Brett Mitchell wants to share — no, needs to share — the music he hears.
Even as a preschooler, the now 35-year-old assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra had a yearning to spread the melodies he loved.
It started innocently enough: Three-year-old Mitchell heard Barry Manilow's "Mandy" on the radio one morning as his mom got ready for work and insisted on playing it for his caretaker, Janet. And no amount of argument would dissuade him. So they packed up his mom's LP and his portable record player so he could play Manilow's piano ballad at Janet's house.
By age 7, the Seattle native started piano lessons. And by seventh-grade, Mitchell was playing Bryan Adams' "Everything I Do (I Do it For You)" to impress the girls.
"I find music, that for one reason or another, moves me, touches me," he says. "I share that with as many people as I can."
Not until high school did he discover classical music, however, finding inspiration in John Williams' compilation of film scores from Superman, Star Wars and E.T. "I realized all that music was written by the same guy," Mitchell says.
Although he studied composition at Western Washington University, he soon realized something was missing. Composers spent hours writing, but the result — the music — went to someone else. Mitchell wanted to be there when people listened.
As a conductor, Mitchell gets to collaborate with 100 or more musicians and perform for thousands, including a halftime show in front of 70,000 Houston Texans fans with the Houston Symphony.
"That's no joke," he laughs. "That's a lot of people."
Gregarious and often dramatic, Mitchell plays the piano as effortlessly as he talks, often falling into song as a soundtrack to demonstrate his point.
He arrived in Cleveland as an assistant conductor in 2013 after serving in the same position in Houston and with the French National Orchestra. The Cleveland Orchestra announced that Mitchell will be promoted to associate conductor, effective this fall.
He also serves as musical director for the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra — 100 promising middle school and high school musicians from throughout Northeast Ohio. From June 18 to 23, they'll play in China, with shows in Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Ningbo, in the youth orchestra's second international trip in its 30-year history. For the tour, Mitchell's goals are simple. "You are really trying to take an audience on a journey," he says.
He chose familiar classical pieces, such as Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 and Dmitri Shostakovich's Festive Overture, so audiences would have a point of reference to evaluate his young musicians' talent. They'll also play Samuel Barber's American work Medea's Dance of Vengeance, a high-energy piece inspired by Greek mythology. "The kids have no business playing it as well as they do," Mitchell says. "It's hard as shit, and they just lay it down."
Finally, he selected a lesser-known strings-only piece by Polish composer Wojciech Kilar to round out the concerts.
Mitchell thinks the four pieces are a study in potential kinetic energy, playing off each other in ways more meaningful than playing any individually interesting compositions thrown together for a night. "I can listen to Spotify at home and listen to those pieces," Mitchell says. "Give me a reason to be there."
A handful of the youth orchestra members participated in 2012's European tour, so China provides a new cultural opportunity for them while introducing their music to new fans. "I didn't want to replicate the experience that they just had," Mitchell says.
Simply talking about the act of conducting, Mitchell often motions with his hands as if he's channeling energy to his musicians, who then transmit that force back out to the audience. Without all the necessary components, his desire to spread music falls flat.
"You want to watch me do my job without musicians?" he says with a laugh. "It's just me moving my arms. That's sad and weird and creepy."