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A chat with Jaime Martin: LACO’s new chief discusses his approach to conducting new music, plus soloists and composers he’ll feature in his first season

The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra begins its 2019-2020 season this coming weekend with two concerts featuring a world premiere from Andrew Norman and works by Beethoven and Berlioz. The weekend also marks the official beginning of Jaime Martin’s tenure as LACO’s Music Director.

The Spaniard takes over the orchestra in a time of transition, with former Executive Director Scott Harrison having stepped down a few months ago and the search for his replacement ongoing. That said, LACO is on solid footing, both artistically and financially. There are no crises to overcome and no hardships to endure. Audience, critics, and the orchestra’s musicians have all responded well to Mr. Martin’s appearances with the orchestra, and there is much optimism that he will continue LACO’s recent successes in new directions.

So what will those new directions be? It’s still too early to tell definitively, but based on the his programming for the upcoming season, it’ll be a mix of old and new, building upon LACO’s legacy while injecting his own ideas on repertoire, guest artists, and community engagement.

I had the chance to sit down with Mr. Martin to discuss many of these issues. Much of that conversation is below:


CK Dexter Haven: How has the past year been since the announcement and everything sunk in, meeting new people and doing new things?

Jaime Martin: Well, since the announcement this year has been fascinating, because basically we had to fill the coming season with the content. So this has been a lot of work for that, and not only to design the program but also to get to know the donors – all of the people that support the orchestra that are very important.

It has been really good fun. And the big part of the thing was that I have to decide what to do in my first season. And as you can imagine, this is difficult. It’s difficult because you have a blank piece of paper and you say, “OK, this is the LACO year. You have to put something for each concert.” So that was really interesting.

CKDH: And what was the easiest part of putting together the season?

JM: Once you get the happy idea, then things become easier. I have to say that that was difficult to arrive to a moment when I started to feel free about it.

I had to do a kind of psychoanalysis of the situation because I said, “Well, OK, here I am going to start a new season with a new orchestra in a new city in a new continent,” because I haven’t worked very much in the States, so where do we start?

My first idea was that you – music lover or the audience – don’t know me. Even the orchestra doesn’t know me very much; they know me a little bit from [previous conducting appearances]. So this year is going to be a year of discovery both ways. I have to discover you and you have to discover me.

I thought that the best way to achieve that – or to approach that – is to show you who I am. What my taste is. What are the things that make me excited about music? And I thought that a good way to do that is by bringing to you people I have enjoyed over the years making music with:

First, Anne Sofie von Otter is going to do the opening concert. When I used to be a flute player, I remember I recorded with her and Chamber Orchestra of Europe with Solti conducting. We did the Così fan tutte recording on Decca that you can get now. I was playing on that; I was the Principal Flute of that. Also if you look at the Claudio Abbado recording on DG of Schubert arias orchestrated by different composers – Berlioz, Brahms, Weber, Britten, Max Reger – with Thomas Quasthoff, also it [was me playing with her]. That recording is fantastic!

CKDH: Yes, I actually have it – fabulous.

JM: Yes. Over the years I have done so many things with Anne Sofie and loved her singing. When I was a flute professor at the Royal College of Music in London, I had always on my phone an aria – a little song by Kurt Weill sung by Anne Sofie von Otter. And all of my new students at the Royal College of Music – the first day when they arrive in September, first lesson – before they play the flute I say, “Sit down.” I [hand them] my head phones: “Listen to this.”

All my students know this song very well, because they have to listen if I’m not there. And I say, “Look, this is my idea of legato and vibrato. If you don’t like this – what you just heard now – then you should find another teacher.” (Laughter) Because this is what I like.

CKDH: So there’s obviously similarity between playing flute and singing.

JM: Exactly. When I started conducting a few years ago and now I had the chance to work with her as a conductor – not only as a flute player – and it has been wonderful working with her. . . .

