Southwest Symphony Orchestra
Etchings in Tone
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Maestro Gary caldwell celebrates 25 years with swso
For a quarter of a century now, one man has led the Southwest Symphony Orchestra: Maestro Gary Caldwell is celebrating his 25th year with the symphony.
Caldwell said he has stuck with it for a number of reasons.
First, he simply loves symphony music. It’s an interest he gained at a young age as he grew up with piano-playing mother and trumpet-playing father. Both taught him their instruments. He eventually followed in his father’s footsteps to pursue the trumpet as his instrument of choice, though he still plays the piano.
When it comes to conducting, though, Caldwell said he enjoys working with the symphony because of those who comprise the orchestra.
“When you work with people for a number of years you become friends,” Caldwell said.
Another appealing aspect is the teamwork and collaboration that comes as the orchestra takes the work of a composer, begins to learn it as a group and then brings it to life for an audience — the chemistry they find together appeals to him.
At times it can be challenging because the musicians all play at different levels and they only rehearse together once a week. But also because of this, their individual personalities come into play more — something Caldwell said he appreciates.
He said there is a great sense of reward in bringing together a diverse group of musicians. They unify in the music to create a quality performance.
Finally, he just likes the act of conducting.
“It’s something I’ve done for 35 years,” he said. “It’s ingrained in me. It’s a part of me.”
As a conductor he’s also a musician. Where a pianist has a piano, he has an orchestra as his instrument. He creates its sound through motions of the baton in his hand.
“It’s a living instrument,” he said.
Derek Thomas, principal trumpet player in the symphony, said Caldwell knows what he wants out of the orchestra and has the patience necessary to work toward those goals. As a conductor he takes the time to help the individual musicians get there.
“Gary is a master of his craft,” Thomas said. “He really understands what he’s doing.”
While Thomas respects Caldwell professionally, he also enjoys their personal relationship, saying the conductor has been a mentor to him.
Tara Tichenor, concert master for the symphony, also uses the term “mentor” to describe Caldwell. She has had plenty of opportunities to observe him through her seven years with the symphony and says he adeptly handles many roles, from mentoring the orchestra members to professionally working with guest artists.
“He devotes so much of his time to the symphony and we’re really lucky to have him in the community,” she said. “He does so much more than showing up and waving a baton.”
He even arrives early to rehearsals to set up the orchestra room, Tichenor noted.
“He does more than a typical conductor would,” she said.
Caldwell began teaching at what was then Dixie College in 1979. Through the years he has taught music theory, trumpet and conducting as well as directed the college band.
For a time in the 1980s, he also played keyboards in a rock band.
“That was a lot of fun,” he said with obvious nostalgic excitement.
Then in 1989, he became the conductor of the Southwest Symphony Orchestra.
Although both involve performing music for an audience, Caldwell said there’s quite a bit of difference between playing a rock gig and conducting a symphony. For example, it’s logistically much easier to set up for six band members than it is with a 79-piece orchestra.
Then there’s the music itself. Rock and pop tend to be upbeat, fun and easily accessible. Plus the songs tend to be fairly short. A long rock song might be six or seven minutes.
With classical music, one piece may last an hour. It requires more effort on the part of the audience.
“I don’t want to sound snobby, but it’s more sophisticated,” he said.
Yet he still enjoys other kinds of music, adding that there are many “fabulous” rock musicians and that some classical music isn’t very good. As long as it’s quality music, he enjoys it.
Sometimes the two come together. One of his favorite performances with the Southwest Symphony came a few years ago as rock drummer Richie Ramoneperformed with the orchestra at the O.C. Tanner Amphitheater in Springdale.
“That was one of my favorites … and I went into it with great trepidation,” Caldwell said. “I would really enjoy doing something with him again.”
Ramone was the drummer for the punk band The Ramones from 1983 to 1987. In 2007 he debuted “Suite for Drums and Orchestra,” based on themes from “West Side Story,” and performed it with symphonies across the nation.
Following the performance in Springdale, Ramone signed a drumhead and gave it to Caldwell.
“We just clicked,” he said of collaborating with the drummer.
Caldwell also loved working with jazz trumpeter Allen Vizzutti. They have performed together twice now. Additionally he has worked with some of the top violinists and cellists in the world. The symphony has also featured vocalists like David Osmond and Alex Boyé as guest artists.
Whether the guest artists are vocalists or instrumentalists, it changes how Caldwell approaches his conducting style. While he still leads the orchestra, he also has to follow the soloist in “accompany mode” at times.
“What you do with your hands doesn’t change much but the thought process does,” he said.
Many symphony performances have incorporated pop songs and film scores, including the orchestra’s popular Halloween concert. This year, that concert likely will include a selection from the Disney animated feature “Frozen” as well as old favorites like music from “The Phantom of the Opera.”
The symphony’s next show is on Sept. 26 when it will perform Beethoven’s 6th symphony. Caldwell said this composition is notable because Ludvig van Beethoven wrote it as he was becoming deaf — a time when he often sought out quiet and solitude.
In December the orchestra will perform Handel’s “Messiah” while February brings the Ravel arrangement of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”
In March the symphony holds its Youth Concerto Night where a few student performers will audition to perform a concerto with the orchestra. And finally in May the symphony will perform its pops concert with a guest artist.
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