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July 5, 2017

Interview: Matthew VanBesien and Ken Fischer


UMS welcomes Matthew VanBesien, seventh president of UMS. Learn more about Matthew in this joint interview with outgoing UMS president Ken Fischer. Jennifer Conlin moderates.

Part 1

Jennifer Conlin: I thought that we would start with how you met. I hear it is a meeting that did not occur in the hallowed halls of Hill Auditorium or at the Lincoln Center, but rather here at the University of Michigan Ross Business School.

Matthew VanBesien: That’s right.

Ken Fischer: You should talk about that.

Matthew: [laughs] Well, I think it was a great opportunity. I think I won the award for coming the farthest for that session here at Ross. I’d never been to the University of Michigan before, and coming to the Ross school with all these great colleagues, meeting Ken, meeting the wonderful people from the National Art Strategies, it made a real impression.

Ken and I met and we said to each other, “How is it that we’ve never met?” Because I knew all about UMS here. I know Ken’s brother, Norman Fisher, who teaches cello at Rice [University], at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice in Houston, where I used to live. I think we just made a connection immediately, I don’t know that I knew Ken was a horn player, but we sussed that out pretty quickly. Ken took me on a road late night to literally every performance venue on the University of Michigan campus but it was so clear what a special place this was and, of course, Ken is so effusive and wonderful about what happens here and why it’s so special.

Ken: So that’s where we first met.

Jennifer: Then, let’s talk about the [New York] Philharmonic Residency, because you also work together now and there you are with the oldest orchestra in the country and one of the oldest — Is UMS the oldest?

Ken: Well, the oldest of the university related presenters, at 138 years like you said. From Melbourne, Mathew came to the New York Philharmonic and of course, this is an orchestra that we love and that we’ve had coming here for a number of years. In 2013 they were here, where we had a chance, actually, to work together in building that program. Then, of course, the big residency of 2015 which had some really distinctive features. But in working together, of course, we are deepening that relationship; he’s getting to know a bit more about Ann Arbor and we are able to do some great things together.

Matthew: I remember, I was here for 2013, not too long after I started at the New York Philharmonic. The Philharmonic has been coming here, I think, 1916 was the first —

Ken: That’s right.

Matthew: That was before the New York Philharmonic had gone to Europe for really toured anywhere internationally, they were here in Ann Arbor, at Hill [Auditorium]. [In 2013,] I remember Ken took me to breakfast at Zingerman’s Roadhouse. So, it was important for me to understand this iconic landmarks here in Ann Arbor. The wheels started turning right there, and I started telling Ken about some of the orchestral training initiatives that we started, really trying to work intensively with young musicians to help them. Not just to understand how to play their instruments, they get a great education about that at a great conservatory, but the fine craft of orchestral playing.

So we thought, let’s think about a way to have a regular presence for the New York Philharmonic here in Ann Arbor, then to build a lot of rich activity around the main stage concert. I think, when we were here in 2015, we played three main stage concerts but we did 35 — I don’t want to call it ancillary in a smaller way, but really important events around that at the music school, across the university.

Jennifer: And at the halftime show. [laughs]

Matthew: [laughs] There was a halftime show.

Ken: Don’t you love that we have now a person who grew up in the Midwest but also went to a Big Ten school. Now it’s Indiana, they are generally better in swimming and basketball than in football. [laughs] But there was a sense of what can happen on game day.

Jennifer: We weren’t going to mention Indiana specifically.

Matthew: The brass players were thrilled about doing it. Alan Gilbert, our music director, conducted part of the show but it was amazing to see. I think it was about thousand musicians, the UMS Choral Union, the Michigan Marching Band, Alumni. To see a thousand musicians out there….It was just a very special moment.

Our players in New York still talk about this, this was really one of the most memorable things that they’ve done, and being a member of the New York Philharmonic you get to do some memorable things along the way. But that was incredibly special and I have a big photo in my office in New York that Ken and UMS sent to me. A special thing.