Christian Tetzlaff is coming to do the Beethoven violin concerto. I have worked with Christian over the years, not only when I was a flute player. The number of times he’s done Beethoven – I remember – I have been in tears listening to Christian Tetzlaff doing Beethoven. I have been lucky enough to have played chamber music with him in festivals. I have even then – crazy pieces like Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Sounds for a Mad King with him playing the violin. He’s somebody that is fantastic as well. So I thought Christian Tetzlaff has to be in my first season.

Denis Kozhukhin is the most fabulous pianist; Russian pianist. He has played the London Symphony. He worked with Barenboim at Berlin. I think he has been in lots of American orchestras, but he’s not been to LA yet. I used to coach him in chamber music when he was studying with Bashkirov in the Reina Sofia School in Madrid, and I remember that I thought about him, “Hmm, this guy plays very well.” And then funny enough, the following year after I met him as a student, he won the Queen Elisabeth competition in Brussels and became a big hit.

So apart from bringing people I know well, another thing that they have in common is that they’ve never been to LACO before. This is a nice way to get to show you what people – what kind of musician I like, what kind of artist. I think that was one of the lines or poles that helped me to start building this season.

But I didn’t want to be completely selfish about this, it’s not only about me. (Laughs) Apart from bringing my friends as the soloists, I thought in the first season I should take something from the orchestra also. I wanted to use the relationships the orchestra has been creating over the last few years with the young – the exceptional generation of young composers here. And this is something that’s not new: LACO has been very active in promoting new music. . . .

That’s why in every concert next year I’m going to do a new piece by the young fantastic generation. With Andrew Norman, we are opening a trilogy of three years that he’s going to do a concerto for chamber orchestra – that is going to go over three years, one movement with each year culminating with the third year. First year will be the first movement, second year is second movement, and third year the complete piece.

[And while] we’re opening a three-year project with Andrew, with Derrick Spiva we are closing a three-year project. We’re going to perform the third piece of the trilogy, in the closing concert we’re doing his final piece. I had a meeting yesterday with Derrick to talk about the piece. But apart from that, we have a world premiere by Juan Pablo Contreras, we are going to have the West Coast premiere of a new double bass concerto by Missy Mazzoli [with LACO Principal Bass David Grossman as soloist]. Everybody is very aware of her because of her quality and also the Metropolitan Opera commissioned a new opera from her, so everybody is talking about her.

CKDH: Right. And Ellen Reid?

JM: As you probably are aware, last December I personally offered the job of Composer-in-Residence for the next three years to Ellen. That was in December. And then the fact that now she’s been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music: what timing! (we both laugh) Because of course, to offer her the job now, that would be too obvious. “Oh, she won the Pulitzer, let’s get her.”

CKDH: Yes, definitely.

JM: I think with LACO, now, is the kind of energy which I really feel it. I think LACO always had energy, of course, but now LACO is going through a time that the orchestra and the management had to meet somebody that they didn’t know very well, which is me. I am meeting them, so we are trying to get to know each other. That of course creates a little bit of (small gasp) – I’m going to use the word “tension”, but it’s not really tension, you know?

We don’t know each other that well, and because we don’t know each other that well, I think this tension is translated into energy. We are coming up with things and I think that’s very positive, it’s very exciting. I can see that we are all of the time moving, we haven’t started yet. And we are doing things. I think it’s very – I am starting to feel very free.

CKDH: So you talked about making that offer personally to Ellen Reid a couple of months before she won the Pulitzer Prize. And she’s another very familiar composer to Los Angeles audiences in general. Tell me: why was Ellen Reid the right fit for this job even before she got the Pulitzer ? And what do like about her music?

JM: I tell you. I had lunch with five composers together when I was here in December. And it was wonderful because basically the reason for this lunch was to try to feel the energy. It was Andrew Norman, Ellen Reid, Derrick Spiva, Juan Pablo Contreras, and Sarah Gibson and me. So it was a pretty good group.

CKDH: Yes! (Laughing) Very good company!

