(585)'s exclusive interview with the RPO's new music director, Andreas Delfs
When Andreas Delfs was in his twenties, two of his cousins moved to New York to study at Cornell. “They loved it so much here that they never went back,” he says from his home in Trumansburg. “Whenever I visited, I was always pampered, and I always liked that area.” When his wife was pregnant with their second child in 1992, they decided to buy a house in the Finger Lakes. “I thought, ‘we can always have a center here, no matter where we move in the world. We can always have this residence.’”
And move around the world they did. Having grown up in Flemsburg, Germany and after graduating from Hamburg Conservatory, Delfs moved to New York City to pursue his master’s at The Juilliard School. Since then, throughout his forty-year career he’s led a life—and an orchestra—in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Bern, Switzerland; Hannover, Germany; St. Paul, Minnesota; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Honolulu, Hawaii; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with many more cities on his résumé of guest conducting.
Having lived in many cities throughout his life—in both America and Europe—Delfs has developed a sort of sixth sense for the essence of a city. “It’s hard to explain when you talk about the spirit of a place,” he says. “You can only describe the people you meet, the places you go, the sights, the vibrancy downtown.” Delfs stresses that that doesn’t happen from a hotel room. “Only when you go out, to symphonies and recitals, and you walk the halls of big buildings, and go out to local restaurants. That’s where you pick up the vibe.” It’s that sixth sense—the ethereal essence of a place—that keeps him coming back to Rochester. “It lives in a million small things, but the bottom line is that it’s the people.”
Rochester was among the first of his guest conducting gigs in 1994. He’d heard about the small city’s orchestra from his teacher at Juilliard: “He was friends with David Zinman—one of the conductors in Rochester—and he always said there were great things happening,” Delfs says. “He always pointed out the Rochester Philharmonic as one that wasn’t well known but was doing great things.” At the green age of thirty-four, he was impressed by the treatment he received by the RPO. “When you’re a young conductor there’s always lots of anxiety involved, but after two minutes I felt so comfortable with that orchestra,” he says. “A lot of smiles, a lot of great musical exchange. I returned immediately, and every year or two I was always happy when they called me back to visit.” Today, some of those smiling musicians are still part of the orchestra, more than twenty-five years later. Delfs recently asked the group if anybody remembered his first visit: “five or six hands went up,” he says.
Delfs says it’s difficult for people born in a city like Rochester to recognize how special it is. “It was the same in Milwaukee,” he says. “I found it one of the most vibrant, exciting places to live. And people who were born there said, ‘what are you talking about? It’s Milwaukee! It’s just beer and sausage!’” One aspect of Rochester that Delfs admires is the shift from a couple large corporations to an exciting array of smaller startup companies. “I meet a lot of people who say, ‘I used to work for…’ and they name one of the three big ones, and then ‘and I got a retirement payout and now I’m on the board advising a new startup.’” To Delfs, this symbiosis between corporate minds who want to stay in touch and young entrepreneurs is Rochester’s path forward. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for a city like Rochester to come back on the map totally reinvented and in a very exciting way,” he says. With his house in Trumansburg an hour and a half from Rochester, Delfs also plans on getting a home in town. Classical conductors, as it turns out, have some late nights: “Musicians cannot go to bed after concerts,” he stresses. “It takes a while to simmer down after the excitement, and it’s best if that’s with friends, drinks, and a bite to eat to hang out and talk about what happened.”
When eating and drinking with friends is feasible, that is. During the shutdown Delfs has conducted a handful of live-streamed concerts, but live music has been one of the hardest-hit sectors. The pandemic has, however, afforded him the opportunity to explore music in a way he never had time for in the past. Most notably, Delfs has been learning the piano sonatas of Joseph Haydn, Mozart’s mentor. “It’s actually very important and I’ve never had the time to look into it,” he says. “Studying the sonatas informs your interpretation of Haydn’s symphonies. That was a lot of great music that, without COVID, I probably would not have done.” And because conducting is such a physical profession, Delfs has worked to keep up on his health throughout the shutdown. “I would say conducting a concert is an excellent cardiovascular activity,” Delfs laughs. “With that gone, I realized my body got a little rusty.” Purchasing an Oculus Quest during the shutdown has helped him stay fit for when the RPO begins live shows again. “I always had problems with workouts,” he says. “I got terribly bored. But now I can cycle in the Grand Canyon whenever I want!” More recently Delfs has begun playing Supernatural, a rhythmic game that involves hitting boxes soaring towards you in time with music—think full-body Guitar Hero. “It involves arm movements and spine movements to hit targets,” he says, which mimics some of the movements of conducting and allows Delfs to work those muscles.
In most circles, the idea of an orchestral concert is swathed with associations and perceptions of class status, dress code, and inaccessibility. In Delf’s words, it’s perceived as an “an ivory tower of art that you have to dress up and be sophisticated to get in.” A perception, he says, that simply isn’t true. “Perception is our greatest enemy; symphony orchestras are perceived by a model that has not been true for many, many years.” Nowadays, people aren’t shunned for walking in with jeans and a sweatshirt. And while it’s true that expensive tickets are available, “there’s plenty of affordable ones, and we do a lot of free shows as well.” Changing those perceptions, he says, is painstaking—he likens it to Chinese water torture. “A drop here, a drop there; it’s hard and takes a long time but you have to change that perception a little piece at a time.” He says the orchestra comprises individuals from all walks of life with an equally diverse set of interests. “People seem to think we’re this elite group that plays Thursday nights at Kodak Hall and the rest of the week plays Candy Crush or something,” he laughs. “But in reality, we are a group that works very hard to play at schools, different venues, and record video all throughout the week. And hopefully we’ll work even harder, under my leadership.”
Despite all that hard work and community outreach, it’s not imperative to Delfs that everybody has a love of the symphony. “What’s important is that everybody recognizes that an orchestra, or any arts institution, can do so much to make a community vibrant and interesting and make people want to move to.” In the bigger picture, he says, there’s a short list of reasons people move to new cities. “So, it very quickly comes down to, what’s the scene like? What’s the arts scene, entertainment like? And even if you don’t go to the concerts, you should not perceive the symphony as something that’s snobby, but something that contributes to the beauty of a community that you live in.”
For more information on the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, visit rpo.org.