10 (or so) questions with...Jere Lantz
By Steve Lange
music director of the Rochester Symphony Orchestra and Chorale, which opens its season Oct. 1 with Welcome to America and follows with four more performances, including Chamber Orchestra Treasures (Nov. 5) and Messiah (Dec. 2 and 3).
Rochester Magazine: This is your 32nd year?
Jere Lantz: You know too much about me already. I started as a youngster, of course. I was a child prodigy [laughing].
JL: My wife is Kristina. We have two daughters, Elin, she’s 20, and Erika is 22.
RM: What’s something people don’t know about you?
JL: I was an economics major in college [at Yale]. I did not major in music. After college I was teaching in a prep school and got involved in a local theater production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. I conducted five performances of that. I had no training as a conductor, no experience as a conductor, but a conductor’s the kind of person who thinks they can do it even if they’ve never done it. So I thought ‘I like this, and I know a lot about music.’ So I went back to graduate school.
RM: So you’re the kind of person who thinks they can do it even if they’ve never done it?
JL: Oh, yeah. I got a call when I was living in Rochester in the early 80s. I got a call from the Twin Cities—they were having some kind of high school music festival and they were putting on the Lord Nelson Mass by Haydn. I got the call at three in the afternoon and they said ‘Do you know the Lord Nelson Mass?” I had never even heard it. I said ‘Sure. One of my best pieces.’ They said ‘Could you conduct a rehearsal at six o’clock today? In three hours?’ I said ‘Sure, no problem.’ ... I went down to the Rochester Public Library and got a cassette tape of that piece, listened to it on the way up and conducted the rehearsal as if I had known the piece all my life even though I had never heard it before. Yes, that’s the kind of person a conductor is.
RM: How well do you know other conductors?
JL: Pretty well.
RM: We’ll see. This person is generally credited with being the first to use a light wooden baton as a means of beating time when conducting. Born in 1809 ...
JL: Mendelssohn. I knew that before you said 1809, but once you said 1809 ... It was February 3rd, by the way.
RM: Wow. Excellent. This Italian-born conductor began his career as a cellist ...
JL: And he was born in 1867. Toscanini.
RM: Yes. Despite his foreign-sounding name ...
JL: Leopold Stokowski.
RM: Wow. For 35 years, he was the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra ...
JL: Herbert von Karajan.
RM: Born in Amsterdam in 1929 ...
JL: Bernard Haitink.
RM: OK. You really do know your conductors. Are there really marked differences? Is it like an NFL coach?
JL: Interesting analogy. The conductor is like a combination of an NFL coach and quarterback. Functions as both.
RM: How many people in the orchestra are going to read that and say, ‘He’s full of crap, we don’t really need a conductor anyway ...’
JL: Real musicians know better.
RM: I’ve heard your hair described as “important-looking conductor’s hair.” Is there some sort of template you have to choose from as a conductor, or ...
JL: When I was a kid, it was very much in style to have longer hair. Had I gone into law school after my economics major, I would have gotten it cut shorter. Since I became a conductor I decided to leave it longer.
RM: I was asked to ask you if you intentionally tried to style your hair like Leopold [Stokowski, composer].
JL: I don’t, but I can see why people think so. When I was in my early 30s, I was accused by a member of the Rochester Chorale of putting gray in it to look more distinguished. I never did that. It runs in my family. My dad was gray, too. By the way, my dog has gotten gray early, too.
RM: Why are conductor’s hearts so coveted for transplants?
JL: Because they’ve never been used.
RM: What’s the difference between God and a conductor?
JL: God doesn’t think He’s a conductor.
RM: Is that really the conductor persona?
JL: Let me tell you about the persona. If I’m asked about the persona, I think about an article I read in the New Yorker at least 20 years ago about a general surgeon who was supposed to be really terrific. They asked him what a general surgeon is like, and he said that a general surgeon is the kind of person that if you ask him to name the three greatest surgeons in the world, he has trouble thinking of the other two. That’s a conductor.
RM: You’ve been called a “musical midwife.”
JL: That’s interesting, because music is a twostage creative process. The composer writes it, and the interpreters interpret it. So I have to bring it to life. Musical midwife? I like that. The afterbirth can be pretty disgusting.
RM: Give me the next number: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 ...
JL: That’s the Fibonacci series. The next number is 21.
JL: The Fibonacci series and its application set is found in shells and plants and all kinds of things. It’s fantastic.
RM: Is there anything about you don’t want me to know?
JL: The answer to that is yes.