our music, our intention in the music that we’re doing, is harmonious from the outside? And can you make sure that you give me my cue when I have a solo, so that I can concentrate on playing it beautifully instead of concentrating and being nervous about whether I’m going to be able to come in or not? If I get lost, can you come and get me back with the others?

When it’s right, it creates a unity. And what I’m trying to achieve, bar by bar, is to keep that unity. I don’t decide what the unity is; the group creates it. So therefore, a clarinet is not flat or sharp; it is flat or sharp compared to the unity of others. What I’m asking a clarinet player is to raise the pitch so that he can join back to the unity of the others.

Once musicians understand that’s what I’m doing, that it’s not my personal tastes or my personal desire but it’s actually in the service of their unity, it becomes a very different approach to work together. And I think that, especially working with highly trained professionals who are specialists in their instrument and in their domain, this is more what is required of a conductor today. Of course, being prepared is essential. Knowing what I want to hear, having a clear conception about the style, the period and the music that we’re doing, is something that is essential. But it will never only be about the realization of my conception. It is my conception meeting who they are and what they are and what they do. And it becomes our interpretation of the thing. That’s actually much more exciting, I think, than bringing everybody down to the level of just executing orders of a superior.


Do you think the days of the more imperious maestro are really over?

I think it ought to be, definitely. I still [work with] orchestras where I’m trying to bring in that collaborative spirit, and for example, an oboe player will ask me,“How do you want this solo?” And my answer is always, “How do you want this?” You know? “Play it for me the way you want it, and I can see if it fits in the ensemble, if it’s compatible with what we’re doing together.” Very often I have members of orchestras say to me, “Just tell us what to do and we’ll do it.” Some people want that old model. Or they may want to say, “We don’t want the conductor to be imperial,” but they don’t want to sound negative. Saying “Just tell me what you want and I’ll do it for you,” they’re putting themselves in the position that they are just executing orders. The mentality needs to change both ways. The conductor needs to learn how to be more collaborative and take advantage of the great potential and leadership that don’t just emanate from him, but are available to him within the orchestra. These people are also leaders. And the orchestra musicians need to also realize and to bear the responsibility of that leadership themselves.

It’s a shift that happens slowly. If you look at the young maestros today who are very “present,” like Gustavo Dudamel—I think they embody that collegial spirit that I’m talking about. And there are other elder statesmen, if I may call them that, who have been trained in a different philosophy about their job. They still [produce] great things. Because it’s a lifelong learning curve to be a conductor. Our job is really about process. I mean, what people hear and see at the concert is only really 5 percent of the work that we put into it. Our real work happens in rehearsal, in preparing, in human interaction, in all of this. So I find today that at 40, I’m doing things with less effort, and I do better by letting go than I did by being invested at 25.

And I find sometimes, you know, there is nothing you can say as a conductor.


Can you explain what you mean by that?

Yes, I have a specific example that’s a little bit weird. I was conducting a very big piece of music, the Berlioz Requiem, in which there is a very huge orchestra, with extra brass players and eight bassoons. It’s hard enough to tune two bassoons than to tune eight bassoons with the extended woodwind section and everything else. There was a chord that, no matter how much we worked on it, we could never tune perfectly. Every time we got there, it sounded out of tune.

At the concert, I had an epiphany. I knew that if I showed a bit of tension or a lack of confidence, it was for sure going to be out of tune. So it went through my mind that I should try to find the body attitude that would embody how I wanted that chord to sound, how big I wanted it, how the piece needed that to sound. And I just let go and really got into that thing. I have the recording [of that concert] at home, and the chord sounds greatly in tune, to a point where, actually, everybody was surprised at the result! But I purposely attained that by letting go, as opposed to doing something.


And that came to you because of, really, kind of an emergency.


As the performance was happening.

Oh, yeah. That was in real time, you know? And these are things that take years to learn, things that I would never have thought of 10 or 15 years ago. There are places in the Brahms Requiem where I just smile instead of conducting. It’s not something that I plan ahead of time, but there are things that are so tender about that piece that the only gesture that comes to me is actually to embody and kind of invite the people to be in that space, and the level of performance goes far beyond the technical rendition of it.


Besides this “embodied conducting,” what other big things have you learned about eliciting a certain sound?

