Classical conductor Jader Bignamini is jealous of jazz musicians. Here’s why.
Bignamini shares his diverse musical heritage and explains why he can’t wait to work with young musicians at Arts Camp.
It’s no secret that Jader Bignamini is a standout in the world of classical conducting. As Music Director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO), Bignamini frequently conducts music by classical greats: this spring, for instance, he led his orchestra in performing Tchaikovsky and Paganini.
But there’s more to Bignamini than meets the eye. The native of Crema, Italy also nurtures a passion for jazz music—an unexpected penchant which he says makes him a better classical musician.
This July, he’ll bring his signature instructional style to Interlochen Arts Camp, where he’ll conduct the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the World Youth Symphony Orchestra in a side-by-side concert.
Bignamini recently sat down for a conversation with Interlochen in which he shared his diverse musical heritage, why he’s jealous of jazz musicians, and why he can’t wait to work with young musicians at Arts Camp.
Learning from classical music and the “King of Swing”
As a young musician, Bignamini was influenced by two people: his father and his clarinet instructor. His clarinet instructor gave him tapes of traditional symphonic music and opera. His father, on the other hand, encouraged him to listen to Benny Goodman—an American clarinetist known as the "King of Swing."
“I grew up with both classical and jazz music in my life,” Bignamini remembers. “I think it was very interesting for me to have a combination of these two styles, very different, but sometimes not so far from each other.”
In the years since then, Bignamini has maintained his interest in jazz, even while pursuing a successful career in conducting. “I’ve always liked listening to jazz music for relaxing,” he says. Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, and Quincy Jones are frequent features in his listening rotation.
I think that if we are able to understand this way to make music, we can be more flexible. Improvisation happens in classical music, too. It’s not improvisation like jazz, of course. But when we are going to play the same piece for two or three concerts, we have a different feeling every night...
Detroit, Michigan is Bignamini's second home and the home of a vibrant jazz scene—both in jazz clubs throughout the city and in programs at his own orchestra. Under the guidance of creative director Terence Blanchard, the DSO offers the Paradise Jazz Series, which Bignamini enjoys attending whenever he can.
“Every time I hear there’s a jazz concert at the hall, I go to listen to them because they are incredible, incredible musicians. Sometimes I'm jealous because they are so free to make music in a very natural way,” he admits.
When asked to elaborate, Bignamini says that the skills of improvisation honed in jazz technique can be incredibly helpful to classical musicians.
“I think that if we are able to understand this way to make music, we can be more flexible,” he says. “Improvisation happens in classical music, too. It’s not improvisation like jazz, of course. But when we are going to play the same piece for two or three concerts, we have a different feeling every night—maybe there is a night when we’re angry, or we have sorrow, or we're feeling pretty good. We have to be able to immediately understand the new feelings.”
Learning from his own students
When Bignamini works with WYSO this summer, he’ll draw from his diverse musical background as he mentors young students. This season, they’ll take on Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major, a classical composition that Bignamini says is perfect for Interlochen.
“Mahler is mainly inspired by nature, so Interlochen is probably one of the best places to have a chance to play this incredible piece,” says Bignamini. “It’s full of different emotions, nature, love, passion, energy, power—we have everything in this symphony. Mahler said that a symphony has to be an entire world in itself, and this is the perfect example of that.”
It’s not just the rep that will make Bignamini’s week at Interlochen a special experience, though. He’s ready to be inspired by his students.
“I'm excited because the students can give me new energy and enthusiasm. It’s an incredible opportunity for our DSO musicians to be playing alongside them. To work with the next generation is incredible food for our souls,” he says.
Every time, every concert, is an opportunity to listen to new people, to have new ideas, to listen to new sounds, to new styles of music.
Drawing inspiration from freewheeling saxophone solos and soaring operatic arias, Bignamini has allowed the best of jazz and classical music to form him into the musician he is today. He’s also doing his best to learn from the young musicians in his care.
According to him, a musician’s growth never stops.
“Every concert is an opportunity to understand something new, both for me as a professional musician and for young musicians,” he says. “Every time, every concert, is an opportunity to listen to new people, to have new ideas, to listen to new sounds, to new styles of music.”
When Bignamini takes the baton, students and audiences alike are invited to join him in a journey of discovery.
Jader Bignamini will conduct the World Youth Symphony Orchestra alongside the Detroit Symphony Orchestra on Sunday, July 23, 2023 at 7:30 p.m. Get tickets here, watch the webcast, or learn more about Interlochen Arts Camp.