JM: But you have to make these things happen – we didn’t meet in the street. (Laughs) And we had a very good time. And all of these people – they would have pieces in the program for this season or next.

So, I knew about the music of all of them. The only person I didn’t know the music of was Ellen at that moment. But because I met her, she was interesting. Then her opera was performed here in LA and somebody told me that this opera had been an incredible success and people like that. They said, “Whoa! This really was fantastic.” So I remember that I went back to that day and started looking, listening to music by Ellen Reid, which I didn’t know. And I thought, “Oh, this is really good!” Anyway, the next day I took it to Scott Harrison [then LACO’s Executive Director] and said, “We have to appoint a Composer-In- Residence,” and he said, “Yes.” So on my way to the airport we offered Ellen the job.

CKDH: And what was her reaction?

JM: We actually we did it on Facetime. Somebody has the photograph of the moment. And she went, “Oh, really?!” She was really thrilled. She was very happy. I am very happy we had this moment on camera because it was completely surreal; I don’t know why at that moment I felt we could not wait any longer. I thought, “Let’s do it now.”

CKDH: Great instinct.

JM: It was pretty good instinct, you know? And yeah. It was very quick, that decision.

It had nothing to do with the other composers in this lunch. Andrew had already been Composer-In-Residence and we had commissioned pieces from him. The relationship with Derrick has been also a long while and it is going to continue because we happen to get on very well and I like him; I think we have a mutual understanding. And the same with Juan Pablo Contreras. That lunch was amazing, because that morning when I met Juan Pablo Contreras – his face that morning was like, “Ah!” (smiling with eyes wide open) because that same morning he got the message that Universal signed a contract with him to record a series of CDs with his music. So he was very happy that day.

CKDH: So you get those composers together, what do you talk about and what do they talk about? Do they talk about what you want to do with LACO? What you are asking of them?  About their compositions? Soccer? Food?

JM: One of the topics that we had was: what can we do? What is our responsibility as composers and performers to convince people that what we do is not scary? So we were discussing that, the fact that we are writing music for people. This is not an intellectual exercise.

CKDH: That’s not what maybe certain European composers in the ‘50s, ‘60s would say. Stockhausen wouldn’t say that.

JM: No. But that’s what we were talking about. And we put, for example, Stockhausen and Boulez. As much as I admire some of his music, I think Boulez in a way was – well, I don’t want to accuse Boulez. There was a time when any music that had any resemblance to order was considered old-fashioned.

Basically, it was almost like a police state of composing. And then composers felt, “Oh, we have to make things sound ‘modern,’ ” whatever that means. And I think that has been very damaging for music. Maybe it was a necessity; sometimes things need to happen, like when Schoenberg invented serial music; I think history sometimes needs to have moments of little revolutions or big revolutions. But I think with music this went a bit too far, and this has alienated audiences.

CKDH: How do you feel about a composer that’s very different to Stockhausen or Boulez, but still obtuse to many casual classical music listeners – like John Cage and what he does?

JM: I think John Cage was almost like a provocation, but I think at that moment, it started to be charming for a lot of people.

That before the minimalist movement started to get shaped, I think John Cage set it up – I think it was like Mondrian in that sense, that it came with concepts that were very original to him. With Mondrian, he painted squares. And you say, “Well, my child can do that.” Yes, but he did it first. (Laughter) It was Mondrian. (Laughter) You see what I mean?

CKDH: Oh, absolutely.

JM: Yeah, my child can – and me too – but I didn’t. And then, like that, John Cage can then put metronomes doing their thing, and this is a piece. Or 4’33” – a piece that is silent. OK, I can do it, you can do it, [but] the fact is that John Cage did it first, and I think that has value. I think this was the time of discovery almost. It was excitement.

But I think now now we’ve gone through a lot. And with the new generation of composers, I think we are in a renaissance of music in that sense. People like Oliver Knussen or Thomas Adés in the UK.

CKDH: Another frequent visitor of Los Angeles.

