Timeline: An Interview with Sarah Ioannides and Daniel Bernard Roumain
The Vermont Symphony Orchestra opens its 2022-2023 season this weekend. Vermont Public Classical's James Stewart interviews the conductor for the concert, Sarah Ioannides, as well as one of the evening's featured composers, Daniel Bernard Roumain.
James: The Vermont Symphony Orchestra begins their season with a program entitled Riots and Prayers. The conductor for the concert is Sarah Ioannides, currently the music director of Symphony Tacoma and the artistic director of Cascade Conducting. Sarah is also a VSO Music Director candidate hoping to fill the shoes of Jamie Laredo, who has stepped down from the position after over 20 years. I had a chance to speak with Sarah Ioannides via Zoom to talk about the upcoming concert. We began the conversation by talking about Sarah’s background here in Vermont.
Sarah: I've had a love of the state for a long, long time. My husband actually is a trombonist, and he's there in Vermont as we speak. He's playing in the Lake Champlain Chamber Music Festival. His name is Scott Hartman. Currently, you know, I've worked many times with the orchestra’s new music advisor David Ludwig, as a composer-in-residence for Symphony Tacoma and played a number of his pieces.
James: As a candidate for the role of Music Director with the VSO, what is your vision for the future of the orchestra?
Sarah: …greater listenership, more classical music lovers, a younger audience. I know that the symphony’s already developed many different kinds of concerts and venues. Traveling the state reaching people is an important part of the vision. I would be really excited to further this, bringing that into the concert hall or taking it out into the digital world. Different things I'd like to explore when I come and see what the synergy with the community is and with the talents that I have.
James: Tell us about the September 17th concert, what’s on the program and what can we expect.
Sarah: It's a really big concert in terms of, you know, it’s got a ton of percussion, great brass music, big, big pieces. The Gershwin Cuban Overture is something that people are going to just love. I'm not gonna give away all the secrets of the concert because I want people to come and be surprised. But I think for me, the Prokofiev Symphony No. 5 is one of the most brilliant pieces he ever wrote. I think this is going to be a really exciting concert. I'm looking forward very much and meeting the orchestra.
James: Along with the Gershwin and the Prokofiev, the program also features a world premiere of Riots and Prayers by composer Daniel Bernard Roumain, a joint commission of the VSO, The Flynn and the UVM Lane Series. Roumain, or DBR, has been active in Vermont for years now and I had a chance to speak with him recently, also via Zoom, to talk about this new work, Riots and Prayers.
DBR: You know, the title came pretty quickly, actually. I was already thinking a lot about just those two words, riots and prayers, and things were already happening in our culture and we're about to happen in our culture; on both those two fronts. In fact, they still are, right? I know that with the assassination and murder of brother George Floyd there were many episodes of people protesting and praying. The title also points to “where's the evidence of these things,” you know. 100 years from now, what will remain? I know, we're caught up in a kind of daily turmoil and conflict and conversation that’s centered these days on, kind of, politics. But, I think the piece also aspires to peace. I think the piece aspires to looking at those two words, trying to understand and unpack them (as they say) but doing that in a way that allows, what I call, townhall cadenzas. Members of the audience will be invited up at different moments in this piece to speak, and whatever they say will be underscored by the orchestra. The orchestra is playing the whole time. These proclamations will be about one minute or less. In some cases, the speakers (as I call them) will be prepared. In some cases, they won't. That's very important to me actually, that you can go to the concert hall, and if you're courageous enough, daring enough stand up, step to the mic and collaborate with your Vermont Symphony Orchestra, I think it's really important.
Sarah: To have an unknown entity within a piece of music is always a very special, rare thing and quite a hard thing to know exactly what the outcome is. So, I'm excited that we don't really know everything that's going to take place in this piece. There's a certain amount of uncertainty here. But, I think it's a very exciting platform to explore, and a very new way of expressing something that is not just one perspective. I think that's really important for today's world for us to hear, listen to understand, and to do that within a classical piece of music is a pretty rare thing.
DBR: I see it as a kind of faith, trust, right? As a composer as a performer, I see it as, there's nothing someone could say that would be inappropriate. See, the fear might be, I know that from my progressive friends, “Well, what if somebody stands up and says, something you don't agree with?” “Great.” I say, “wonderful.” Yeah, so that mitigates my fear. In fact, I hope it happens. I don't want to hear every progressive voice. I get it. I think we truly do need to hear from all sides, not just the other side (that's too easy) all sides, the nuance.
Sarah: I'm really excited about Riots and Prayers. And I hope it'll bring a lot of curious people to come to the symphony who might want to participate.
DBR: It is a very rare event to have a black, Haitian-American composer write a new piece in which you can stand up and be a part of it. I know that everything that is going to be said in those performances is going to have great consequence. It's going to be needed to be said. When you see 60, 70 people on the stage doing one thing and your voice suddenly becomes the soloist. You're the soloist. You're the most important thing in the room on the mic, and there's 70 people behind you, and Sarah is leading them, and we're supporting what you have to say. That's one thing. Watching somebody do that, that's another. That will take your breath away.
James: The Vermont Symphony Orchestra presents Riots and Prayers Saturday, September 17th at 7:30pm at the Flynn Center in Burlington. You can also join me, James Stewart, for a pre-concert discussion at 6:30pm which will feature conductor Sarah Ioannides and composer Daniel Bernard Roumain. Find out more and get your tickets at VSO.org.