Interviews / Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra / Music News & Info: Classical

A Zoom chat with Jaime Martin: LA Chamber Orchestra’s Music Director talks about the pandemic, Beethoven 9, and hiring principal players

When last I had the chance to talk to Jaime Martin, he was about to begin the 2019/2020 season, his first as Music Director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. That year started well, but then this thing called COVID-19 shook the world. Three years have passed since that last conversation.

A few days ago, Mr. Martin and I chatted again, this time squeezing a Zoom meeting into the middle of both of our busy schedules. He was as amiable and insightful as always. We discussed the past three years, how he’s approaching the first concerts of the 2022/2023 season, and what is important to him when hiring new principal players for the orchestra. Here is much of that conversation, edited for clarity and length . . .  


CK Dexter Haven: Reflecting back on the past two and a half years since the COVID-19 pandemic started, what comes to mind? 

Jaime Martin: It most ways, it was, of course, catastrophic, especially for music. Lots of uncertainty for everybody. But in some ways, some positive things came out of it, particularly for LACO.  

We had lots of content. Some things were better than other things, but I’m glad we decided to move on things, to try things. Actually, I think it brought us together as an orchestra. 

CKDH: LACO did unique things with your “Close Quarters” series, in some cases offering videos with simultaneous feeds of the same performance: one with some kind of artistic or multi-media collaboration with LACO music playing in accompaniment, and another with just the footage of LACO musicians playing that music. That seemed to give different audiences ways to be attracted to the same performance, or perhaps in some cases the same audience to appreciate it on different levels. 

JM: We saw people trying different things at that time. You cannot really recreate a live event on a little screen. I love watching concerts online, but you know, it’s not the same. And you could already find lots of online content from the past. So during the pandemic, the world wasn’t deprived of music. It was there somewhere or another. What we were missing was life — and live events and everything that meant. 

We thought what we really needed to do was keep in contact with our audience, and to do it by trying things you normally can’t do in a concert hall. Not just the artistic approach to the videos. We also had lots of talks and meetings with our donors, musicians, and our audience, giving them access and visibility to things that went on backstage, allowing them to comment on the live streaming performances.

CKDH: Throughout this, how did you establish and develop a relationship with Ben Cadwallader, LACO’s Executive Director who started right when the pandemic began? 

JM: It was extraordinary because I had met Ben in person a only couple of times before the pandemic when he was going through the interview process. And then [once he started the job and the pandemic began], things got very intense very quickly. There was a time that I talked to him on Zoom almost every day. There was so much to discuss. 

I remember that there was a turning point around April or May of 2020, when musicians all around the world were doing recordings playing in their kitchen — very often with not very high-quality equipment, just using their phone. Some of our players started to do that also, just to stay connected. And we had a conversation about it, and I said, “Look, Ben, I think we have to start to focus this a little bit. This is becoming a little messy, these heroic efforts from people’s kitchens. Let’s start to distribute high-definition cameras and better equipment, so that if someone has the desire to do that, get in touch with the orchestra and we’ll bike or Uber you a camera and microphone.”  

Slowly, eventually, that led to trying to get people together, even in small numbers.  I remember how difficult it was to get five musicians together while ensuring everyone’s safety for a Mozart Clarinet Quintet. We had five musicians as far apart as possible, with Joshua Ranz [Principal Clarinet] surrounded by a wall of plexiglass, on a huge stage with lots of hygienic conditions. I thought, “As long as it is safe, let’s try to do it.” 

[Ben Cadwallader, LACO Executive Director, in 2021]

This required endless hours of conversation with Ben. In the end, I think we developed a stronger relationship than we would have had in a normal situation. Usually, [these relationships] have a certain momentum. Okay, you have to discuss things, but these were not discussions about just things, they were emergency meetings all the time. How are we going to survive? What can we do for our musicians? Luckily, the LACO Board wanted to look after the orchestra’s musicians during the pandemic; some orchestras chose not to pay their musicians for some time, in some cases for a long time.

All of that required lots of talk, lots of moving forward, and being positive. I’m very happy with LACO, that we did manage to look after our musicians. The number of conversations we had to have to make it happen was incredible. 

And then there were all the meetings about planning for what the next year’s season [2021/2022] might look like. Let’s imagine: Plan A, where we can do it normally; Plan B, we can do it, but only with 20 people in the audience; Plan C, where we can do it, but only in a studio with a camera; Plan D, the soloist cannot travel from New York to L.A, and on and on. . . . 

I remember one particular time when we were recording Appalachian Spring at Colburn. We were having a fantastic time. I love this music, and the musicians seemed so happy. That was the biggest thing, being with something that almost looked like a full orchestra. Jeff Kahane played the piano. We almost had tears in our eyes. We wanted to have a real performance, not some kind of edited video. We were able to have just a few supporters, three or four, sitting in the corners of Colburn watching us perform. And I said, “My God, this is incredible. We may have just four of you in the audience, but I want you to know that for us, each of you counts as thousands.”  

Almost hard to imagine it now, but at that time, just having someone there — anybody — was of course really emotional for lots of us. But we did it. And it was incredibly difficult to organize, all the vaccinations and testing and safety precautions, but we did it. Then Gil Shaham came, and then Nicole Cabell came to do Britten Les Illuminations. I think it was a miracle that we were able to do all these things. 