JMZ conducting_Hweb

In some ways, having a good technique is something that is not easy. Having the right tools in the toolbox is good. But as my teacher always used to say, “Technique comes from the music.” You know, if you can have a close relationship with a score, understand intimately how it’s structured, what it wants to express, then you need to ask yourself what gesture you’re going to do to really inhabit this music and be convinced about this music. And naturally, what you do might be a little unorthodox, but you will get the right message.

Because the energetic language, the nonverbal communication, is very present. You know when somebody is sincere; you know when somebody is uneasy; you know when somebody is listening. Everybody is sensitive, to a certain point. So when we are together, and we all have the same piece of music on our stands, and we are there for a common goal—these circumstances create the right conditions for a very, very clear type of nonverbal communication to happen between people.

Anytime I conduct, the only thing that I know is what I’m going to do for the first gesture. And the orchestra will give me feedback on that gesture in the way they respond. Then my second gesture, in turn, is [conditioned] by their nonverbal response. You know, I’m not going to go out there and do my choreography that I learned. It’s really a dance, and I have to [pay close attention to] what’s happening.

So I propose something, they answer with a sound, and then we find each other. Sometimes I give them the lead; I just make sure I’m more about the arc and the bigger picture in the phrasing. I take back the lead if there are specific technical transitions that need attention, and then I give it back. So we have this constant back-and-forth conversation between the gestures and the sound. This is how it happens. It’s always a miracle of communication. And the more I possess my tools, my competence, the more I can go deep into that, and the further I can take the magic of this fascinating experience.


I like what you’re saying, because it helps me understand what it feels like when you’re conducting, having this wonderful communication going on inside the music.

Well, the more I work with a group, the more I refine our way of working together. This is what I’m very much looking forward to doing with the CMF Orchestra. There was a great connection last summer when we worked together—we had two programs. But this is only the beginning of a relationship that will be built, and a big part of it will happen this summer.


When you were preparing your program for last summer, did you come to Boulder to get the feel of it first? When you went to Columbus, and now, as you settle in and work here, how do you get the feeling of a new city?

It’s a lot of things. Every situation is a pretext to having an exchange with people. A server, a cashier, a barista, somebody on the street—I feel the city by the people on the street. But also, there’s a lot to be said about a place like Boulder just by the geography and the landscape. I think that a certain type of surrounding attracts similar types of people. It may be pretentious to say at this moment, but I get a feeling of the people of Boulder and what they are about by observing what types of shops they have, what types of architecture they have or don’t have. I notice how much space is given to nature in their environment. I can see how friendly they are to total strangers. I’ve had lots of hints about this, but I had no expectations.

I have worked at the Banff Center, which is an art center in the Rockies near a small city [in Alberta, Canada], and here I have a similar feeling. It’s not exactly the same, but there is something about the way people drive, their faces when they drive, as opposed to what they do in Chicago or New York. The choice of food, the bookstores, all sorts of culinary stuff, the informal way people dress. And you have paleolithic diets, and there’s a yoga studio on every corner! It seems like a very sympathetic set of priorities. I don’t want to generalize, but in downtown Boulder where we are right now, I try to observe a little bit so I can understand from each experience. I’ve already met so many interesting people in a short amount of time, and of course having music in common, shared with the people who love the Festival and love the music, is always a very good starting point to form an impression.


Would you agree that Boulder, for its size, is a pretty good music city?

Absolutely. And the arts organizations that are here full time during the year—for the size of the city, it’s really impressive. It’s not just music, but the arts in general, the holistic approach. It tells a lot about the “unicity” of each people. There are some things that remind me of Santa Fe—an eclectic sense. I enjoy the idea of the friendliness. There doesn’t seem to be a big barrier in Montréal, where everybody is friendly with strangers, but you barely know your neighbors. I lived for nine years in a condo that I bought and I never knew who was my next-door neighbor. And maybe that says a lot about me, as well.


Do you think that having digital music available at all times, and getting used to small bits of information, have affected the way people listen to music?

