Interview: Eric Jacobsen

By Palmer Hasty

Long time Brooklyn-based conductor and cellist Eric Jacobsen, who co-founded along with his brother Colin, the popular string quartet Brooklyn Rider and the critically acclaimed orchestra The Knights, will become the Music Director for the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra next month.

Brooklyn Rider is a popular string quartet that incorporates different music genres into its traditional repertoire. All members of the group have at one time or another participated in the world-wide performances of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble project. The group has also recorded with the Ensemble on three albums for Sony Classical.
The Knights, which the New Yorker magazine called “…one of Brooklyn’s sterling cultural products….” describes itself as an orchestral collective of New York musicians that varies in size and combines a devotion to the traditions of classical music with what Jacobsen refers to as “a passion for musical discovery.”

The Knights perform with musicians from a wide-range of cultures and music genres. With Jacobsen as conductor and artistic director, the orchestra has performed in famous venues such as Carnegie Hall in New York City and recently returned from a European tour where they performed in several of classical music’s most famous international concert halls in Vienna and Cologne, Germany.
The New York Times has called Jacobsen “an interpretive dynamo” in reference to his forward thinking approach to the classical music concert experience.

In a recent interview with The Brooklyn Eagle Jacobsen talks about his new job in the Sunshine State, and why he and the orchestra both believe it’s a good match.

BE: How did you land your new position at the Orlando Philharmonic?

EJ: “During my first visit to Orlando 5 years ago, I saw an advertisement for the Orlando Philharmonic. I thought that they would be an interesting orchestra to conduct one day, and after doing some research, I was happy to realize it was a very well run group. When the position for Music Director opened up, a friend encouraged me to apply, thinking that I would enjoy working with the size and new vibe of this orchestra.”

BE: So you applied?

EJ: “Oh yes. I was very excited about being appointed, and when I met everyone in the organization, I knew my intuition was right. Everyone had a great attitude, and a great work ethic. So it was an intimate match from my point of view and I’m so glad it ended up working out for the musicians, the board, and management. They’re a very special group.”

BE: How long will your tenure be as Music Director in Orlando?

EJ: The contract is for 5 years. Of course, this first year is going to be a big learning curve for me. I have been learning more about the community and the musicians I’m working with, and as October approaches quickly it is still sinking in. I mean, it’s mind blowing how real it all is now.”

BE: Do you think your reputation for innovative collaborations outside the traditions of classical music was a factor in hiring you?

EJ: “I do. I think they are a very forward thinking group. They want to have real premiers, and collaborations with the director. In a lot of ways though, while I want to do new things and be a part of today’s cutting edge musical ideas, I’m also a conservative. I went to Julliard, so I’m always remembering and paying homage to the tradition that we come from. I think without that, I wouldn’t be as excited about the whole thing. For me it’s about drawing connections between different pieces of music, new and old, from our culture and other cultures.”

BE: Will you remain involved with your innovative and critically acclaimed orchestra “The Knights” during your tenure as Music Director in Orlando?

EJ: “Oh yeah, in full throttle! We just came back from a successful European tour. We were in some of the greatest music halls in the world, like the Vienna Musikverein, which is one of the great cultural centers of Europe. We played at the Cologne Philharmonie in Germany. The Knights is a fully operational organization right now. We’re going to play with Yo-Yo Ma again in Caramoor in late September. My brother Colin and I started the orchestra together, so artistically I think of it as my home. It’s always felt very comfortable to work with old friends who are so dedicated to their craft. The Knights is the group I tour with most – I’m very proud of it and it’s a huge part of my life.”

BE: What originally motivated you to live in Brooklyn?

EJ: “I lived in Manhattan for 9 years. I loved it there but wanted to get a place together with my brother. We had a bunch of friends who were living in Brooklyn, and we were drawn in by the community and neighborhood feel. It feels so nice to be able to buy meat and fish from someone who’s name you know. Between gardening in our backyard and enjoying the amazing food available in the borough, Brooklyn is home.”

BE: What exactly is the job description of Music Director/Conductor for a Philharmonic Orchestra?

EJ: “As music director, generally, I’ll do the programming so I’ll choose the repertoire, the soloist, and the conductors. Of course all the decision making is in collaboration with the orchestra: the management, and the musicians. I want to make sure we’re always on the same page, especially since it’s my first year there.”
I guess it would be an understatement to say that you’ll be keeping a busy schedule?
“I’ll be down in Orlando for three months of the year, and I’m with the Knights about 4 months out of the year. On top of that, I will be playing with my string quartet, Brooklyn Rider, for a few months while guest conducting for a couple of weeks a year, so yes, it’s a packed schedule. And I’m very fortunate to have it that way.”

BE: A primary ingredient to your success as an artist apparently thrives on the interplay between and the blending together of diverse music genres?

EJ: “When I stop and think about it, yes, and it’s very interesting now going to Orlando. Each element helps the other I believe. I think, and hope, I will become a better conductor, music director, and musician because of it.
(Jacobsen laughed) What can I say? And hopefully a better person.”

BE: As Music Director are you going to get involved in the educational aspect of music in the Orlando area like you did during your residency at the Bach Festival a few years ago?

EJ: “Absolutely. The Orlando Philharmonic has a great education department already. They work with thousands of students in Orlando throughout the year. I’m looking forward to learning more about those programs and being involved in any role I can play. That would be an exciting part of the venture because the Philharmonic has a great deal of input into the community, and there is so much that can be done.”

BE: In addition to your celebrity career, you seem to put a lot of effort toward a devotion to educate young people about music?

EJ: “Well, we have to. First of all, we learn so much when we’re teaching, and secondly, if we’re not a part of the next generation of music listeners we’re kind of passing up the greatest opportunity to influence the future of music.

BE: You are critically acclaimed as an “innovator”. What do you think it takes to be truly innovative in the field of music?

EJ: “It’s easy to do something different, but if you don’t achieve, or strive to achieve the highest level you can from each endeavor, then I think one is missing the point.”

Note: You can learn more about Brooklyn Rider and The Knights and listen to selections of their recordings at these links:
Photo: Dario Acosta.