Story & Review by Jordan Roqmore | Photos Courtesy of Portraits by Bryan
When the East Texas Symphony Orchestra (ETSO) began searching for a music director two years ago, the response was overwhelming. More than 200 applications flooded the offices of the search committee, composed mostly of board members and musicians.
After several layers of interviews and eliminations, the five remaining applicants were asked to come and conduct a concert for the 2011-2012 season.
“They were here for a week leading up to their concert, and we had them out in the community as much as possible,” says Kathy Housby, patron services director. “They had dinner with donors, and we tried to do some public meet-and-greets to see how they interacted with Tyler and the community. As a part of that process, we asked for feedback from the audience.”
After the final concert of the season on April 28, the search committee reviewed all the reactions and responses from the community, board members and musicians. They chose Richard Lee, a Winnipeg, Canada, resident.
“There were a lot of good candidates,” Housby says. “It was a difficult decision, but Richard really rose to the top. He was actually the first to conduct in that season, but even at the end of the process, people still remembered him and how good he was.” Having been hired on immediately as music director, Lee will be conducting four of the five concerts this year for ETSO. He says the job is a good fit all around.
“The musicians and I seemed to work well together,” Lee says. “The board and administration and I get along very well, too. I feel very comfortable in Texas, and I love the food and the friendly locals.”
Along with his obligations in East Texas, Lee is also the music director for the Korean Canadian Symphony Orchestra in Toronto, the resident conductor of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and the conductor of the University of Manitoba Symphony Orchestra. During the orchestra work season, September through May, Lee regularly travels between Winnipeg, Toronto and Tyler.
“Conductors are used to having to travel to work,” Lee says. “If you think about the relatively few professional and semi-professional orchestras in North America, even large cities like NYC will have only a handful. The bottom line is, if you want to work, you have to travel.”
Lee began his musical experience at the age of five with the piano and moved on to the violin two years later. At 17, he passed piano and violin exams with honors at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto.
“After several long years of coerced practicing, I eventually began to enjoy playing,” Lee says. “After a brief and ill-advised stint as a physics major, I came to my senses and pursued a degree in music performance at the University of Toronto as both a violinist and violist.”
Lee went on to teach middle school music for five years. During that time, he received his first encounters with conducting. “The first time I conducted, it happened completely by accident,” Lee says. “The second time I was asked to conduct, it was because the conductor quit at the last minute and they were desperate. However, it wasn’t until I went back to school in 2000 to get my master’s degree in Orchestral Conducting that I really became serious about it.”
Along with professionally conducting orchestras across the continent, Lee also considers himself an avid sports fan, news junkie and connoisseur of fine ales, whiskies and cigars.
“I don’t have a lot of downtime during the work season,” Lee says. “The rehearsals for an approaching concert are intense, and preparing for them is very time-consuming. The goal of rehearsal isn’t necessarily perfection; it’s about bringing a convincing musical experience to the audience.”
During a performance, both the conductor and musicians will have the same piece of music in front of them, but the conductor is in charge of leading the overall sound of the orchestra.
“I don’t know that people always understand how much difference a conductor can make to a performance,” Housby says. “It’s why people that love classical music might have three or four different recordings of the same piece. Yes, the orchestras are going to be a little bit different, but each conductor brings his own sound or style to that performance.” ETSO’s next concert, on January 12, will be “Shall We Dance,” a work by Martin Gould written to feature a tap dancer as the soloist performing with the orchestra. Although this will be the only concert this season with a guest conductor, Lee considers it a positive take on modern orchestral performances.
“In general, I think collaborations are great,” Lee says. “The more we can incorporate other art forms and disciplines from around the area, the better. Things such as the dancers performing with ETSO this year make this a very inclusive and eclectic season.”
The 2013-2014 ETSO season will be the first Lee will be in charge of designing. He says his goal is to meet everybody’s taste at some point in the season next year.
“I can’t give any real details about the upcoming season, but I will say that I do try to make sure that the music I choose reflects not only my taste, but a variety of tastes,” Lee says. “You may not be familiar with all the music we perform, but it all expresses something important. If you come to a show open to the music, it can move you and really take you somewhere.”
“There’s long been a sort of intimidation factor when you talk about orchestras and coming to a concert,” Housby says.
“People say, ‘Do I have to put on my tuxedo?’” No, come in whatever and come as you are. Come and experience the orchestra once and we think you’ll come back again.”
To find out details for upcoming performances or to purchase tickets starting at $10, visit ETSO.org.