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Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
March 7, 2006
DeKalb — Brett Mitchell, a first-year assistant professor of conducting in the Northern Illinois University School of Music, will this year experience Paris in June.
And August. And December. And maybe May.
Mitchell has been selected as the assistant conductor of the Orchestre National de France. He will make at least half a dozen trips a year to Paris to assist and cover for Maestro Kurt Masur in a role that eventually could expand to conducting the orchestra during educational and outreach performances.
The Seattle native learned of his success immediately after his audition, which took place in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. The concert hall was the site of the world premiere of Stravinsky's “The Rite of Spring,” a work so avant-garde it caused riots in the audience.
“I was thrilled, obviously, and stunned. You get so used to rejection after a while – you're ready for it, you're prepared for it – I just remember when I heard my name,” Mitchell said. “The orchestra is just phenomenal, not only in their technical prowess, but they play with so much heart. They are never hesitant to dig in, and I love it.”
His opportunities in Paris, where he will meet, observe and work alongside some of the world's greatest conductors, will benefit his students in DeKalb as well as audiences for Philharmonic and Opera Workshop performances.
“Spending so much time with these great musicians can't help but affect my work here,” he said. “How could it not influence what I do?”
Mitchell's road to Paris began in New York by way of Austin, where he earned his master's and doctoral degrees at The University of Texas.
Masur, who conducted the New York Philharmonic during the 1990s, returned in 2004 to lead a master-class for young conductors. Mitchell wanted to submit his name, but the course's culminating concert would take place the night before his wedding in Austin. His fiancée, flutist Holli Ryan, urged him to apply.
Five of the 100 applicants – Mitchell included – made the cut.
“Holli told me, ‘Go. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,' ” he said, quoting his now-wife.
When Mitchell returned to New York two months ago to conduct a performance of Mozart's 40th Symphony on the composer's 250th birthday, it was at Masur's invitation. Mitchell told the maestro how he had hoped to audition for the position in Paris, but had not heard of the opening until the application deadline had passed. Masur arranged the successful audition.
The position will not interfere with Mitchell's work on campus, where he is music director of both the NIU Philharmonic and the Opera Workshop.
He also will continue in his five-year role as the Dominion Foundation Associate Conductor of the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, where he spends all of July and part of August.
Originally a pianist, Mitchell earned a bachelor's degree in composition from Western Washington University. He had conducted a bit in high school, frequently filling in during his band director's absences, but hadn't considered the career path until putting his own music on paper.
“I began just by conducting my own works, hoping to just get some good performances of them,” he said. “After a while, I realized how much I also loved performing my colleagues' music, and how lucky I was to spend every day with geniuses like Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Bringing masterpieces both old and new to life with 100 colleagues – there's nothing I love more.”
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