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MU Philharmonic Orchestra aims to broaden program beyond 'just dead, white, European men.'

John McKeever conducts the University Philharmonic Orchestra at their February 15 concert in the Missouri Theatre.
Iskander Akhmadullin
MU School of Music
John McKeever conducts the University Philharmonic Orchestra at their February 15 concert in the Missouri Theatre.

John McKeever led the University Philharmonic Orchestra in their first concert of the spring semester on February 15. Classical 90.5’s Kiana Fernandes sat down with him to discuss his first year at the university, programming this concert and future plans for the orchestra.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Kiana Fernandes: What was it like getting into Mizzou and starting to work with these students?

John McKeever: It’s been so exciting. The students have been really eager and engaged and really excited to learn. We’ve got to spend a lot of time breaking apart the music and discussing how it all goes together. And the students have been really into that process, which has been really exciting for me as a teacher.

Kiana Fernandes: Could you give me a brief rundown of the pieces?

John McKeever: Up first, our graduate student Carlos Verano is going to be conducting Rebagliati’s “Peruvian Rhapsody.” This is a cool piece. It’s basically an Italian bel canto opera overture but using Peruvian music.

Then we have an alum returning – Mitchell Sidden, a clarinetist, is going to be playing the Stamitz third clarinet concerto with us, which has just been a delight. It’s lovely music and we’re getting to just play it lovingly.

And then the last piece on the first half is Clarice Assad’s “Brazilian Fanfare,” which is a newer work. Clarice Assad is a Brazilian and American composer, and this piece takes a bunch of different Brazilian styles of music, different dance forms and different folk tunes and kind of combines them with the Western classical music tradition in a really fun way.

And then we are ending the concert with the last two movements of Smetana’s Má vlast, which are “Tábor” and “Blaník.” Má vlast is a depiction of Bohemia and Smetana’s home country. And these last two movements in particular focus a little bit more on people and ideals than they do specific places.

Kiana Fernandes: I noticed that two of the pieces are using Latin American sounds and one of them is composed by a woman. Is diversity in your programming something that you consciously engage with?

John McKeever: Absolutely. So, I don’t look at programming in terms of pieces. I look at it in terms of skills. And so, as I’m thinking about the pieces we play in any given year, I’m looking at trying to expose them to as many different skills and styles as I possibly can so that by the time they leave this program, they have the foundational tools to interact with, hopefully, every kind of music they could possibly encounter.

And fortunately, the classical music world is broadening its scope past its traditional repertoire, which means our students need to learn how to engage with music by composers who are not just dead, white, European men.

Kiana Fernandes: What does the preparation process look like for this orchestra?

John McKeever: So, we meet two times a week with the whole ensemble. And then we have sectionals on Wednesday nights, which sometimes we use to rehearse smaller pieces.

And we started right away, which means we’ve had about four weeks to prepare this concert, which is fast. But everyone has been really engaged and been doing their work, so it’s been a lot of fun.

And it feels very fast-paced, you know, there’s no time for the music to get stagnant because it’s just go go go go go, like, I feel like I blinked and now we’re at the concert.

Kiana Fernandes: What can listeners to this look forward to from the orchestra during the rest of the semester?

John McKeever: The rest of the semester is going to be a lot of fun. After this, we have an opera from the Baroque era, Handel’s Ariodante, which is going to be a totally different style and sound from anything else we will have done this year, featuring our fantastic vocal students through the Show-Me Opera part of our School of Music. And it’s one of Handel’s greatest operas, and it’s going to be a really great show.

And then at the end of the year, we’ve got a really exciting program that is going to close with Pictures at an Exhibition which is just, you know, one of those monumental pieces of the orchestral repertoire. And I think the students are going to be really excited to engage in that piece and I know the audience is going to love it.

And I’ve paired it – a graduate student, Lucas da Silva, winner of the soloist competition last year, is going to be performing an aria from one of Bellini’s operas, that’s going to be really great. I love bel canto operas, and this is going to be a lot of fun to do with the orchestra.

And then the first piece on that program is by a composer named Ranjbaran, who’s a Persian composer. It’s called “Seven Passages.” And it’s just a really awesome, again, newer, work for orchestra that really explores a lot of fun colors and features the woodwinds in very exciting ways that I think is going to be really great here.

Rebecca Smith

Kiana Fernandes is a senior at the Missouri School of Journalism - studying cross-platform editing and producing.
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