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Yale graduate David Hagy has spent 25 years challenging and transforming the Salisbury Symphony Orchestra

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  • Salisbury Symphony

    The season ends Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in Catawba College’s Keppel Auditorium, 2300 W. Innes St., Salisbury. The program offers J.S. Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins and nine short pieces.

    Tickets: $6-22.

    Details: salisburysymphony.org.



SALISBURY When David Hagy was an eighth-grader in Indianapolis, a piano followed him home from school.

A classmate’s family wanted an old upright out of their basement badly enough to pay for its relocation.

So Hagy had a great idea: He’d slip it into his bedroom before anyone noticed, then ask his parents if he could keep it. He didn’t realize it would get stuck in a hallway corner, then have to plop down in the living room to greet mom and dad when they came home.

They made him get rid of it, but they didn’t ignore the sign: Little David got a piano for his 13th Christmas and set off on the musical journey that has lasted nearly half a century – most of it as a beloved music director of the Salisbury Symphony Orchestra.

He’ll lead that orchestra Saturday in a “Double Your Fun” concert devoted to pairs and trios. That gig also celebrates his 25 years as Salisbury’s maestro. So he’ll conduct some pieces, then brush the dust off his fiddle to accompany Daniel Skidmore in J.S. Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins.

“My goal is to conduct here for 25 more years,” he says, with the slight smile that acknowledges he’ll be 85 at that point. “There’s a lot left to do.”

Yet he has already introduced works as difficult as Mahler’s Second Symphony and as rare as Debussy’s “Fantasie for Piano and Orchestra,” strengthened mainstage concerts at Livingstone College, set up an equitable pay scale for all musicians and gently replaced weak musical links among the 60 to 70 regular performers. He has managed this on a budget of about $300,000, roughly 3 percent of the Charlotte Symphony’s total.

“He does what any music director does, picking the programs and finding soloists, but he’s also the music librarian and personnel manager,” says SSO executive director Linda Jones.

“He orders music and marks scores and distributes them to the musicians. He brings a box of extension cords to rehearsals, so we can hook up the lights for music stands. I have even seen him move a piano and sweep the stage. There is nothing he won’t do to make a concert happen.”

Or to make it weirdly entertaining. He’s famous at Wake Forest University, where he directs the orchestra and teaches, for Halloween concerts in which faculty and musicians play unanticipated tricks on each other.

By all accounts, he’s a rarity: a guy who sees the big philosophic picture but also hears every detail in a score. Attribute that to his two main conducting mentors, Thomas Briccetti and Otto-Werner Mueller.

Briccetti was assistant conductor of the Indianapolis Symphony when Hagy (then a high school senior) led it in one of his own compositions. Mueller took two students out of 32 applicants for his doctoral program at Yale University and dourly tutored Hagy.

“As a result,” says Hagy, “I had one teacher filled with energy and passion and a knowledge of detail (Briccetti), and one who knew the overall architecture of a piece and could change an orchestra’s tone color without speaking.”

Hagy took six years to collect his bachelor’s in music at Indiana University after changing from piano to violin. (He thought a string-playing conductor could give better guidance to string sections.) He led youth orchestras in Omaha, Neb., for four years before going to Yale, then stayed after his doctorate to manage the university orchestra.

Getting the job

So he was 35 when he auditioned for the Salisbury Symphony – which invited him, then sent him a rejection letter before he came.

“I was supposed to conduct in January, but someone who liked the October candidate sent rejection letters to the other three,” he recalls. “Then, in November, I got a letter that said, ‘We didn’t mean it.’

“The orchestra and I got along well right away, though I gave the second violins more ‘don’t play’ cues than ‘play,’ because the person in charge had early-onset Alzheimer’s.

“We did Copland’s ‘Lincoln Portrait’ with Gov. Jim Martin narrating, and he wanted to conduct ‘Stars and Stripes Forever.’ I said, ‘OK, if I can be the bass drummer.’ No matter what happened, I could control the orchestra that way.’ ”

Missy Shives, then executive director, remembers Hagy’s hiring:

“What won him the job (in 1988) was his rapport with the musicians. He has a special ability to communicate, showing empathy and respect, while … getting across his expectations.

“Another factor was David’s willingness, even eagerness, to continue concerts at Livingstone. David is a strong proponent of equal opportunities for everyone.” (The SSO plays at Livingstone’s Varick Auditorium and Catawba College’s Keppel Auditorium. Presidents of those colleges, Samuel Duncan and Donald Dearborn, founded the orchestra in 1966.)

Hagy threw himself into work, also conducting musicals at Piedmont Players Theatre and teaching at Catawba College. After seven years, he went to Wake Forest. All the while, he politely improved the orchestra.

“We walk a fine line between being a community orchestra for musicians and a professional orchestra for audiences,” he says. “I wanted to establish a clear pay scale, and there were a few people I did not want to pay. Some of those stayed, and some didn’t.”

Leroy Sellers, a violinist who has been around for more than 45 years, says Hagy made the orchestra “larger, more professional and more structured. My playing, as well as others’, has improved, because the literature is more difficult.”

Skidmore, the orchestra’s concertmaster, describes rehearsals this way:

“Rarely do we read straight through any piece, at both the first or dress rehearsals. … However, it is obvious that he is thinking about the overall continuity he wants to achieve.

“The atmosphere is very friendly and fun. People feel free to speak up and laugh. Several people enjoy ribbing David, and he takes it in good humor. He trusts the musicians and lets us know if there is a passage we should look at outside of rehearsals.”

A mind full of details

Violinist Elizabeth Martin wrote a poem, “No Ordinary Conductor,” delineating his good qualities. Among them was this: He begins rehearsals after the sun drops below the roof line of the nearby Salisbury Post, so the sun won’t shine in musicians’ eyes.

This kind of focus explains why he enjoys mystery and science-fiction shows on television; he even leaves those playing while marking scores or grading papers. (“I need people sounds around,” says Hagy, who lives alone in a Salisbury apartment.)

Yet despite his knack for exactitude, he doesn’t demand it from his ensemble:

“The sound is my first priority, more important than togetherness. I strive for accuracy, but emotion is the most important thing. My musicians can communicate that, whatever their technical ability is.”

Looking to the future

He’ll continue to hone their skills with repertoire. The orchestra co-commissioned pieces by Joan Tower and William Schwantner with 49 other groups, one from each state. Hagy wants his players to wrestle with Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra.

“When David puts together a season, he has a two-page list of considerations,” says Jones. “He considers what the orchestra is capable of, what people want to hear, technical restraints, history, soloists, public relations. ‘Me,’ meaning what he wants to do, is last on that list.”

Hagy’s dreams go beyond scores. He wants to replace the acoustic shell, which dates to the 1970s, and upfit both Keppel and Varick, which aren’t ideally designed for classical music. He hopes to expand the orchestra’s reach to Cabarrus County, especially Kannapolis, as its professional population grows.

In the meantime, he’ll stick to the unusual motto that has guided him: Make your worst good enough.

“We all hope to do well,” he says. “But at some point, every musician will do his worst work, and that baseline must be good enough for an audience to pay for.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232
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