Geoffrey Whitehead: Has fun, will travel

This Charlotte Civic Orchestra conductor spreads the joys of the classics around town

05/30/2012 12:00 AM

06/01/2012 1:01 PM

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 you’d 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 maestro’s mobile music-makers wish to fill them with timeless sounds.

Whitehead and the Charlotte Civic Orchestra literally live on the road. They’ve 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 Tchaikovsky’s symphonies.

Musically speaking, they live around the world. They’ve 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.”) They’ve done concerts titled “Inspiraciónes Latinas” and “Influencias Latinas,” the latter with guests Orquestra Carolina. Now they’re 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. You’d also expect a pedagogue who wrote a book called “A College Level Tuba Curriculum” to be knowledgeable. And you’d expect a fellow who likes to buy the complete recorded works of composers on CD – even composers he doesn’t especially enjoy – to be passionate about the music he plays and conducts.

You’d be right on all three counts.

“Well, they’re so cheap,” he says, smiling about his purchases of those huge CD boxes. “Haydn’s not always for me, but I know I’ll find some great music in there.”

He has that same attitude toward an extraordinary range of music. His joys include Scandinavian folk (he’s partial to the Finnish band Värttinä), Willie Nelson, experimental German pop of the 1980s – in fact, most everything except music “that’s not composed as music, but meant to sell a product. Madonna’s a genius as an image creator, but I don’t 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 we’re truly a civic orchestra,” says Pat Moehring, who became executive director in 2008. “We want people to feel we’re part of their community. We’re 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 Mahler’s 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. It’s the players’ orchestra,” he explains. “We’re discovering things together. I have a personal connection with each of the musicians, and I try to find opportunities for them.”

This Sunday’s 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 Tchaikovsky’s 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 Russian’s progress as a symphonic composer, and the new piece because – well, because it’s new. He tries to feature new works on every program; because he teaches music appreciation at Central Piedmont Community College, he’s 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? That’s 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 CCO’s 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 there’s 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 Symphony’s 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 that’s a good thing, in Whitehead’s 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 conducting’s like that.”

Most maestros wouldn’t be expected to chase around the city looking for venues, either, but that’s part of Whitehead’s job: He’s 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 Prokofiev’s “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 who’ll fund a Christmas-themed concert at CPCC’s 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 it’s impossible to enjoy it fully unless it’s 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.”

Entertainment Videos

Join the Discussion

Charlotte Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Terms of Service