Definitely. There are two very distinct points that your question inspires. About the availability of music, I am a prime user of Spotify and all the similar services that we can find, and I think that is absolutely great. I’m not old, but I remember a time where I had to go to the library and spend 10 hours there to do the research. Now the information is available to me in a few seconds on my phone. I don’t even need to get off my butt to get it. I can research and listen to 500 versions of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony—again, available from my phone in three minutes. And actually, I think I like that, because it’s so accessible. That’s one part of the deal, but does it replace live music? I don’t think so.
The other part is much more serious. I think we are all potential victims of having everything pop up in broken-down bits, and I include myself. The brain is not a finite thing. The brain will be wired and rewired and modified with whatever we feed into it. And so I see lots more people who have trouble reading a magazine article if it’s more than a page long. They will have trouble watching a video if it’s more than two minutes long. What is fascinating about this is that we get people who can do 200 things at the same time, which is quite impressive, but who cannot do or understand or follow one thing deeply. That’s where the big scare is for me. To enjoy a concert experience in the symphonic realm, you’ve got to be able to stop. You’ve got to be able to introspect. You’ve got to be able to concentrate. And these are not very fashionable words right now. This is an ideal to attain.

But I’m also like this. If I’m bored, I will look at my Facebook and watch 500 pictures of my friends and their faces and what they do. And I have one little bit of information about 500 things, instead of having 500 bits of information about one thing, you know? And I find that people are more stressed. Their attention span is reduced as far as depth, being enhanced as far as variety. I don’t know what will become of this, but I think that to be in contact with themselves, people need to find a way to have a contemplative experience.


Do you have ideas for how to address the short-attention-span problem in your CMF programming?

These are things that every arts organization is facing. I’m trying to take care of it by doing lots of variety, and there’s always the right, you know, “voltage.” We will try to enhance the experience with some visual elements. At the same time, I do have to say candidly that I am reluctant to water down the music itself. [He hums the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth.] That is a great tune, but it’s not really as great in itself as how great it is in the whole structure of it, you know? That little tune gets [overemphasized] out of a 45-minute piece of music whose construction is so perfect that you cannot remove one single note from it.

Is that too sad, what I’m saying? [laughs]


No, it’s a huge issue.

You know, I was a percussionist, OK? I would play my notes in an orchestra, and then I would have 200 bars of rest before my next entrance. If you see it from an act-to-act point of view, I could say, “Well, I will punch in before my next entrance, and what difference does it make? If I don’t disturb the others, I could read a magazine or do emails or something like that.” But the point is that you’re still part of the piece of music, and you’re still part of the experience, even though you are not actively playing. Of course, being a conductor now, I’m involved all the time, so I don’t need to face this problem anymore. But it breaks my heart a little bit when I see people texting in the middle of rehearsal or something like that. I don’t take it personally. I think that the threat is much greater, and it’s not a lack of respect that is intentional. This is a shift generated by our ingrained way of living every day.


Is the CMF audience going to hear you play percussion?

Maybe in the right circumstances, yes. Yes. But not officially this summer.


Did any composer’s music seem alien to you until you feel in love with it and learned it?

Being a percussionist, I didn’t go through the history of music starting with the beginning. When you’re a pianist, you play Bach Inventions, and then you play a Mozart sonatina, and then a Beethoven sonata, and you kind of go chronologically. When you’re a percussionist, the first thing you play is, like, Bartók and Stravinsky, so you actually go at it upside down. I have to say that what took me the most time is Bach. Because I have so much respect for his music, and I feel so small next to his music, I wanted to wait. I’m starting to conduct more and more of Bach’s work. But before really getting my mind and heart in the big Passions, the massive B-minor Mass, the cantatas—these are things that I was almost reluctant to get into, out of respect and out of humility. I’ve been assistant conductor and chorus master for a number of these works, so I know them; they’ve been part of my musical life. But from the first day I open a Dvořák score or a Brahms score, I just feel in familiar territory. Opening a Bach score, I have a feeling that what is there is so perfect that, if I touched it, I was going to break it. I wanted to make sure that I was deep in my understanding of it—until I found that I could do it justice. This December, for the first time, I’m going to do the Christmas Oratorio with I Musici de Montréal. It’s like,“OK, I think I’m ready now.”


In April 2014, for one of your final concerts with the Columbus Symphony, you programmed the Mozart Requiem and Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs. Do you have plans to perform the Strauss here?

Yes, when the circumstances are right. My last concert as music director of Columbus was Carmen because we wanted to do a big party. But the farewell concert to Columbus was the Prelude to Act I of [Wagner’s] Tristan und Isolde, the Strauss songs and the Requiem.

