Every success Christopher James Lees has had, from college up to his recent hiring as the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra’s new resident conductor, has been wrapped up in a lock of hair.
It comes from the otherwise bald head of Kairos, Greek god of opportunity, whom Lees brings up twice in a conversation about his new job. Legend has it that you have to catch that single lock of hair the instant Kairos passes by or miss him forever.
Lees seized it in his early 20s and has never let go. Now, at 36, he’ll occupy a job the CSO designed for him: A have-stick-will-travel gig that may take him anywhere from helping Alzheimer’s patients to opening the Summer Pops season June 13 in a Kruger Brothers concert that breaks new ground. (Read about the 2018 Summer Pops here.)
You’d guess he’s a runner by his slender frame and amiable but intense manner in conversation. He has hurtled up and down Interstates 77 and 40 to Winston-Salem over the last two years, dividing his time between teaching and conducting at University of North Carolina School of the Arts and serving as the CSO’s assistant conductor. But he, wife Lindsay Kesselman (a fellow specialist in new music) and 3-year-old son Rowan are relocating to Charlotte.
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“Creating this job has been a natural evolution,” says CSO president and CEO Mary Deissler, who came to town when Lees arrived as assistant conductor. “We have dramatically increased the number of community performances: When I came, we had eight weeks of unused services for players, and we’re now at 96 percent utilization. In talking to (music director) Christopher Warren-Green last summer, we knew we needed someone on the ground all year.
“Chris Lees had to decide whether he wanted to be an academic conductor or a performing conductor. I honestly thought we would not have been able to lure him away from his job at UNCSA, but he grabbed onto this.”
Ideally, people ‘will be changed’
If Lees has a spirit animal, it’s a chameleon. He’s comfortable leading a chamber group in a Brew Pub concert, the pit band for Charlotte Ballet’s “The Nutcracker’ or the full orchestra at a screening of “Back to the Future.” His heart goes first to music written during his lifetime, such as John Corigliano’s “Mr. Tambourine Man”: He conducted that suite, set to the lyrics of Bob Dylan, at an altsounds concert where his wife sang. But his brain goes everywhere.
“The muscles for all kinds of music are here,” he says, lifting his baton arm. “The end goal is eclecticism, because the orchestra is a big tent. In an ideal world, if people come to a concert the symphony’s putting on – whatever we’re playing – they will be changed.”
His own life changed at 4, when he talked his parents into piano lessons. (By then, the family was making annual journeys from the Washington, D.C., area to Avon, where they had an Outer Banks vacation house dubbed Lee’s Loft.)
He played the organ for church services at 15 and became an organ studies major at the University of Michigan, knowing “I wanted music to be the center of a community experience. I’d seen it rouse people’s spirits in church, when I played for significant life events – weddings, funerals – and I wanted it to do that all the time.”
Teaching seemed like a logical career, but a performance of Verdi’s “Requiem” shook the musical ground beneath his feet and shifted him to conducting.
“I was singing next to the bass drum, and the piece moved me to tears and fear and fury,” he recalls. “The performance changed the molecules in the room. I thought, ‘I want to provide that for other people.’” The first of many conducting fellowships turned up one month after he completed a master’s degree at Michigan, and he has never left the podium for long.
“I did 52 performances here in Charlotte last season and 20 elsewhere, which is … a lot! Too much, really,” he says. “We’ll have to figure out what an appropriate number is for the new job. Orchestras (our size) often have an international maestro like Christopher Warren-Green and a resident conductor who does other activities, so there are models for this.” (The triple-monikered Christophers are “CWG” and “CJL” around the office.)
Lees doesn’t include being the cover for classical concerts Warren-Green conducts in Charlotte; if the latter gets hit by a bus or stranded in England, Lees has to step up. (This hasn’t happened yet.) In the meantime, Lees conducts Lollipops concerts on Saturday mornings, leads Pops shows and prepares community outreach programs.
In the last year alone, he has handled EarShot, concert readings at Davidson College of works by emerging composers; Healing Hands, a program in tandem with Queens University to study the effects of music on patients with Alzheimer’s Disease; Link Up, which pairs students in grades three through five with the symphony and resulted in a concert with hundreds of kids playing recorders; and On Tap, the CSO’s bock-and-Bach offering at NoDa Brewing Company.
“The brew pub concerts are a good example of what he’s capable of,” says principal violist Benjamin Geller. “He can do concerts in all genres and venues and communicate with people wherever he goes. He connects equally well with kids and donors at the highest level. He’s genuinely a nice guy, which is hard to come by in conductors.”
And, says Geller, he prepares rigorously for all assignments. Lees approached EarShot with no chance to work from prior recordings or even hear the pieces, except perhaps in computer files, and he had just two days to rehearse and record new works. “A lot of conductors don’t have the patience to do those types of projects,” says the violist. “He had no problem getting into the minutiae other conductors bypass. No matter what he’s doing, loud kids’ concerts or playing in breweries, he brings energy to everything.”
Can new music work in Charlotte? ‘Yes’
The CSO will have to figure out how to exploit all facets of their new resident. They may have a hard time utilizing his facility for Chinese – he studied the language for 10 years – or his connoisseurship in wines, skill at Ultimate Frisbee (he competed for the University of Michigan) or knack for jazz improvisation, gained by playing piano in a college trio.
But the orchestra can explore his intense fondness for music written during his lifetime.
“He’s a strong advocate for new music,” says Deissler. “He has been a great resource for CWG and me, as we make sure we’re not only doing pieces by dead white guys from the last 300 years. He has a secret weapon in his wonderful wife, a pre-eminent soprano in contemporary music. And he’s been a resource as we’ve commissioned pieces; I have asked him to find a composer to write a new piece for the senior youth orchestra.”
Lees will take over the Charlotte Symphony Youth Orchestra and Junior Youth Orchestra this year, which Deissler says is a common responsibility for resident conductors: “He has dived headfirst into it and listened to hundreds of auditions, especially as we shift the program a bit to make it reflective of the community, making it an all-city youth orchestra.”
Lees responds diplomatically when asked about new music, acknowledging that “altsounds did not work out at Knight Theater.” He conducted the world premiere of “Speak,” a chamber work for Syrian and western instruments by Kinan Abou-afach, on the Vermont Symphony’s 2017 Summer Festival Tour. Could such a piece succeed in musically conservative Charlotte?
“In the right situations, yes,” Lees says. “We have a holdover in classical music of audiences thinking new works will be scary and hard to understand. That goes back (almost 100 years) to the Second Viennese School of Berg and Schoenberg. But Rachmaninov and Prokofiev and Copland all wrote music people love after that.
“The music of our time has evolved while audiences were away. Composers cross boundaries and infuse technology with emotion. It’s not only more accessible but relevant, because people like John Adams write about things happening to us. My job is to build trust: You may be afraid of composers you don’t know, but you do know me. I’m the musical butler who’s inviting you into the house.”
Lees realizes he’ll wait 20 years to learn whether elementary schoolers in his audiences grow up to love or perhaps perform classical music. But he gets an immediate payoff when he conducts Michael Daugherty’s “Trail of Tears,” a flute concerto about the 19th-century Cherokee exile with which listeners make an immediate connection.
“It’s our job to be evangelists for this art form,” he declares. “If you open the right door for the right person at the right time, you will change their world.”
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.