A long, amiable conversation with Geoffrey Whitehead pinballs from Russian symphonies to recreational bicycling to the psychedelic 1970s rock of Traffic to cats to tuba-playing Santa Clauses. But it ends up being about you.
Whether or not you know Holst from hip-hop, whether youd ordinarily attach the adjective classic to Frank Sinatra or Mariachi Vargas De Tecalitlan or to Brahms, Beethoven and Bach he wants you to lend him your ears. The maestros mobile music-makers wish to fill them with timeless sounds.
Whitehead and the Charlotte Civic Orchestra literally live on the road. Theyve played around this region in churches and colleges, parks and performance halls. Their next gig takes them to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte on Sunday, where Whitehead will cap the afternoon with another installment in his complete cycle of Tchaikovskys symphonies.
Musically speaking, they live around the world. Theyve paid tribute to masters from Czechoslovakia to Seattle. (Those would be Antonin Dvorak, composer of the New World Symphony, and Jimi Hendrix, composer of Purple Haze.) Theyve done concerts titled Inspiraciónes Latinas and Influencias Latinas, the latter with guests Orquestra Carolina. Now theyre planning a fall gig that explores African-American classical music.
You would expect a guy who came to Charlotte from Australia (via Indiana) to be cosmopolitan. Youd also expect a pedagogue who wrote a book called A College Level Tuba Curriculum to be knowledgeable. And youd expect a fellow who likes to buy the complete recorded works of composers on CD even composers he doesnt especially enjoy to be passionate about the music he plays and conducts.
Youd be right on all three counts.
Well, theyre so cheap, he says, smiling about his purchases of those huge CD boxes. Haydns not always for me, but I know Ill find some great music in there.
He has that same attitude toward an extraordinary range of music. His joys include Scandinavian folk (hes partial to the Finnish band Värttinä), Willie Nelson, experimental German pop of the 1980s in fact, most everything except music thats not composed as music, but meant to sell a product. Madonnas a genius as an image creator, but I dont like her songs.
Seeing the world behind a tuba
The adult Whitehead began his musical career with a berth in Perth, where he directed bands and choirs in primary and secondary schools. He taught low brass performance at the University of Western Australia and Western Australian Conservatorium, and he played principal tuba in the Western Australia Arts Orchestra.
That deepest of brass instruments led him to Indiana University, where Harvey Phillips reigned as tuba titan. Whitehead studied with him and played in his TubaSantas, giving cheer at Christmas en route to a doctorate. So far, so traditional.
Little did he know, when he landed at Wingate University 13 years ago as a band director, what lay in store. First came marriage to wife Amy, a flutist in the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. Then, in 2006, he took a unique gig: running the CCO, which had been founded in 1986 as the Charlotte Repertory Orchestra.
We changed our name because were truly a civic orchestra, says Pat Moehring, who became executive director in 2008. We want people to feel were part of their community. Were comfortable going to different venues for instance, playing at a church in a Latino neighborhood (St. Giles on Emerywood Drive) to reach different kinds of audiences.
A unique musical identity
This remains a volunteer group: Some members have conservatory training or professional experience, but all play for free. That can have an upside: In 2007, when the Charlotte Symphony was debating whether to do Mahlers First Symphony and hire extra musicians, Whitehead could schedule it and recruit as many volunteers as needed. (The CSO played it the next season; Whitehead says he makes an effort not to overlap with programming.)
This is not my orchestra. Its the players orchestra, he explains. Were discovering things together. I have a personal connection with each of the musicians, and I try to find opportunities for them.
This Sundays concert has been arranged like a four-course banquet: a palate-cleansing fanfare by Dukas, an easily digestible wind serenade by Strauss, a more exotic appetizer called Cloudy Day by Christopher Meister, and Tchaikovskys meaty Second Symphony.
Whitehead picked the fanfare to feature his brass, the Strauss to highlight winds (balancing the Elgar string serenade done recently), the Tchaikovsky to give the players a sense of the Russians progress as a symphonic composer, and the new piece because well, because its new. He tries to feature new works on every program; because he teaches music appreciation at Central Piedmont Community College, hes especially familiar with its faculty, and Meister is a colleague there.
Composers come to talk about their pieces, and audiences respond when they connect with a person in front of them, says Whitehead. And who knows who the great composers are right now? Thats something our children will decide.
Longevity and loyalty
The orchestra works on a tiny annual budget of $48,000 and, says Moehring, stays in the black. She attributes the CCOs longevity to participants who are intense about the survival of it. Half a dozen of the musicians, like (flutist) Sam Stowe and violinist Martha Player, have been here since the first board meeting in the 1980s. Musicians sometimes have to wear two hats: Violist Jason Howell and flutist Lynn Bowes are on the board of directors, too.
Perhaps the veterans stay because theres less formality to the process than in a professional orchestra, from the word-of-mouth recruitment of players I always hated auditioning, says Whitehead to the meals served at rehearsals to the eclectic nature of the programming. The opening concert of the 2011-12 year featured the Hemingway Suite by Florida composer Bill Lorraine, who paid the CCO to record it, and pieces by Dvorak.
And perhaps some stay because of the man Moehring calls a real asset to us.
A different kind of music director
Brass musicians seldom go on to lead full orchestras. (Whitehead can recall one other: Trumpeter Gerard Schwarz, who used to direct the Seattle Symphony.) Pianists often make the switch: Think of Leonard Bernstein, Georg Solti, Daniel Barenboim. So do violinists: Eugene Ormandy, Yehudi Menuhin, the Charlotte Symphonys Christopher Warren-Green.
But brass musicians especially tuba players, who can go a long time between passages in an orchestral work seldom get solos that leave them craving the spotlight. Maybe thats a good thing, in Whiteheads case: He says he never was interested only in the tuba parts; I always wanted to see the big picture. Although almost everything is loud and exposed when the tuba does play, and conductings like that.
Most maestros wouldnt be expected to chase around the city looking for venues, either, but thats part of Whiteheads job: Hes still searching for an African-American church to hold the fall 2012 concert, a tribute to the likes of William Grant Still.
He introduces pieces to his audience, even learning enough Spanish to make his Latino audience comfortable at a concert featuring Prokofievs Pedro y el lobo (Peter and the Wolf). In short, he has become a marketer, promoter, producer and proselytizer for the CCO.
He and Moehring would like to see the budget grow enough to let the orchestra rent bigger halls; she says the group has found an anonymous sponsor wholl fund a Christmas-themed concert at CPCCs Halton Theater, including some dancing.
But most crucially, he knows the audience for classical music has to grow.
This music is meant to be watched, he says. Until 100 years ago, that was the only way to absorb it, and its impossible to enjoy it fully unless its in front of you.
My goal in teaching music appreciation is to get people to be concertgoers, not musicians and maybe to donate! He smiles. If you go into this music with an open mind, you add richness to your life.
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