JM: Yeah. And Thomas Adés – I think he has been somebody with no shame who has written music that is completely novel, is completely his language, his style. But not pretending to be “modern” in the sense.

I did the premiere of the Thomas Adés violin concerto when I was with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and I was playing the flute when we premiered it. Thomas Adés was conducting, and a few years later I still could sing beats of the last movement of Thomas Adés violin concerto. Even now (he sings part of it) it’s music that you can relate to. It’s music that you can remember, it’s music that you can even sing. And for many years this was not allowed.

CKDH: Right!

JM: And that’s why I said that with no shame, he said, “Look, music is something that makes sense,” and that’s what I feel.

That kind of approach is the approach I see with people like Andrew Norman and lots of the LA composers – we are writing music for people. Real people.


Jaime Martin 2019-04-26 (photo by CK Dexter Haven)CKDH: How do you interact with composers when you’re performing their music? For example, how did you prepare to conduct Bryce Dessner’s piece, voy a dormir?

JM: My approach to it is I do research about the composer and then do research about the writer – the poems – in the same way I would do if I were doing the Schicksalslied by Brahms. Then try to imagine in my head the song as well. For Bryce’s piece, I asked if there was a recording of the world premiere in New York because I knew Bryce was at the rehearsals for that performance, and I was able to listen to one of those rehearsals after I conducted the first rehearsal of it at LACO.

I thought that the metronome markings that he put in the first movement were too fast. I wanted to do it slower, and I wanted to check with the recording if they did it at the original metronome or slower. And you know what?

CKDH: They did it slower?

JM: It was slower! I cannot tell you happy I was. He wrote “106” – I think that’s what he put – but then I was feeling it at 90 or 91, and that’s the tempo in the recording. So really funny!

CKDH: That is funny.

JM: But it’s one of those things that I wanted to double check because tempo is a very difficult thing to deal with in a new piece. Even if it’s your own music, I think tempo changes every day, because tempo has to do with your heartbeat, has to do with life. And then even you as a player, I would play – or I would conduct – something today at whatever tempo and maybe tomorrow I will do it faster or slower, because my day has been more something or another. So tempo is a funny thing.

CKDH: Sure. And previously, of course, composers would just say “Andante” or “Presto” – or whatever. And now it’s so much more common to put, for example, quarter note equals 132. Not always, but frequently.

JM: Lots of people do. Even Beethoven did. But the problem with that is I don’t think you have to take it too literally because as I said things change.

There’s a beautiful letter to Beethoven by an amateur musician. And in the books, you can see the two letters, and I think it’s wonderful. This person saying, “I bought your score of Piano Sonata whatever, but you put metronome marking is” – I forget the details, whatever – “do you really mean that tempo? It’s really fast.”

It’s a good thing that there is this letter there. And Beethoven’s answer is, “I really thank you for reading my music. Yeah, I mean, I meant the metronome mark is correct; that IS what I want. But of course, this is only for the beginning, because after that, expression has its own tempo.”

And I think that’s amazing. When you think of that, how do you apply that “expression has its own tempo?” How do you apply that to, for instance, the metronome mark of the beginning of Eroica? Because the metronome mark of the opening is fast. (He sings the opening measures of the first movement.) OK, very good.

But that doesn’t mean you have to do (He sings the e-minor theme that shows up later in the same movement). Of course not, you cannot do it at the exact same tempo as the beginning. But we are still in the first movement and it doesn’t say “poco meno;” it doesn’t say “meno mosso.” These kinds of indications came later in music.

Beethoven said very clearly: it’s the beginning, but after that, “expression has its own tempo.” And I think that’s very good.

