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You might expect the daughter of two music teachers would get an early education in the tuneful world they love. Well, try really early in the case of Kate Hatmaker: she started learning about music at the age of 3.
Like parents, like daughter. She’s made music her career too after a brief flirtation with politics. Hatmaker is a violinist with the San Diego Symphony and one of the many younger staff musicians who are changing its style and look.
Hatmaker does more than play for symphony patrons. She and former symphony flutist Demarre McGill, who’s now based in Seattle, head up the chamber music group Art of Élan.
Their group plays a few concerts a year, striving to bring some badly needed excitement to classical music. They hope their audience doesn’t just look like the usual symphony-goers, nor their concerts like a typical hours-long homage to dead white guys. They mix modern pieces with unusual configurations of musicians, like last month’s solo for a guy playing maracas in the middle of a cozy museum gallery. Their effort has snowballed, and the group is teaming up this year with a cross-section of San Diego cultural groups for its fifth season, weaving in elements of mariachi, theater and jazz.
This week, I asked Hatmaker about Art of Élan’s goals, the evolution of the San Diego Symphony and the stereotypes of orchestra musicians.
The most important question, of course, is: How do you pronounce Élan?
Eh-lan. It’s a French word that I fell in love with. It’s a word that represents spirit, vitality and momentum. We just felt like classical music could sure benefit from that. It’s about doing everything with more élan.
You perform chamber music. What is that?
You use these archaic terms, and you wonder why classical music is not so relevant to current generations today. Chamber music is called that because it was originally played in a small room, in a small chamber. The idea was rather than be in a huge concert hall you’d be in very close proximity to the audience. You’d be playing with two or other players, and the audience would be right there.
I’m thinking of “Amadeus,” where he’d play in a small room.
For many musicians, there’s a real intimacy you get with that. For me, it’s great to have the opportunity to play the huge Mahler symphonies at the hall with 80 or 90 other musicians and then play a Mozart trio or quartet in the art museum where we play a few feet away from the audience.
We currently have about four or five concerts there a year. What’s been great is that they’ve been selling out. People are just five feet away. If my music falls off the stand, which it has done, someone picks it up and puts it back up for me. And the acoustics are surprisingly great.
How many violins do you have?
I have two. There’s a violin I played on most of my life, and I only recently acquired an investment violin and will probably spend my life paying it off. It’s a 1791 and Italian, and it sounds amazing.
The bow is another recent acquisition of mine, an old French bow that I’m almost done paying off. It’s a five-year process.
You’re trying to bring new audiences to classical music. How does that fit in with how the classical music world as a whole is trying to stay alive?
Across North America, symphonies are struggling with how to keep classical music relevant. I don’t think it’s just one formula: “Let’s just program contemporary music and then it will stay alive.” There’s a lot of bad contemporary music too.
Part of what is problematic is that the concert length is pretty long, two and a half hours. One of the things we swore to do was to keep concerts at one hour, no intermissions. Everyone can stay focused and engaged.
You recently chaired the committee of symphony musicians that negotiated a contract. How did things go?
All the East Coast orchestras are really struggling financially these days. We’ve had our fair share of that in San Diego, but I feel like for the West Coast orchestras, it’s really our moment now, our moment to shine out here. People are still growing.
What I like about our organization here is that we keep growing and don’t get worried and make decisions out of fear. We did get some modest raises, and we’re on the right path for growth.
Since they’ve come out of bankruptcy and are paying enough now, they’re attracting people internationally. There’s more competition.
It’s a very young orchestra too: there’s no one who has an orchestra as young as ours. At least a third of them are under 40, which is unheard of. In other orchestras, you might have five.
Are there rivalries among the various sections of the orchestra? Do you sit there and glare at the woodwinds?
No, but there are stereotypes of the different instruments. People sometimes think the oboists are kind of high strung because they spend so much time cutting reeds and having to blow all that air into a small space. Bassists are pretty laid back. And the poor violists: no one every thinks about the violists.
What about the violinists? You have about 25 of them in the orchestra.
People think violinists are prima donnas. But at our symphony, everyone is able to work together really well.
Sounds like something a prima donna might say: That there are no prima donnas, and everybody loves everybody else.