I’m a fanatic of the voice, a fanatic of opera, and a fanatic of the whole lieder production of Strauss. This year we’re doing a big Strauss—it’s Don Quixote, because we have a cello festival and I found that the best orchestra piece with cello is actually Don Quixote. So this is what emerged as the right thing to do, and there will be a time where the Four Last Songs is just going to be right. And then, you know, it’s going to be the right singer. It’s going to be the right time in the relationship between the orchestra and me. It’s going to be the right period of the summer. It will fit with the right combination of pieces. And it’ll make sense, but I don’t want to impose it. I like to leave depth and meaning to emerge.


What especially appeals to you in Strauss’s music?

Well, the sheer virtuosity of the orchestra writing was appealing to me. You know, there are composers that are appealing to adolescents; Berlioz is one of them. His ideas are, I think, very teenager-like: liberty, the artist, and the expression of all of that. And I actually think that Richard Strauss’s first music, meaning the Tone Poems, the Zarathustra and Don Juan, is really speaking to adolescence in the hero, the mythic, the orchestra that’s bigger than life, the craziness of the writing.

And then, for other parts of life, there are works like the Metamorphosen, the four last poems and the Capriccio, the last opera—which are, in a way, the same guy, but after 80 years on this earth he’s able to laugh about himself, not taking himself too seriously. He has a sense of humor, plus he has that maturity. I always say that my favorite composers are M’s—Monteverdi, Mozart and Mahler—as opposed to people who like the B’s—Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Which I love, but if I think about my favorites, I’m into the M’s. And to me, Richard Strauss is the one who, with his commitment to open music and to understanding, especially of the female voice, is really the one who took the baton from Mozart as far as sensitivity and the spirit of classicism in his operatic and symphonic work in general. And to me, since I love Mozart so much, it is so natural to like the femininity, the glorifying of the community in music the way Strauss did. And no one else did it that way before Mozart did it.


I’ve heard that you love food and wine. Do you have special things that you like to eat and drink before or after a rehearsal or performance?

Well, I’m in love with food and wine, but I never eat before. Or if I eat, it is just to get some calories. I would eat a banana, but I like to feel light. Immediately after a concert, you’re full of the experience, so when you’ve bathed in that sound, and the human tide of what an orchestra is, it’s very difficult to go to bed right after like nothing happened. We kind of stretch the moment, you know? We live the moment of greatness together. And then we go out and we eat and we drink, trying to preserve it, to stretch that moment and that energy.


Just two more things. Should the province of Quebec be independent?

Tough question. I don’t believe in separation in general. I think that [the goal] should be to preserve the unique identity of the culture. Quebec doesn’t have to go through a physical or political separation; [French-Canadians] are not oppressed to a point where the only solution is separation. It has to do with people cherishing their culture and perpetuating it. When I see kids not able to write French anymore, or not able to speak it correctly, that to me is where we should work, just to make sure that this culture stays alive. No offense to anybody, but we have to understand that people in Quebec are surrounded by English speakers that have a North American culture, whether it’s a Canadian or an American culture. There’s nothing wrong with this. But Quebec is the only place [in North America] where we speak French, along with one village in Saskatchewan and one little part of New Brunswick. We are surrounded by 360 million Americans and 25 million English Canadians who watch NBC and Seinfeld and Friends. And we do that, too. But the thing is that if we don’t do everything we can to keep our culture, it will fade. We should welcome English-speaking culture and be enriched by it, but preserve what makes us special.


If people from Colorado who like the arts and food and the outdoors were going to visit Montréal, what would you want them not to miss?

I think just the feel of the city. Montréal is unique, even within the province of Quebec, because Montréal is absolutely half-and-half English and French. You see people all the time switching languages in the middle of a sentence when they speak to each other. There is something very unique about this kind of dual identity that Montréalers have, and its presence in the architecture and in the people and in everything. You look at some places in Montréal, and you see imperialism from the Victorian period, from England. And if you look another way, you’d think you were in Boston or Chicago—Chicago because there is an Art Deco building, or Boston because of the old parliament buildings. And you turn around, and you feel that you are in old Paris, because there’s the old Montréal with the presence of the French colonists who were there. It’s a really special place, it’s a port city, and it’s just culturally very rich. We have a hundred dance companies in Montréal. They’re not all big ones, but it gives you an idea of what contemporary dance is. Art galleries, different orchestras and chamber music associations, and all of that. So when we spoke about Boulder as being a culturally interested city, Montréal has that, but on a much larger scale. People need to taste the food of Montréal. People need to just immerse themselves in that unique energy that most cultural things generate. ♦

Mary Jarrett is the editor of Boulder Magazine.