Q&A With Eric Owens, Artist in Residence
By Meghan Berneking
What has been your experience with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and why do you think it is a work that’s become so deeply engrained in our culture and collective musical repertoire?
It’s a piece that I’ve done quite often, and it’s always a privilege to do it. With Beethoven, and particularly with this piece, he changed what the definition of a symphony could be by adding the voices and the chorus. Oddly enough, my favorite movement is not the one I sing in. It’s the third movement, the slow movement; there’s just something very magical about those variations, and I’m always grateful when I get to sit on stage and listen to the third movement.
With all of your performance engagements, how do you keep your interpretations fresh?
Insofar as keeping interpretations fresh, one good thing is that I’m not singing this with the same people all the time. So depending on what the conductors want, depending on the hall, or depending just on how I’m feeling that night, the interpretation has an elasticity and I think an artist should have a willingness to be adaptable to each situation. When you’re talking about three other people and a whole chorus and orchestra, you have to fit in to what’s happening.
You’re not only a guest soloist for the May Festival, but also an artist-in-residence. What are you looking forward to about your residency in Cincinnati?
I’m just thrilled to be back in that city; it’s such a vibrant city with a vibrant arts culture. I’m a firm believer that if you’re an artist-in-residence, during your time there, you’re a member of the orchestra and of the administration at the same time. I think it entails viewing things as both a member and a guest—you’re another part of what’s going on. There are many soloists within the orchestra but they’re still members of the orchestra.
Where do you seek and find inspiration, musically or otherwise?
In music here lately, I’ve been finding inspiration in jazz and folk music and also the blues. Of course classical music has been a part of my life since I was six years old. But as I get older [I’m discovering] there’s just so much out there. Any time I can visit an art gallery or museum that’s always wonderful. When I think about the operas of Handel and Mozart, they’re based on a lot of ancient lure and mythology, and there’s a lot of other art out there that’s about that. And when we hear how source material inspires a composer, it’s good to also see how the same material inspires a visual artist. I believe we talk more about the art that [ancient] civilizations left behind, rather than the battles and wars that were fought. The arts shouldn’t be seen as something extracurricular. Arts and humanities are what brings us together more than anything else.
Do you think that music, and in particular vocal or choral music, has the power to bridge cultural divides? Why?
There’s something about coming together and making music [that unites people]—vocal music in particular because no one has to go out and buy a voice. When people come together to sing they are literally the music—there’s nothing separating you from the music. There’s something incredibly special about that, and also about having words to go with the music—a story or a situation where one heightens the other. The music is enhancing the words and vice versa, the words are actually inspiring the music.