You know, sometimes even teachers over the years have been very pedantic about that kind of thing. A student plays something and here arrives the second subject, and “Oh, don’t slow down now because remember the first subject was like this” – that way.

nikolaus_harnoncourt_04_rgb__-__2001_marco_borggreve_That was one thing I learned when I used to play flute. One of the biggest influences I had from conductors was Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Of course I played with Claudio Abbado, who was a wonderful elegant conductor; I loved to play with Zubin Mehta, with Georg Solti, with others, but working with Nikolaus Harnoncourt in the Chamber Orchestra of Europe was amazing because he was someone that would take the music as it is and read in-between lines. I mean, this is not black or white. There are lots of shades of in-between.

And there are times with music, with composers, who put in “poco meno” or “meno mosso” or “poco allegro” – or come to the extreme of Mahler when Mahler would put “a little bit faster, but not so much;” little indications like that, because he was a conductor himself and then he put micro things like that – but of course, with Mozart things like that were not in the score. But this doesn’t mean that everything is the same tempo.

You look at the reviews of the time of Beethoven and the reviewers – some of the reviews criticized Beethoven conducting. “Ah, it’s terrible! Every time there’s a crescendo he does accelerando instead. And when it says “diminuendo” he does ritardando. But it’s his music. Maybe sometimes for Beethoven growing intensity was growing in speed, it wasn’t growing in [dynamics] – but he didn’t need to always put “accelerando.” So he was flexible.


CKDH: One of the things I want to go back to – Anne Sofie and Christian have both spent a lot of time here in Southern California. We have been very fortunate to see them perform. It will be fun to see them here again. And since you are still new to Los Angeles, but they’re not.

JM: They are not, of course.

CKDH: What did they tell you when you said that you got this job, and then you asked them to join you here in Los Angeles? What was their reaction?

JM: Well, actually, Anne Sofie has not been here for some time. She used to visit —

CKDH: Yes, she used to be here more frequently, when Esa-Pekka Salonen was Music Director of the LA Phil.

JM: Yeah, but not for a long time. I mean, with Anne Sofie it’s funny, because with her we have lots of conversations about the repertoire. In the end, [we decided that] we’re doing Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été. She was very excited, and she was very happy for me. She said, “Well, wonderful that you are coming. And thank you for inviting me.”

It was the same with Christian, though with him, I didn’t give him a choice (smiling) – I really wanted to do Beethoven with him. I did concerts with Christian last October with the London Symphony. We went on tour and he did Lalo Symphonie Espagnole. There’s lots of repertoire that he can play beautifully, but I really wanted to do Beethoven with him, especially with LACO, and also because I remember while playing in the orchestra, some of the most amazing performances I remember of the Beethoven had been with him.

CKDH: I’m being told that we’re out of time, so unfortunately, I have to let you go.

JM: We should have scheduled three hours, not just one. (Laughs). Well I’ll be coming back six or seven times a year, so we’ll talk over dinner or lunch next time so we can talk longer. Because time flies!

CKDH: I’d love that! That’d be great, thank you. I look forward to it.


The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra conducted by Jaime Martin begin their 2019-2020 on Saturday, Sep 28, 8pm, at the Alex Theatre in Glendale, and on Sunday, Sept 29, 7pm, at Royce Hall at UCLA. The program for both concerts will include the world premiere of Begin by Andrew Norman, Les nuits d’été by Berlioz featuring mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. More information about the concert and tickets are available online HERE.



Photo credits:

  • Jaime Martin (outdoor portrait): Ben Gibbs
  • Jaime Martin (indoor portrait): CK Dexter Haven
  • Jaime Martin (conducting): Jamie Pham
  • Anne Sofie von Otter: Ewa-Marie Rundquist
  • Christian Teztlaff: Giorgia Bertazzi
  • Denis Khozhukhin: courtesy of artist’s website
  • Ellen Reid: James Matthew Daniel
  • Nikolaus Harnoncourt:  Marco Borggreve

One thought on “A chat with Jaime Martin: LACO’s new chief discusses his approach to conducting new music, plus soloists and composers he’ll feature in his first season

  1. Pingback: Jaime Martin and LA Chamber Orchestra dazzle and inspire in their two-concert return | All is Yar

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