Conductor Neal Gittleman may be a native of Brooklyn, N.Y. but he has been an integral part of Dayton’s modern artistic renaissance for more than 20 years.
Since becoming music director of the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra in 1994, he has ushered the orchestra into the modern age, engaging new, younger music fans through programs like the annual Philharmonster Halloween concert and Rockin’ Orchestra series featuring thematic symphonic programs on rock acts like David Bowie and the Beatles.
Gittleman, who plays piano, violin and viola, is a fan of musical acts like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles but he fell in love with the possibilities of orchestral work during his college days with the Yale Symphony.
Before being hired by the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, he spent time as music director of the Marion Philharmonic, associate conductor of the Syracuse Symphony and assistant conductor of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra. He is currently in his 23rd season as the DPO’s music director and conductor.
Maestro Neal, as he’s often called, recently participated in TedxDayton, where his topic was The Power of Silence. His talk included a performance of “4’33” by John Cage, which is four-and-a-half minutes of silence, where ambient sounds such as the occasional coughing of audience members, conversations in the lobby and passing traffic become part of the piece.
Gittleman recently answered some questions about life in Dayton, TedxDayton and more as our Daytonian of the Week:
For TedxDayton in October, you presented The Power of Silence. Why do we all need a little silence in our lives?
Can I just say, “Cuz there’s just too much [expletive] noise?” Probably not! But we’re surrounded by noise. It’s not just actual noise — it’s that we’re continually bombarded with stuff, only a small fraction of which is truly attention-worthy. But a little silence goes a long way. It counteracts all the noise — literal noise and figurative noise.
The Power of Silence included a performance a famous John Cage piece. What was your take away from that experience?
“4’33” is all about focusing your attention and listening to the sounds of the world with our “music ears.” Performing it at TedxDayton involved monitoring the timing on the “4’33” app I was using to record the performance, juggling what I had to do in the 10-second spaces between movements — close the piano cover, advance to the next slide, raise the piano cover — thinking about how the audience was reacting, thinking about the final section of my talk. In other words, it was like any other performance — lots to do, lots to think about. Very different from the contemplative experience I wanted the audience to have! But that’s what all performers do. We work hard so folks in the audience can have interesting, involving, transformative experience.
As the conductor of the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, you’re accustomed to being in front of audiences, either in concert or in special programs where you discuss composers and notable works. How did the TedxDayton experience compare to addressing crowds in your day job?
Most of the public speaking I do is either off-the-cuff or from written notes. TedxDayton wanted our talks memorized. I don’t think I memorized text since my last theatrical experience, Lavoisier in “Marat/Sade” freshman year of college! But I pulled it off, and now I can go back to speaking from notes!
What part of town do you live in and what do you like most about it?
I live at the north end of Oakwood, a couple of blocks from Ben & Jerry’s. The best part is proximity to downtown. A couple of times I’ve realized I forgot something essential to a rehearsal or concert, zipped home and gotten back to the Schuster Center in under 20 minutes, without violating any traffic laws, either.
How has the city of Dayton changed since you came on board in the mid-1990s?
Lots: baseball, The Schuster, residential construction downtown. We still have a civic inferiority complex but maybe that’s starting to change, too.
What would you like to see happen most for Dayton, culturally, socially or financially?
More good economic news would be nice, as it would improve the environment for all the arts and non-profits in the area. But most of all, I’d love us to develop a stronger sense of community, community pride and community solidarity. The DPO, the Ballet, the Opera and rest of the arts community can be part of that because arts performances are a great way to bring people together and remind them the most vibrant experiences are ones we share live with our fellow audience members. Earbuds and headphones are nice but live is always better.
What is one musical artist you enjoy that people might be surprised to discover and what do you like about them?
I imagine that most people assume that I’m a Bach-Beethoven-and-Brahms kind of guy. And I am, of course. But the music that’s always been “my” music is the stuff I grew up with — the Beatles, the Stones, the Who and the great artists of Stax Records. That’s always been my listening-for-fun wheelhouse. In recent years, my buddy Phil Hinrichs has turned me into a Springsteen fan. I’ve got several of his live shows stashed on my phone and that’s been my listening-in-the-dressing-room fare before concerts. I suspect people probably wonder what’s going on when they hear the E Street Band playing behind my dressing room door before I conduct Beethoven or Brahms, but it works for me!
What is one of your guilty pleasures?
Funny — I don’t think I have any guilty pleasures. But that’s just because I refuse to feel guilty about my pleasures. I’m anxiously awaiting the fourth season of “Black Mirror,” which I guess is coming soon. “Mozart in the Jungle” is absurd, but it’s about my thing so I can’t resist watching. I love “Master of None.” And, pitchers and catchers report to spring training in just under two months so I’m looking forward to [a new baseball season], too.
You’ve had a rich and diverse career in your role as music director for the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra. Is there a project, artist or composition you haven’t gotten to tackle?
As long as I’ve been conducting, there are always things I haven’t done yet that I’m hoping to get to. Very high on that bucket list is Olivier Messiaen’s amazing “Turangalîla Symphony,” an incredibly beautiful, thrilling, cinematic piece of music that would be a real blast to bring to the Schuster Center. And — fingers crossed — it just might happen one of these seasons. It’s been eight years since we last played a Bruckner symphony, and Bruckner sounds amazing in the Schuster Center. We’ve played many Shostakovich symphonies in my time at the DPO but there are several great ones we haven’t gotten to yet. Ditto for Mahler.”
What is keeping you from presenting these programs to an audience?
The biggest barrier to getting to some of those “wish list” pieces is the fact we have only so many programs a year — currently seven Masterworks Series programs each season — and so many great pieces to fill those slots. So, it’s just a matter of patiently holding onto those really-wanna-do-it ideas until the time, opportunity and finances are right. And, it’s not all about big “classical” pieces, either. Ever since the DPO started its Rockin’ Orchestra Series, I’ve wanted us to do something that would bring some of the amazing performers from the local music scene to play with the orchestra. The 2018-2019 season announcement isn’t until New Year’s Eve, so I can’t divulge what it is just yet, but that box is gonna get checked off next season.”
What does the future look like for the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra?
There’s really no limit to what our orchestra can do, except for the continual financial challenges. Stephen Sondheim said it best, in a lyric from “Putting it Together,” a song from his show, “Sunday in the Park with George”: art isn’t easy. My corollary to that axiom would be, “If it seems easy, you ain’t aimin’ high enough!” Every once in a while, you read about an orchestra — or another performing arts organization — that has a LARGE gift “fall from the sky.” The San Diego Symphony got a $100-million gift in 2002. The Cincinnati Symphony got an $84-million gift several years ago. Imagine what something like that — or even half as much — could do here!
Contact contributing arts and music writer Don Thrasher at email@example.com.