Ken: It was one of those things that really deepens your relationship between an ensemble presenting organization but especially the community. Imagine what we can do for the next residency in November 2017. It just happens to be approaching the centenary of Leonard Bernstein. A man who not only loved that orchestra, but boy did he love Ann Arbor and coming here. We’re going to remember Bernstein in a very special way.

Jennifer: It’s the Young People’s Concert.

Matthew: I think it’s great because it’s not just an entire homage to Lenny. It’s really a testimonial for all the things that he did. The opening concert will be with the incoming music director of the New York Philharmonic, Jaap van Zweden, who would never have even begun a conducting career had it not been for Leonard Bernstein who was then conducting the Concertgebouw, asked Jaap who was the concertmaster to conduct a little bit so he could go out into a concert hall and listened on a tour. Jaap had never even conducted before, and he’ll tell this story when he comes to Michigan this fall.

The Young People’s Concerts actually started in the 1920s in New York, but they were catapulted to this unbelievably iconic status in the 1950s with Leonard Bernstein because they were televised on CBS. Back when major networks televised something like the Young People’s Concert, and of course, Bernstein was on television a lot. Then, of course, we’re doing his music. We’re doing the third symphony, the Kaddish Symphony, which is an incredibly powerful work. It’s a great mix. Some of the things that we’ve talked about around the residency are also very, very exciting in terms of how they really engage students, how they engage the greater University of Michigan community, Ann Arbor community, and Southeast Michigan. It will be a lot of fun.

Jennifer: I hear as well that it was during the halftime show that you started even considering UMS.

Matthew: Rosie, my wife, had reminded me of a conversation that we’d had before we went to New York. That conversation was, “It’s such an amazing opportunity, we’re going to New York. I’m so happy for you to have this chance to work with the Philharmonic.” The discussion was, “What happens at some point when you’re not at the New York Philharmonic, what would that look like?” She never said a word during the entire process here for UMS. The day that I was announced as being Ken’s successor, she reminded me that we had this discussion. Apparently, I said, “You know what I think would be really great is to go to UMS and the University of Michigan after I finished with the New York Philharmonic.”

Jennifer: [laughs]

Matthew: I really gave her a hard time, because I was like, “I can’t believe you never mentioned this during all the last several months of going back and forth.” I do remember when we were here in 2015, Ken and I were walking to the stadium, the day of this great activity. I think Ken started saying, “I’m thinking about my future and possibly stepping down in a few years.” There’s no question in my mind that that planted the seed.

Ken: If that was a bug that was put into your ear at that time, I’m thrilled that it was because I hope you know how great I feel about having a friend, a colleague whom I highly respect in an ensemble that he has been leading that has more than 100-year affiliation with us. We both have Interlochen in our experience, which was for both of us a transformative experience. Then, my dear, we both play the French horn. I was just thrilled, yes.

Matthew: Well, for someone who’s looking at a position like this, I mean one of the things that really makes an impression is, who will be your predecessor and all that they’ve accomplished and the spirit. Ken has this unbelievable spirit of generosity. I mean, it’s unrivaled, I would say, in the performing arts. It means a lot to me to be able to come here and succeed him. Understanding that the incredible 30-year tenure that he’s had here and how much UMS has evolved into much, much more than an organization who presents concerts.

The evening before I was announced, I called a good colleague, Wynton Marsalis, and he went on and on about how much he loves UMS. He talks so much about how it’s not just about what’s on stage but what happens around the performances; going out into the community, engaging students at the university, engaging Ann Arbor, engaging Southeast Michigan. That’s the testament to the work that Ken has done here.

For me, it’s a real honor to be able to come here and succeed this guy because he is a great colleague, he is a great friend. I know what an amazing job he has done here. I consider it a great responsibility, a fun responsibility, to learn as much as I can from Ken during this transition period, but also, to really uphold the legacy that he has created.

Part 2