A kid in a candy store

It finally happened. After months of anticipation, interviews, photo shoots, planning and general pandemonium, this morning the Jacksonville Symphony had its first rehearsal for their opening concerts this weekend. And I was there conducting, for the first time as music director designate. No big deal.

Well, not quite. It is a big deal. It’s a huge deal for everyone. I don’t know about the orchestra, but having convinced myself last night that the JSO management had made a terrible mistake, and that the musicians were going to leave for lunch thinking “what have we done?!” I had a few butterflies in my stomach this morning. We spent the morning reading through the main piece on the concerts this weekend, Berlioz’s unbelievable Symphonie Fantastique.

It’s hard to do this piece justice in prose. It’s music of wild passion and incredible originality. In Berlioz’s words, it tells the story of “an artist gifted with a lively imagination who has poisoned himself with opium in the depths of despair, because of hopeless love.” Heady stuff! Each of the five movements presents the artist in an unusual situation: the middle of a panic attack, an elegant ball, a field in the countryside, a march to the guillotine, and a wild witches’ party at midnight. He keeps catching glimpses of his beloved, but he can’t reach her because she’s in a crowd, or just beyond the river bend, or disguised as a witch. All of this is described vividly in the music, taking the listener with Berlioz as he experiences the thrills and agony of love. It’s a trip. Literally.

I’ve loved this piece since playing one of the movements in my high school orchestra. As a conductor, I’ve rehearsed it with youth orchestras, conducted big chunks in young peoples’ concerts, but never prepared the whole thing with an orchestra for a set of performances.

So imagine my excitement this morning as rehearsal began. We started with the “March to the Scaffold”, a terrifying affair, with our hero walking through jeering crowds towards his grisly end. Right before the guillotine falls, he sees his love in the crowd, but, too late, he can’t call to her, because his head is chopped off and we hear it falling into a basket, plink plonk.

Part of the thrill this morning was the level at which we began. The most rewarding thing for a conductor is working with an orchestra that can deliver his vision of the piece. We conductors spend a lot of time honing an imaginary, idealized version of a piece of music in our heads. At rehearsal, we try to align what we’re hearing from the orchestra with that internal performance. How close we get depends both on the musicians’ skill and our own ability to relate it to them.

It should come as no surprise to any of you that we have a world-class symphony orchestra here in Jacksonville. But somehow I think it needs saying again. We have a world-class symphony orchestra, right here, in Jacoby Hall (which by the way, is also world-class, and the envy of every regional orchestra in the country).

This morning at rehearsal break, I went back to my dressing room and sat quietly for a few minutes. What I really wanted to do was skip for joy around the room, but somehow that doesn’t seem becoming of a music director. I was like a kid in a candy store, because this morning’s rehearsal made me realize that the possibilities are endless. There aren’t any limits to realizing that internal performance. Yes, we already have a great orchestra, but we have the opportunity to build something even greater, something that will engage and inspire people in Jacksonville and far beyond, be they newcomers or sophisticated veterans. That’s truly exciting.

As musicians, everything we do is geared towards sharing our passion for music. We want to enrich the lives of you, the people of Jacksonville. Please give us that opportunity to inspire you by being in Jacoby Hall this Friday and Saturday. It’s a big deal.

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