With his gift for storytelling and the rapid-fire elocution that seems typical of his native Australia, Kynan Johns is an engaging interview subject. One of the six candidates being considered for outgoing Colorado Springs Philharmonic music director Lawrence Leighton Smith's position, the 36-year-old conductor spent years apprenticing under the famed Zubin Mehta and has conducted more than 60 orchestras and opera companies around the world.
Currently director of orchestras at Rutgers University, Johns has seen tragedy as well. Last September, just hours after rehearsing Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, the orchestra's second violinist, Tyler Clementi, committed suicide. It drew national media attention because, before the 18-year-old killed himself, his dorm-mate had secretly videotaped him being intimate with another man and posted it online.
Last week, I talked with Johns about that and other subjects, from his enthusiasm for Australian and Russian composers to what he'll be bringing to the Colorado Springs Philharmonic this weekend, and possibly beyond.
Indy: Tell me about the repertoire choices for your performance here. What makes them special to you, and how do you see them fitting together in one program?
Kynan Johns: When the finalists were first chosen, we were all given a list of instrumentation in order to determine what range of works we should look at. And by the time I got back to them, four of the programs were already decided. So the list I put down — Brahms, Tchaikovsky, things like that — were already taken by the other candidates.
Indy: Were those exact pieces taken, or were they just similar enough that you didn't want to do them?
KJ: Oh no, the exact ones.
Indy: That's odd. Aren't there more than 15 pieces in the classical repertoire?
KJ: You'd hope so! But I remember my teacher once telling me that if you're going to be a guest conductor somewhere, as a candidate, never do Brahms No. 3, because it ends softly, which means the public doesn't clap very much. And the selection committee wonders why no one's clapping, so you don't get invited back. So only as a chief conductor do you do Brahms No. 3. I mean, you want to choose something that ends triumphantly, something that's kind of familiar so it's going to be successful.
Indy: So in this situation, you may choose a bit more conservatively than you would if you already had the job.
KJ: Yeah, it's a different criteria. But I wouldn't want to give the impression that, you know, once you get the job, then you do all contemporary music and alienate your public. When you're programming, you must consider all the needs and all the desires of both the public and the players, and then try and do whatever you feel is necessary for the musical growth of both.
The reason I chose Shostakovich No. 5 is, it's an incredible piece, of course — it's one of the major works of the last century in terms of symphonic music. It's very powerful and it's well-known by audiences. And also, the Russian repertoire is something I've been able to develop a strength in over the last 10 years.
It's very odd, because growing up in Australia, I never listened to Shostakovich. It was too depressing! But I had no experience then with Russian culture. Coming from a fully Anglo-Saxon background, it wasn't something I started to experience until I went to Israel to study in 1997. There's a huge Russian population, of course, in Israel, and I had a Russian girlfriend who later became my wife. Her family are musicians who had close connections to the Shostakovich family and the archive, and I've worked now and again with Maxim Shostakovich, who's the son of Dmitri Shostakovich.
So I was lucky to have those experiences, to really get inside this music, you know, what's between the notes, and underneath it all.
Indy: The Peter Sculthorpe piece [Sun Music III] is obviously quite a bit less well-known, at least over here.
KJ: Yeah, I thought, well, I'm an Australian, so I should bring some Australian music. And I've had success with this piece before when I've done it in various countries. The reason I think Americans grab hold of this work is he's kind of like Australia's Copland.
Indy: I was wondering to what degree it evokes the country and its traditions.
KJ: Yeah, it's musical landscaping. With Copland, you feel the Grand Canyon. You feel the Great Divide, you feel the plains of the Midwest. And in Sculthorpe, you get the feeling of the Australian outback and the sun, even though he actually wrote it in upstate New York, when he was studying on a fellowship in a bitterly cold winter. So he was dreaming about the Australian summer, you know, where you can boil an egg on the hood of your car.
Indy: I'm sure this is a difficult subject to talk about, but since it's received so much attention and raised awareness about the issue of Internet harassment, I think I'd be remiss not to ask. What were the circumstances when you first heard about Tyler Clementi's death? And in what ways, over the last six months, have you been able to come to terms with the tragedy?
KJ: I think in many ways, at the time, I was more shocked and affected by it — and more concerned about how it would affect the students and how to take them through this — than they were, necessarily. It was tricky, because he'd only been in school three weeks, so the students themselves hadn't had a chance to develop much of a relationship with him. And seeing as how he wasn't a music major, he wasn't taking the same classes as many of our students.
There were some undergraduates who were very affected by it, and it was just trying to figure out the best way to deal with this. And I, of course, went to our counselors and asked them to come in and talk with the students.
At the time, it was, of course, quite a shock. He was in orchestra rehearsal that very day, playing the Berlioz. And I'd told him at the start of the rehearsal that I had just arranged for him to have his private lessons — he qualified and he could get lessons for free with one of our graduate students. And I sensed nothing from him, except the usual social awkwardness that sometimes accompanies freshmen in their first couple of weeks in college.
It's made me become much more aware. You always ask yourself, "Well, why didn't I notice? Maybe I could have done something."
Indy: Just one more question: What was it that drew you to this position?
KJ: The main thing that drew me to it was your outgoing music director/chief conductor. Because I knew of his reputation and standard, and thought, well, it must be a very good orchestra. And so the artistic standard must be very high. And seeing what was programmed — I mean, doing Ein Heldenleben this season means the orchestra can play anything. So there are lots of possibilities.
I've lived in many places around the world, and some were more idyllic than others. [Laughs.] But when you're a conductor and there's a great orchestra, it's wonderful to go work with those musicians. So the fact that everyone says Colorado Springs is a wonderful place, that's just an added bonus.