Orchestra Spotlight:
Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

An Interview With Bill Eddins, Edmonton Symphony Orchestra Music Director

 Bill Eddins, Edmonton Symphony Orchestra Music Director Bill Eddins, Edmonton Symphony Orchestra Music Director (click to enlarge)

In the 2005/2006 concert season, conductor Bill Eddins assumed the role of music director for the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. Upon embarking in that role, Bill stepped into an ensemble that recently came out of a bitter work stoppage with a newly adopted model of governance. However, the ensemble also had a number of inherent positives, not the least of which is the fact that they are a resident ensemble at one of the finest orchestral venues in the country. Polyphonic.org Senior Editor & Research Principal, Drew McManus, spoke with Bill over the telephone about his impressions after the first full year of service as well as where he sees the organization moving as an artistic force within Canada’s classical music scene

Drew McManus: Although this is your second season as music director, it’s your first with complete control over artistic planning. As such, where are you taking the ensemble?
Bill Eddins: Several months ago we were having an artistic programming meetings and our managing director told me she thought the programming that I was suggesting was boring. After looking at everything I could only agree that we could shake things up a bit and move away from the traditional “overture, concerto, symphony” route.

I ended up coming up with a concept called “Aspects” which is where I take an overall theme and see where that leads us with repertoire selections. “Music from the New World” is this season’s theme. Our first series of these concerts was in September, the theme might now be obvious to all our listeners. I write all of the program notes for the “Aspects” concerts so they have the same sort of insight into what we’re playing and why.

For example, the September concerts included works from featured Shostakovich [Age of Gold suite], Tchaikovsky [1st Piano Concerto], and Rachmaninoff [Symphonic Dances]. Usually one might look at that as an all Russian program. But if you take an audience through the steps of looking at it from a different perspective I hope they’ll begin looking at things differently and see why I think these are all pieces which fall under the theme of “Music from the New World”. So far, it’s too early in the season right now to see how successful we’ve been, but we’ll certainly find out at some point.

Drew McManus: Canadian orchestras are known for promoting new music from Canadian composers; as such, do you have any plans to increase programming music from U.S. composers?
Bill Eddins: Well, I’m a young American conductor so I do tend to program what I know. At the same time, Canadians are very sensitive with regard to issues of not allowing their neighbor to the south to become over-represented. I’ve both premiered and conducted several Canadian works in the short time I’ve been here, and I have at least one major commission on its way for 07-08 and another one in the works for 08-09. At the same time, I’ve been on a real Parisian kick lately so I’m including more from that genre too.

Drew McManus: Where do you see the ESO in the scheme of Canadian orchestras?
Bill Eddins: Edmonton is about three and a half steps from the Artic circle; I’m told you can even see the Aurora Borealis. [laughs] Seriously though, I hope Edmonton is in the lead when it comes to realizing we’re entering into a new millennium. There are three big budget orchestras in Canada that dominate the orchestral scene.

 I also have to say that [the ESO] is one of the best pops orchestras I’ve ever conducted and they take great pride in this ability. “I also have to say that [the ESO] is one of the best pops orchestras I’ve ever conducted and they take great pride in this ability.” – Bill Eddins (click to enlarge)

But I’ve found that bigger the organization is, the more difficult it is for them change. I call it the “Titanic Syndrome”, which doesn’t mean they don’t have the capacity for change but they have a much deeper entrenched sense of tradition that makes it more difficult for them to alter their course.

At [the ESO], we don’t plan our seasons several years in advance and the players are very willing to take chances. I also have to say that this ensemble is one of the best pops orchestras I’ve ever conducted and they take great pride in this ability. The result is that it’s really fun to play things like Gershwin which can be like pulling teeth with players in some other orchestras. I also think the group is better suited to taking advantage of new technologies and the new AFM recording agreement, which I hope we’ll be able to do in the near future.

Drew McManus: What sort of plans do you have in mind for taking advantage of that agreement? Are there any online endeavors in the works?
Bill Eddins: Nothing firm yet, we’re still figuring out the best way to go about this but I’m sure we’ll get it worked out. We can do it, but we have to spend the resources we have wisely; it needs to be “ready, aim, fire” instead of “ready, fire, aim”.

Drew McManus: Are there any plans for traditional recording?
Bill Eddins: There are plans for recordings but we’re not really concerned about the actual idiom, we just want to record music that shows the orchestra off at what we do best.

Drew McManus: Your contract is in year two of a three year agreement. Where do you see the group moving artistically before the end of your initial contract?
Bill Eddins: There are a couple of things I’ve been trying to emphasize: one of which is to improve our sense of ensemble, which I’m glad to say has shown great improvement since my time here. We need to be able to play with the sense of ensemble like a chamber orchestra but with 56 players.

Another change since I’ve arrived is initiating an audition system for substitute players - the Canadians call them casual players – which is the first time in the ensemble’s history this has happened. Part of the challenge is there is not an overabundance of extra players in the greater Edmonton area so we have to be very careful with selecting these additional players.

Drew McManus: Now that you’ve mentioned the size of the ensemble, 56 full time players, how exactly do you determine programming with a core that size and no B contract?
Bill Eddins: We have the advantage of residing in one of the best acoustical halls in Canada, which is a huge benefit because the group gets so much more sound out of the players we have without forcing them to play too hard.

 We have the advantage of residing in one of the best acoustical halls in Canada “We have the advantage of residing in one of the best acoustical halls in Canada.” – Bill Eddins (click to enlarge)

At the same time, you do have to be careful because pieces which use a large number of wind, brass, and percussion players can still overpower the number of strings we use. Plus hiring a large number of extras for a concert can really skew the budget and we have to be careful of that. We have some limited stage space issues due to a movable choir loft that isn’t very mobile at the moment. That’s one particular issue I hope to see improve in the not-to-distant future. Our hall is celebrating it’s 10th Anniversary during the 07-08 season and there is a plan being considered to upgrade the performance chamber during that season.

Drew McManus: Once you get to fit more players on stage, will you program larger works?
Bill Eddins: Yes, but I only want to include additional players if we have the money for it. I would love to have nine additional string players but that will take extra resources. This all takes careful planning since it effects the budget of the orchestra on a long-term basis.

We’re just now getting out of a deficit environment so we’re starting to plan five year artistic goals and add up what sort of funds it will take to get there. As such, that approach will change how we do business, with conscious efforts to increase fundraising campaigns, gala events, etc. in order to fund these artistic improvements.

Drew McManus: Do you have discussions with the players about the artistic direction and how their influence on selecting board members can work to improve the organizations?
Bill Eddins: No to your second question, but I think that is a very good idea. But five of our musicians serve on the Programming Committee and that committee is very active, so their artistic ideas carry a lot of weight within the organization.

Drew McManus: Given its geographic location, how do you plan to get people to think that Edmonton isn’t some provincial artistic outpost?
Bill Eddins: I think it is a provincial artistic outpost, but not in a negative connotation. I’ve been amazed at how much cultural activity goes on in this town; there are three major art galleries and a fantastic theater. The ESO is one of the busiest orchestras I know because they also play for the Edmonton Opera and the Alberta Ballet. I think it is a highly cosmopolitan area chocked full Canadians, meaning that they are an outgoing, engaging people that care about the arts. It’s been an utter delight being among these folks.

The fact that they aren’t located close to another major metropolitan area has allowed them to develop a culture that is unique. As I mentioned before, it’s a new millennium and tools such as online formats and more are going to bring orchestras closer to their public regardless of geographic barriers so the old measures of quality, and success, are going to change.

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