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A Conversation with James Burton and Matthew Evan Taylor

Conductor James Burton and Composer Matthew Evan Taylor
Vermont Symphony Orchestra
Conductor James Burton leads the VSO October 29 and 30, a program which features a world premiere by Vermont-based composer Matthew Evan Taylor.

The Vermont Symphony Orchestra’s second concert of the season is titled “Paradise and Light” and will be led by Grammy Award-winning conductor James Burton. It also marks the return to the stage of the VSO chorus after a more than two-year hiatus. James Burton is currently the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Choral Director, and conductor of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. He's the sixth candidate for the VSO Music Director position, hoping to fill the shoes of Jaime Laredo, who has retired after a more than two decade tenure. VPR Classical’s Helen Lyons had a chance to speak with James Burton via zoom to talk about the upcoming concert, which features Toward the Unknown Region by Ralph Vaughan Williams, and a world premiere by Middlebury College Professor of Music, Dr. Matthew Evan Taylor in the first half.

JAMES BURTON: The whole idea is that of a journey from either an unknown, in the case of Vaughan Williams, or a dark place, in the case of Matthew’s piece, to something more positive. It was really nice to find a short work which would sit in between these others. And it's a piece by Augusta Read Thomas. She actually created it for strings, having written a piece for voices, which is entitled “Of Paradise and Light.” And it's almost like the apex of an arch. It sits as this calm, beautiful, very delicate piece. And in the other two pieces, we feature, finally after a long, long gap for the for the symphony chorus, the singers, so that so the whole of the first half feels like it's associated both with that journey, from darkness to light, but also the human voice, and trying to arrive at a moment of tranquility, and with Matthew's piece finishing with an incredible sort of radiant positivity and light.

HELEN LYONS: I also spoke with Matthew Evan Taylor about the inspiration for his piece, “from despair…Light.”

MATTHEW EVAN TAYLOR: This piece is part of something that I've been calling my “Black American Requiem Suite.” The ultimate impetus was the passing of my paternal grandmother, Ernestine Colvin. She passed away in 2017. And I had made significant progress in my grieving process, and a poem came to mind, and that poem became the basis of the piece. I'm particularly struck by how appropriate this piece is right now, we have definitely moved into a new phase in this COVID environment that we're in: people are grieving and looking for ways to move forward in the face of all of this uncertainty and grief. This is the first choral piece I've written. In a way it's kind of a capper to the grieving process. You know, the grieving process is not this clean, linear, forward-facing kind of thing. So the piece will start in a place of tension, the orchestra's doing these tense things. And then, over the course of the rest of the piece, you're going to hear moments of beauty and relaxation. But there will still be moments, brief moments of that pain coming back. It makes it one of the more honest pieces I've written or like authentic pieces I've written, I feel. My grandmother actually, before she passed away, she told me that she wanted me to write music full of flowers and light. And so there have been four pieces that I've done in the series, and I think I did a lot of flowers. And so in this one I actually give her light.

JAMES BURTON: And in the second half of the program, we are going to play Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony. This is initially a much more somber piece, it comes full circle at the end with a big sort of feeling of denouement, with a sense of grounding. Even though it's a positive ending.

HELEN LYONS: How do you see the role of Music Director?

JAMES BURTON: It starts with the music and the musicians and beginning a musical friendship and and having guests conducted in different places. Sometimes those friendships blossom into longer term relationships. A music director has to bring ideas that will sustain an organization over a period of time, but times will also change around that. And I think about what happened in the pandemic it feels like now world events have sort of taken over us and everybody thinks slightly differently about programming, from even a year ago. I see a Music Director as being responsible for reflecting those changes in how to connect to an audience and how you present music.

HELEN LYONS: You've worked with many deep-rooted institutions like the Boston Symphony Orchestra Chorus, and the Halle Orchestra and Choir in England with whom you won a Grammy. Can you talk a little more about being part of a long standing musical tradition?

JAMES BURTON: It's a fantastic part of being a musician. I am acutely aware of being part of an uninterrupted tradition. As a boy, I sang at Westminster Abbey in the choir. And the choir has been singing uninterrupted in the same building for centuries. So singing, say, the music of Henry Purcell in the very choir stalls where he himself conducted that music, and then watching the same choir, albeit in a new generation, singing the music of Henry Purcell at the funeral of the Queen and feeling that I played my part in the continuance of that tradition for those few years of my life. Yeah, being part of a tradition is kind of humbling and it keeps you in check. I think it's not all about you, it's about the great river of music in which we all swim and gently move forward knowing that some there is a some kind of destination somewhere. We're helping it along. Hopefully the destination is people's hearts. I can't wait to meet everyone and start exploring music together.

HELEN LYONS: The Vermont Symphony Orchestra presents “Paradise and Light” Saturday, October 29 at 7:30pm at the Flynn Center in Burlington, and Sunday, October 30 at 3pm at the Paramount Theatre in Rutland. Find out more and get your tickets at

Helen Lyons serves as the Music Manager and host of Vermont Public Classical’s Monday-Saturday morning program. She grew up in Williston, Vermont, and holds a BA in Music from Wellesley College and Artist Diplomas from the Royal Academy of Music in London, and College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati. She has enjoyed an international singing career spanning three continents, performing in Europe, China, The Philippines and the USA.