Conductors are not typically known for their soft-spoken humility on or off the podium, but Richard Pittman is not your typical conductor. Ever since arriving in Boston in 1968 to teach conducting at New England Conservatory, he has been a quiet but steady force, a tireless advocate of repertoire that’s off the beaten path, and an under-recognized hero of the city’s new-music scene. Next season, Boston Musica Viva, the new music group he founded and still directs, will celebrate its 50th anniversary. He has also led the Concord Orchestra for nearly five decades. And this season marks his 20th at the helm of the New England Philharmonic, a volunteer orchestra that has earned national recognition for its innovative programming.
As the New England Philharmonic prepares to honor Pittman at its March 3 program, the conductor spoke with the Globe about his early days in Boston, the changes he’s observed, and the motivation that keeps him always searching for the next score to champion.
Q. As all these round-numbered anniversaries start piling up, how are you feeling?
A. Well I’m still always worried about the upcoming concert [laughs] and what comes next after that. The happy situation with the Boston Musica Viva is that, in recent years, we’ve had the best ensemble of players we’ve ever had in our whole history. And the New England Philharmonic is continually improving. And as for myself, I guess I feel there’s always a lot more room for growth. If I can’t get a little better each year, I would be a very unhappy person.
Q. How would you describe the local new-music scene when you founded Boston Musica Viva nearly 50 years ago, and what was your original vision for that group?
A. When I came here to teach at NEC, I saw there was a gap in the city’s musical life. Like a lot of the conservatories and music departments, they would do modern music concerts. But there was no professional ensemble to do modern music! I thought well, something has got to be done about this. The first season, the ICA and the Busch Reisinger Museum sponsored our concerts. We did one in the lobby of Boston City Hall. Every time the elevator door opened there was a ding [laughs]. But it was very enthusiastically received. Typically in those days we would get reviews from three to five different newspapers.
Q. How has the enterprise of new-music presenting changed over the decades? And do you feel the boundaries between the contemporary music scene and the world of mainstream classical music have grown more porous?
A. It’s all much more difficult now, but this has to do with our whole cultural climate in this country. There’s been such a dumbing down that’s been going on. The Internet and all of these hand-held devices, I think, have contributed to the dumbing down. The fact that Trump got elected as president — the fact that that’s even possible — says a lot. Back then, you’d see classical musicians on television. . . . [“Tonight Show” host] Johnny Carson would have on Pavarotti, or Zubin Mehta, or Itzhak Perlman. That’s also vanished.
Another thing that has changed is that there used to be these lines in the sand stylistically — if you had studied with Hindemith, then you looked down your nose on the 12-tone composers [and vice versa]. The boundaries are less rigid now. I think that’s healthy. The symphony orchestras are also paying a little more attention to modern music. But a lot of what they play is not always that good, though it tends to be accessible.
Q. Let’s talk about programming. What is your general approach to assembling a program? Clearly you have a deep interest in lesser-trafficked corners of the repertoire.
A. Well, would you really want to eat the same food every night, even if it’s your favorite food? My motivation for becoming a conductor in the first place was programming. In making programs, I’m interested in showing the connections to what went before. Every generation of composers takes over where the last one left off — even if they’re in rebellion. One thing reflects upon the other, and you come out of there understanding what you’ve heard a little bit better.
Q. All of that said, unfamiliar music requires more work for listeners and for players. Do you have a standard reply when someone complains?
A. With the NEP musicians, they don’t complain. They wouldn’t be in the orchestra if they didn’t like what we did. In general, I do sometimes quote something that a Dutch woman in Concord told me after we did Mahler’s First Symphony with the Concord Orchestra. She told me that growing up in Amsterdam in the 1930s, [Dutch conductor Willem] Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra had done Mahler’s First and the audience didn’t like it. So Mengelberg did it again! And then just 40 years later, that same piece was being performed by the Concord Orchestra. I often say “Well, I’m sorry you didn’t like it, but I’d love for you to hear it again.”
Q. As you approach the half-century mark with two of your ensembles, what aspect of the job propels you onward?
A. Well, I love music. I feel it’s religious in a certain sense. I want to make life better for my fellow human beings. And there’s a Puritanical streak in me that says if I can’t do some good, it doesn’t justify my existence. I have this feeling of obligation, I’ve got to do something to help life for all of us be better. I also care about music itself. I want to do good for music, and I want to help other human beings have their lives enriched by getting to know music, and in particular I want them to widen their horizons, and to be more open to things that are going on right now, in addition to what’s gone on in the past. That’s the motivation. I just want to make things better. I wish I had some fancy words for all of that. But that’s what it is.
New England Philharmonic and Boston Musica Viva