All of that culminated in the concert at Disney Hall when restrictions were lifted, and at The Huntington after. But that concert at Disney Hall, to finally be able to play with a full orchestra, doing the Mendelssohn “Italian” Symphony, Mariachitlán by Juan Pablo Contreras, and the beautiful Ginastera piece, Variaciones concertantes, to open.  

That Ginastera piece was particularly important to me, that the first notes in a public concert was like music coming from nothing: silence starts, then the harp, then the beautiful cello solo. We didn’t want to start with a big crash of sound, we wanted our ears and our souls to get used to a live sound again, and I thought that was a very moving moment.  

It was a big challenge for many of us, and especially for Ben because that was, in some ways, the beginning. For most of the people in the orchestra, that was the first time they met him in person. 

So going back to your original question, “How was my relationship with Ben?” There was a time when I spoke with Ben more often than with members of my family. Extraordinary situations require extraordinary measures, and we had to do that. And I’m grateful that we did it together. 

CKDH: Thank you for sharing all of that detail. It was an extraordinary time, as you say, for everyone. And hearing your perspective on everything that happened is fascinating . . .  

Your explanation of how you wanted the Ginastera because it starts from silence is a good segue into talking about this weekend’s concerts, particularly Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.  

I’m reminded of a story from a Los Angeles Philharmonic musician. Kurt Sanderling was conducting Beethoven 9 with them and at the first rehearsal, when the orchestra started playing, he stopped them immediately and said something like, “No! More articulation, more agitation. This is the Apocalypse!” Then the next time they performed it, Carlo Maria Giulini was conducting, and they began to play as they had previously under Sanderling. Giulini then stopped them immediately, saying something like, “Please, more gently. This is The Creation of the Universe!” Exact opposite points of view. 

This is such a well-known piece. What do you think of when you conduct it? Either of those extremes, something in between, or something different entirely, maybe on just purely musical terms? 

JM: I thought of starting the season with Beethoven 9 because it’s a piece that almost transcends music, you know? I was thinking about what we’ve been going through and LA in particular. I find LA to be a fascinating place, where so many cultures meet together. At a time when the world, especially in Europe, is getting dangerous in many ways, and people are becoming more divided.  It’s easy to think, “Argh, what is going on with this world??!!!”  

The opening movement is cosmic and heroic, almost a continuation of the “Eroica.” It finishes with a funeral march, which I think it can be seen as Beethoven putting an end to his youthful ways. [laughs] But for me, Beethoven 9 is about this crazy 4th movement, when it arrives after the three amazing movements before it. 

Beethoven needed more than the music; he needed words. The fact that he chose Schiller’s words was almost like he wanted to create a community of musicians – orchestra, choir, soloists – and I remember thinking of this, and the message of the “Ode to Joy” that we are all brothers. 

Immediately, I was thinking of our world and of LA. Here I am, a Spaniard, this foreigner working in LA, and I am welcome. Here is Beethoven, through Schiller’s words, saying, “Come on. We are all brothers. Let’s be together.” For me, this movement almost represents the entirety of humanity, particularly with the Turkish march, coming in after the chorus, representing different cultures, and making noises that sound like unpleasant things coming out of the human body that we usually don’t discuss. BLURT! [laughs] 

In the middle of all this sublime music, it’s almost like Beethoven is showing all the differences in humanity, in totality. I’m serious about this. If you look at the text, it’s about brotherhood and bringing everyone together, and so I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to bring different people together in the choir. Instead of doing it with a choir that already exists, why don’t we do it with different choirs from different parts of the huge LA diverse spectrum? So that’s what we’re doing, led by the wonderful Jenny Wong. I think this is very exciting. 

Beethoven looks to the future, nothing like that had been heard before. What Beethoven did was threatening to some people, but he kept looking to the future. That’s why I wanted to do a new piece by Shelley Washington to start the concert. I think connections within concerts shouldn’t just be about stylistic connections. The meaning of it attracts me. 

CKDH: Thank you so much for your thoughts and your time. I know I have to let you go, so one last question. I know you just hired a new Principal Viola, Yura Lee, and you’re in the process of finding a new Principal Flute. Can you please tell me how you approach hiring principal players, for this orchestra in particular, given both the musical elements and the leadership elements those positions require? 

JM: You know, an orchestra like LACO is, unlike other wonderful orchestras across the world, almost an orchestra of soloists. It’s an incredible collection of musicians. I’m not saying other orchestras don’t have good players, but I’m very proud of the level of our musicians.  

So when we look for a new member of the orchestra, we’re of course looking for technical excellence and accomplishment. But not only that. We’re looking for someone who fits with the way LACO conceives music and who helps LACO to grow in that sense. It’s a combination of finding someone who challenges what we do and at the same time fits with the players we already have. 

It’s not always easy to do that. It’s not a question of choosing the “best player” but choosing the best person that suits this group. Yura is phenomenal and really is a great addition. I’m delighted she’s with us and I can’t wait to see her perform, hopefully for many years to come. 



Photo credits:

  • Jaime Martin: photo by Ben Gibbs courtesy of LACO
  • Ben Cadwallader: photo by CK Dexter Haven
  • Yura Lee: photo by Giorgia Bertazzi courtesy of the artist’s website

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