“There’s nothing you can read about the Portland Youth Philharmonic that will prepare you for an experience when you come to a concert,” declares David Hattner, music director of the PYP, which is the oldest and one of the best youth orchestras in the United States. “You have to experience them because they’re that good.”
This may sound like the kind of boasting you might expect from a conductor, since conductors are stereotypically egotistical, but Hattner isn’t bragging about himself. He considers himself fortunate to work with these kids, not the other way around. And he’s right. Hattner, who grew up playing clarinet in an assimilated Jewish household in Toledo, OH, knows firsthand what it’s like to be part of a premier youth music ensemble. As a youth, he spent several summers at the prestigious music program at Interlochen Summer Arts Camp, in northwestern Michigan.
“Those were defining musical experiences for me,” Hattner remembers. “The impressions you form as a teenager are the strongest and never go away.” Today, as a conductor, Hattner continues to be inspired by Interlochen’s mission to achieve maximum results from its students in a short, concentrated period of time. “That’s what I give to our players. I tell them to work hard, because the more excitement and emotion you put in, the more you’ll enjoy it.”
Opportunities to play clarinet professionally at the elite level are few, and, as Hattner points out, those who hold principal positions in the top orchestras typically stay in them for decades. For Hattner, conducting was a way to continue working within the classical music world. “Orchestras aren’t growing, and there are fewer opportunities to work professionally as an orchestral player, so I either had to expand outside music or do something else within music,” Hattner explains. “Conducting is a means to an end – somebody has to do it – and for me it’s a way to be connected to the music.”
Finding a paid conducting gig is not much easier than landing a principal clarinetist’s job. Hattner’s somewhat laconic description of his trajectory from the wind section to the conductor’s podium fails to mention his intense work as a conducting student over three summers at the world-renowned Aspen Music Festival, where he studied with Murry Sidlin, former associate conductor of the Oregon Symphony. “Conducting was initially an alternate career path for me,” Hattner acknowledges. “I didn’t know whether it would be feasible, but it turned out I had some natural abilities, and through my studies at Aspen it became clear that it would be possible; that’s how I got the job here.”
Hattner, who was selected from a pool of over 100 candidates, became the conductor and music director of the PYP in 2008. He is only the fifth conductor/music director in the orchestra’s 88-year history.
Hattner may have found his way into conducting through a side door, but he’s firmly ensconced on the podium now. “The orchestral repertoire interests me more than anything else, and I like that conducting is orchestral performance, but in a different form from playing a single instrument,” he says. As conductor, Hattner determines how works will sound: he decides what tempos to take and how to negotiate transitions from one section to another. He’s also the orchestra’s motivator, providing the players with the constructive feedback they need to play their parts as well as possible.
A conductor must have intimate knowledge of each instrumental part in any given work, unlike a principal clarinetist, who is responsible only for his own part and those of the other clarinetists in his section.
“As a conductor you’re responsible for knowing the entire score well enough to be able to explain it to all the players and answer questions, and you have to know hundreds of pieces,” Hattner explains. “It’s a daunting difference. When I was a principal clarinetist, I could show up to a rehearsal and sight-read everything and it would sound fine, but you can’t do that as a conductor and have any success; you have to spend hours studying the score before you come to rehearsal.”
Conducting a youth orchestra, even one as accomplished as the Portland Youth Philharmonic, presents special challenges for the conductor. Hattner explains the difference in rehearsing with the Oregon Symphony and the PYP. “I do my homework beforehand, but the Oregon Symphony is so professional they’ll be completely ready to perform at the first rehearsal. As long as I go in prepared, and make no mistakes, they’ll play perfectly. With a youth orchestra, you have to teach them how to play every work from scratch.
“A typical first rehearsal with the PYP is a bit of a mess, because although the musicians will have looked at the music and hopefully listened to a recording beforehand, they’ll have questions about a lot of things like transitions. I might have to explain musical terms they aren’t familiar with, and often I need to tell them what the primary melody is at any given point, which isn’t always obvious.” He pauses a minute and then adds, “A really good conductor is essential to a less experienced orchestra like a youth orchestra.”
Hattner is acutely aware that he is working with only a small sampling of Portland’s student musicians, and he laments the ever-dwindling opportunities for music education in the public schools. “The PYP was never intended to replace the public school music experience. Schools can reach all the children. We can’t. Not all PYP students have school orchestras or bands to play in; if they do, I hope they will bring their training and expertise to their school colleagues and encourage younger players to pick up an instrument.” Hattner says PYP musicians have shown “it’s possible to achieve excellence, with effort” and he wants PYP musicians to be “music education ambassadors.”
“We also want to remind parents that their input at school board meetings is critical to preserving existing programs. If school boards and principals are not reminded and congratulated on their programs, they’ll be cut. There are a lot of young people in this community who can’t participate because they don’t have access to early musical education. If programs were made available to them that their parents could afford, it would make a big difference.”
Elizabeth Schwartz is the program annotator for the Oregon Symphony and a freelance writer living in Portland.