Interview: Constantine Kitsopoulos

Interview: Constantine Kitsopoulos

March 14, 2018 0 By Jeff Fountain

Recently we had the chance to talk with conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos about his career and the upcoming shows in Toronto, .featuring the movie Jaws accompanied live by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

Was there something about conducting that always fascinated you or did fall into, like a happy accident?

Constantine: You know, I think there was always something that fascinated me about it, I mean I decided by the time I was six years old that this is what I was going to do. I started taking piano lessons, my mother was an opera singer and as I grew up, I’m the oldest of four kids and three of us became professional musicians but conducting has always been what I’ve wanted to do.

Is this a tough field, in terms of a career choice?

Constantine: Absolutely. You know, in an orchestra, for example, you take a look at the violin section, there might be twenty-four violinists but there is still only one conductor for an orchestra. There are an awful lot of people that want to become a conductor, conducting looks easy but it’s not, it’s very difficult and there’s a technique and a basic body of knowledge that you need to acquire to get to the point where you can call yourself a conductor.

When you first started out what did you find the most intimidating, the conducting itself, the music or working with the musicians?

Constantine: Well you know, I don’t know if I found any of it so much intimidating, I never really thought of it in that way. When you’re a young musician or conductor and you look ahead to your career, take a look at some of the more challenging music there is to learn yeah, that can be intimidating. To be able to wrap your head around some of the music can be very challenging and I think take years of experience to learn.

You are conducting the Toronto Symphony Orchestra through the iconic John Williams score for the movie Jaws in March. For a score like this, with the movie playing as well, do you approach it any different in terms of preparation and presentation?

Constantine: Well, there is one thing that is always the same and that is the actual learning of the music, knowing the music and for me the actual process of learning the score. Of course, what you need to add to that is it needs to line up with the picture, the way it is when you watch the movie without a live orchestra. To do that there is some technology that we use which was actually developed in the late thirties, early forties in Hollywood by Alfred Newman which are called streamers and punches. These are visual aids, you have a vertical bar that goes from left to right across the screen and when it hits the right side of the screen, that’s a point that has to line up with say an explosion or a change of scene, some kind of event in the movie, so it’s a matter of making sure you can time all of that. The music itself, there is the visual aspect of looking at a score and your brain takes that in and puts it out in terms of how fast you move your arms or how you play your instrument. The streamers go from left to right across the stage, in three to five seconds depending on the way it’s set up, and so you have to kind of train your brain to take that in and look at the physical space and movement and figure out you know, how many measures of music is that, so it’s an additional challenge to add to the whole thing.

How did you come to get involved with the Jaws performances here in Toronto?

Constantine: I’ve been doing film with a live orchestra for a long time now, since about 2003, I’ve done various films and I guess I’ve kind of become known for this kind of genre and I’ve worked with the Toronto Symphony before, in the live orchestra area, and we get along great, it’s a wonderful group of musicians and so yeah, I was lucky enough that they asked me to come and do it again.

So what is a typical day like for you, in terms of preparation, and I guess we can use Jaws as an example.

Constantine: Well, for me, I have a certain way of marking up the score, mark phrases, so the first thing I do is sit down, open the score, look through it first to get the big picture and start marking it, listening to it in my head. It’s several hours of study and then you walk away from studying it and let it sink in a little bit and then when I come back to it, every pass through the music, whatever the music is that I’m learning, you internalize it more.

I’ve been lucky enough to see some of these live performances and the crowds are just amazing. Does this add any pressure to you as a conductor or is it just another day at the office?

Constantine: It doesn’t add any pressure, it certainly adds some excitement. It’s an exciting thing to have the audience there and a great way to see a movie, it’s quite something. It’s also a great way to introduce people to a symphony orchestra, it’s pretty cool, so the live audience element of it adds excitement, I love.

Anyone who’s been to a play or ballet has seen a conductor in action. How would you describe your role?

Constantine: That’s an interesting question. My job is to shape the music in such a way that it’s effective, in the case of opera it’s bringing the composers intentions to life, making those notes on the page jump off the page. In the theater, sometimes I’ve worked in the opera house and on Broadway, that sort of thing, you’ve got a lot to keep track of, besides just the orchestra. You’ve got the singers and the whole thing and with film, you’ve got to keep track of the film, where it’s going, make sure things line up. There is a bit of a traffic cop element to it, about keeping everything in the right place because the mission is to bring the composers intention out clearly for an audience.

Now, do you have specific criteria you follow in terms of taking jobs or do you just like to mix things up?

Constantine: Well you know, as Duke Ellington once said, there are only two kinds of music, good music, and bad music. I’ve been lucky in my career to be able to do a lot of different kinds of things. I’ve done ten shows on Broadway, I’ve done a lot of opera, a lot of standard symphonic repertoire, these films, the live orchestra concerts. In terms of criteria in accepting an engagement, all the elements have to be right, I certainly would like to think at this point in my career I wouldn’t have to do music I don’t like, and there’s not a lot of that around, I just like getting up there and doing it, interacting with new musicians, meeting new people if I’m going to an orchestra for the first time, so in terms of criteria it’s really about being a musically and artistically satisfying project to do.

Besides Jaws, what other projects do you have coming up? 

Constantine: Well in terms of the film realm, there’s going to be a lot of Star Wars going on this summer in various places. I also do some of the other John Williams films, I just finished doing E.T. as a matter of fact. I’m doing a new opera by Frank London, which we’re going to do a workshop of in May and then production in the fall. I’ve also got some opera concerts in Tokyo so there’s a lot of different stuff, I don’t let the grass grow under my feet.

I want to thank Constantine for taking the time to speak with us.