Gregarious and bubbling with the contagious enthusiasm of a high school coach, Isaiah Jackson is not likely to be mistaken for a symphony conductor. He seems notably weak in hauteur, omniscience, cold civility and other attributes associated with podium deities.
In town to make his local debut as a guest conductor for the San Diego Symphony’s current Tchaikovsky Festival, Jackson agreed to chat after the orchestra’s Sunday afternoon performance under the baton of his colleague, Catherine Comet. Earlier in the day, the genial Jackson had plugged the orchestra in a short radio interview for the symphony’s Radiothon fund-raiser at Seaport Village.
“I was eager to hear Catherine conduct because she studied with the same teacher that I did at Juilliard, Jean Morel. She was kind of a legend there, because she was a ‘lady’ conductor in the 1960s, of which there were none in those days,” Jackson said.
While a Juilliard degree is a typical launching pad for a career in music, Jackson arrived there by a circuitous route that included picking up a degree in Russian history and literature from Harvard. “Although music was my first love, my parents didn’t want me to be a musician,” he explained.
“My father was a doctor--I came from a long line of M.D.s--and my family wanted me to do anything but music, partly, I think, because in the ‘60s they saw classical music as a dead end for blacks. My parents wanted me to go into the Foreign Service, so my father got me a job in the State Department the summer after my freshman year in college. And I hated it.”
As music director of the Flint, Mich., Symphony and associate conductor of the Rochester, N.Y., Philharmonic, Jackson has put his Russian studies to good use. “The music of Tchaikovsky has become one of my specialties,” he said. “Having been to Moscow and Leningrad, having read in the original language what Tchaikovsky himself read and said, I feel I have a cultural rapport with the composer and his ideas.”
While some connoisseurs look down their noses at the hyper-emotional content of Tchaikovsky’s compositions, that emotional specific gravity is for Jackson the main attraction.
“He was the first composer to put human emotion out there on the line,” Jackson said. “With Beethoven, it is more philosophic, more cosmic. With Mozart, the human emotion is there, but it’s always wearing silk and velvet--so you see only flashes of it. Tchaikovsky let it all out, which is where Mahler got it, although I don’t view Tchaikovsky as so self-indulgent as Mahler.”
Jackson agrees with the biographers who read Tchaikovsky’s personal tragedies into his music. “He did have a terrible personal life --homosexuality was just unacceptable in the 19th Century. He was freaked out by it, and one of the ways it could at least find some expression was through his music. He was terribly manic-depressive. It’s too bad he and Freud never met--Freud would have had a field day.”
Jackson’s own domestic situation could not be more disparate than that of the brooding composer. In the placid suburbs of Rochester, the 40-year-old conductor and his wife, Helen, also a musician, raise their three young children. An advocate of taking the symphony orchestra into the community to even the youngest audiences, for the last 10 years he has made “tiny tots” concerts for preschoolers a staple of his educational programming.
With the Rochester Philharmonic, he has even recorded an album of orchestral excerpts aimed at the youngest audiences. “You can catch youngsters up to the fifth or sixth grades,” he said. “If you haven’t captured their imagination by then, shown them something worth holding onto in classical music, they’ll fall under the spell of commercial music.”
Without being particularly judgmental, Jackson defines rock music in strictly commercial terms.
“Rock is a commercial product whose pull is strongly sexual. What poor 11-year-old can resist that? You just have to let them go for 10 or 15 years. Later, when they start to slow down and some of them begin to see that ‘louder music and stronger wine’ just doesn’t make it any more, you may catch them again.”