Assistant conductor and principal bassist debut at DSO

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer
Michelle Merrill

Two members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra are making their debuts in the classical series this weekend, a jump into the big leagues that’s a resume builder and a landmark professional accomplishment.

Assistant conductor Michelle Merrill and principal bass Kevin Brown are each in their second Detroit season, but until now neither has been spotlit — conducting, in Merrill’s case, and performing a concerto in Brown’s — in the prestigious classical season.

“I’ve done educational concerts, family shows, and a couple of pops subscriptions,” says Merrill, who came to the DSO from the Northeast Pennsylvania Philharmonic. “But this is the first time I’ve been on what you could call the headliner series for an orchestra.”

The orchestra will perform Friday at the Macomb Center for Performing Arts in Clinton Township on Friday and Orchestra Hall on Saturday.

Merrill explains that, at least for her, there’s more at stake than just prestige — classical-series concerts get four rehearsals, more than other performances, with the added opportunity that brings to fine-tune performance.

“It’s significant because you and the ensemble really get to learn how you each do music,” says Merrill, who got her degrees at the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University. “The conductor brings her or his own interpretation, and the orchestra brings its history and traditions. Together with that, you guide the whole experience.”

Even better, Merrill gets to conduct Beethoven’s “Pastoral” for the first time, “a gorgeous piece I’ve enjoyed and loved,” she says.

As it happens, she’s got conducting in her blood. “Oh gosh, I’m from Texas, so my parents always went to to Friday-night football games,” Merrill says. “I’d conduct to the marching band.”

Of course, the pressure’s a little higher in front of the DSO than mimicking the drum major.

Kevin Brown

But if the spotlight is hot for the conductor, it’s equally so for soloists — like principal bass Kevin Brown, who’s performing a rare concerto Friday and Saturday written for the instrument.

It’s going to be a big night.

“This is my first time as a soloist in front of an orchestra since high school,” says Brown, 29, who will perform Vanhal’s Concerto for Double Bass in E-flat Major. Vanhal was a Viennese contemporary of Haydn and Mozart, albeit one who was more academic than revolutionary.

In effect, Brown’s performances amount to a reunion with an old friend. The native Minnesotan who got his B.A. and master’s at Rice University in Houston says he used the Vanhal concerto for his DSO audition and, earlier, his junior recital in college.

The concerto is a little unusual, Brown says, in that the classical repertoire generally offers few opportunities that single out the double bass. By contrast, the modern era has been far more appreciative.

“In the 20th century,” Brown says, “there’s been an explosion of people who are more adept with the bass — and the instrument has changed too, making it easier for solo performance.”

(313) 222-6021




Dvorák: Carnival Overture, Op. 92

Piston: Suite from The Incredible Flutist

Vanhal: Concerto for double bass in E-flat major

Beethoven: Symphony No. 6, “Pastoral”

8 p.m. Friday

Macomb Center for the Performing Arts, 44575 Garfield, Clinton Township

$25, adult, $10 student

8 p.m. Saturday

Orchestra Hall, 3711 Woodward, Detroit

Saturday tickets: $50-$100

(313) 576-5111