Matthew VanBesien (IAC 87) was named executive director of the New York Philharmonic earlier this year. He was previously the managing director of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and executive director and chief executive officer of the Houston Symphony. A native of St. Louis, Missouri, Mr. VanBesien earned a bachelor's degree in horn performance from Indiana University. As a professional musician, he was second hornist in the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra in New Orleans from 1992 to 2000. Crescendo recently caught up with Mr. VanBesien to discuss his view on music administration and his vision for the New York Philharmonic.
Q. How do you balance being a musician and an administrator?
A. I balance it more easily now because I am no longer a professional musician! In 2000, I committed myself to being an administrator full-time, but certainly my musical background plays an important role in how I approach this position each and every day. I know there are many people who have not had a career as a performer who run major institutions like the Philharmonic and do it very well, but personally I use things I learned as a musician all the time, and I cannot imagine making some decisions required in this position having not had the chance to perform as an orchestral musician. While I rarely perform these days (and find it fairly stressful when I do because of the time constraints for practice time), I do have this extraordinary opportunity to be around and collaborate with our incredible musicians, conductors and guest artists – all of which fuel my desire to do the work ahead. That said, I would still like to have a go at the Brahms Horn Trio.
Q. What is your vision for the New York Philharmonic?
A. Together with our music director Alan Gilbert, we are quickly working on a collective vision and longer-term plan at the moment. My personal feeling, and one that Alan and I have discussed at great length already, is that we have an enormous opportunity to honor the tradition and legacy of the Philharmonic, but also think about how we evolve what we do here in New York and around the world. I believe the Philharmonic has the capacity to not only fulfill its role as a great ambassador for music, but also see itself as a becoming an even greater innovator and ‘resource’ on many levels – artistically, educationally, digitally, and in how it serves people in New York, the United States and around the globe. How we define ourselves for the future will be key, and we just completed an incredible project called "Philharmonic 360" in June, illustrating how we can expand the very notion of what an orchestra concert can be.
Q. What are the biggest challenges facing classical music today?
A. The simple answers would be building audiences and financial strength, but that would be ignoring the fact that perhaps those issues could be symptoms of more fundamental issues and more importantly things we could and should be doing differently. Maintaining and growing audiences cannot be accomplished simply through marketing more effectively, or through programming choices, or even through a new or renovated concert hall (the latter is something to which we aspire long-term). Generating audiences, along with building a strong financial base of support for an orchestra has to be done though a broader, holistic plan and philosophy that encompasses everything we do – what we program, how we present it, how we tell our story and how we take good care of the people whose attendance and support we desire to have. The intersection of art and commerce, if you will, is something that I have always found fascinating.
Q. How did your experience at Interlochen Arts Camp influence your life and career?
A. I grew up predominantly in small towns in the Midwest and South, so my experience at Interlochen was crucial in helping me realize there was a much wider community of young people out there like me who wanted to perform music at a very high level, had a passion for music and wanted desperately to make it a career. If I think about the seminal moments growing up and training to be a musician, several occurred during my summer there. Standing up in the horn section at the conclusion of Mahler’s First Symphony during a performance of WYSO will always be one of those moments for me. I am still in touch with some of the people I met at Interlochen, and think it is a fantastic environment for young people to excel in their musical and personal development. I didn’t even mind the blue corduroy pants, though I haven’t worn any since, truth be told.