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Edwin Outwater - Serious About Having Fun

March 11, 2015

Edwin Outwater, by Larry WilliamsonMost conductors find inspiration in the soaring melodies of Puccini or the intricate sonic architecture of Bach. Edwin Outwater finds inspiration in the voice on your iPhone, and the set of the TV show Pee Wee’s Playhouse. Maybe this has something to do with how he came to classical music…

“My dad worked for Warner Bros Records,” Outwater recalls; “and his mom was Ella Fitzgerald’s assistant. So I grew up with jazz and rock. But when I was 14, the LA Philharmonic played in my school auditorium. They played ‘Pop Goes The Weasel,’ and then some Beethoven, and it blew my mind. I started to sense the power of that music.” As most of us have suspected, and as neuroscience has confirmed, the music that touches our teenage brain is usually the music that stays with us for the rest of our lives. Getting a hint of the power of the orchestra at age 14 is something Edwin Outwater has never forgotten – and he’s keen to give the next generation a chance to have that experience too. 

Outwater has become a major figure on the contemporary classical scene as the Music Director of the forward-looking Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony in Ontario, but he is also the Director of Summer Concerts at the SFS and has recently taken advantage of the opportunity to redesign the Symphony’s Family Concerts. “In a way,” he explains, “I’m very conservative. I admire the work that Leonard Bernstein did with kids, and Michael Tilson Thomas as well. So I was thinking, what’s the contemporary version of that?” In recent years, orchestras have often resorted to using visual effects for children’s concerts, on the theory that younger listeners, raised on computers and gaming, need to have their eyes occupied as well as their ears. But Outwater wondered if there were a way to do something fun and smart that didn’t rely on visuals. 

“I was listening to Siri a lot,” he says, referring to the voice heard on iPhones everywhere, “you know, that idea of the onboard computer. And I had the idea that I could be onstage, conducting, but that I’d have a sidekick – a computer sidekick named H.A.R.M.O.N.I.A.” (Outwater admits he doesn’t know what the letters stand for – yet.) The computer would be heard, not seen. “It’s very smart – it has dates, translations, all that stuff. But it doesn’t know about music, or about emotion.” The interplay between conductor and sidekick offers the chance to explore music, and as Outwater explains it, “to have the listeners feel like they’re on our team, and we’re on an adventure together.” 

Outwater has been a member of the SFS team for many years, serving as Resident Conductor of the orchestra from 2001 to 2006, and doubling for most of that time as the Music Director of the San Francisco Youth Orchestra. That dual experience drove home the point that an audience of kids could present the same challenges and possibilities as a subscription audience: “a lot of the work is in figuring out how to present music differently, without dumbing it down. To get a sense of wonder and discovery, not of ritual and routine.” One SFS initiative that he’s particularly excited about is SoundBox. “It’s an old rehearsal space that’s been completely wired and revamped for live music, visual art, installations… it’s a completely different kind of concert venue.” SoundBox gives Outwater the chance to present works by veterans like Terry Riley, or the Canadian composer/visual artist Nicole Lizee, one of the younger composers he’s been championing in Kitchener. 

For the family events too, Outwater is offering a different kind of concert: “We often use scripted comedy. I’m really influenced by Pee Wee’s Playhouse – I saw the set from that show on display at MOMA in New York recently.” Like Paul Reuben’s titular character, Pee Wee’s Playhouse had slightly subversive fun in playing with generational ideas, mixing up adult and child roles and reactions until you weren’t quite sure which was which. 

Outwater found a similar way of reaching across generations with another of his SFS projects: conducting the work The Composer Is Dead, by the tragically popular kids author Lemony Snicket (aka Daniel Handler, responsible for the children’s books known as A Series of Unfortunate Events) and the composer (still alive) Nathaniel Stookey. This musical mystery takes kids on a tour of the orchestra – where they search for clues to the murder of the composer. “Daniel and Nathaniel had already met,” Outwater recalls, “but I brought it to the SFS, and it’s now become one of the most performed pieces of the 21st century.” 


If you go:

The San Francisco Symphony performs Music for Families concerts at 2 p.m. January 31, March 14 and April 11, 2015. (415) 864-6000 sfsymphony.org/mff