- It's a long way from Perth, Australia to Wyoming.
But Christopher Dragon made that journey, enthusiastically and musically.
He's the conductor of the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra, one of several regional symphonies in the state that Chris Dragon thinks provides an important, even essential link to the higher arts in the nation's least populated state.
A conversation with Chris Dragon.
This is "Wyoming Chronicle."
- [Announcer] Funding for this program is made possible in part by the Wyoming Humanities Council, helping Wyoming take a closer look at life through the humanities, thinkWY.org and by the members of the Wyoming PBS Foundation.
Thank you for your support.
- [Host] As the conductor and music director of the Wyoming Symphony, Christopher Dragon puts everything he has into the job of getting the best music possible from his small orchestra based in Casper.
(dramatic music) Dragon, whose full-time job is with the Colorado Symphony in Denver, where he's the resident conductor, added the Wyoming Symphony Post to his resume a few years ago.
In Casper, the dynamic 32 year old is in charge of all things musical.
What's the difference between the conductor and the musical director, or is there one?
- There can be a lot of conductors.
For example, guest conductors, you go and travel and visit an orchestra for a week and then you leave.
Whereas with the music director, you have, I guess, a little bit more of a commitment to that one orchestra and you see the orchestra more regularly throughout the season and it's really your job to put the season together and to program the music.
So basically the direction of where an orchestra goes, a big part of that is due to the music director.
- From listening to you, I get the impression you're not a Wyoming native.
- Where do you come from?
Where'd you grow up?
- So I'm originally from Perth, Western Australia.
So it's one of the most isolated, populated cities in the world.
So far from everything.
(laughing) - What were your origins in music?
Did you play an instrument as a kid?
- I studied piano at a very young age but then I switched to clarinet in primary school and I ended up doing my studies on it.
So I did my Bachelor of music in clarinet performance.
That was my whole music training, was clarinet.
- How commonplace is it for a conductor to have emerged on the clarinet?
- Well, I think to today, like in the contemporary setting of conductors, the path to becoming a conductor is very different to what it was before.
Back in the day, you had to be a repetitor, someone that would play piano for either the opera or ballet rehearsals and that's how you would learn the repertoire.
And then from there you would eventually graduate and become a conductor.
That was the traditional path.
But today, you can go to a university to study conducting which I didn't really do.
But yeah, my path is not traditional whatsoever.
The way that I kind of got into it all was back home in Perth, they didn't offer conducting as a subject and it was always something I was interested in.
I would go to concerts, this was in university.
I would go and watch symphony (indistinct) and I would just be transfixed on the conductor the whole time.
Even playing clarinet in orchestra, you sit at the very back of the orchestra and you would hear things that, I would hear things that maybe went right but it's not really my place to say.
As the clarinet is sitting at the back of the orchestra, I can't suddenly go up to the violinist and be like, oh, I think this should be like this or this.
Like, that's totally stepping outta line.
So there was always something that interested me about being on that, being on the podium and having that ability to affect the music in a greater way.
Yeah, so basically the way that I got here, I guess, is that I started my own orchestra.
When I was still a student, I was in my early 20s and I just got a whole bunch of friends together from both of the music universities and put on a concert, which looking back on that now was one of the most craziest things having never conducted before and deciding to put on a concert in front of people, like a public concert.
And luckily, it went okay.
And I think that gave me enough encouragement to pursue it further.
So from there, I basically conducted everything I possibly could.
Every sort of amateur group, from concert band to brass band, to youth orchestra.
I did everything I possibly could and it just gave me the experience to learn my craft and to hone it.
(upbeat orchestra music) Okay, good, good, good, good.
That's all that stuff.
- [Host] That Conducting Craft was on full display as Dragon led the orchestra through a final rehearsal one day before its spring concert.
And his love for the clarinet was evident as well in conducting George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," home of the most famous clarinet solo in all orchestral music.
(light music) - How do you go about deciding what the Wyoming Symphony is gonna play in a particular concert?
- Yeah, so programming a season, it's a little bit of a balancing act, because you have a whole variety of concerts within a season, maybe five or six, at least with the Wyoming Symphony, we have about six concerts.
And you want to make sure you cover a wide variety of repertoire and repertoire that will not only connect with our musicians, but our audience.
'Cause at the end of the day, we're trying to serve the people in this community.
So as a conductor, you don't just get to pick the pieces you want to conduct.
You have to also think about who you are performing this music to.
So every time I try to program a piece, I try to think what is gonna be appealing to a wide audience and also what's going to build the orchestra, because even through programming, you can improve the quality of an orchestra by focusing on certain things.
So there actually is a lot that comes down to programming.
It's not just putting down whatever you want to do.
There really is a big picture and kind of like a puzzle when trying to put a season together.
(upbeat orchestra music) (Christopher humming) Good.
All this is fine.
Good, good, good, good.
So let's put that all together.
Let's go from the middle section from 20, what is that?
Just in the violin.
I thought we marked this yesterday.
All these long notes were still way too thick in the texture, the third of 28.
Anytime we get to a long notes, I thought we'd start at pianissimo, right, and only go up to piano.
Yeah, we're way too thick.
So the horn should be easily on top of the texture.
At the moment, it's way too heavy for all of that.
Also, when the piano comes in with the trumpet, this is the third of 30.
Same thing, it should come down to a pianissimo in all the long notes, especially in the strings, and winds down to a piano pianissimo, so the trumpet and piano can hear each other.
At the moment, it's way too thick and it's hard to hear.
Can we go please, 28.
And... (calm music) Yes, of course the conductor is a part of the performance.
It can't really happen without them, but to me it's all about serving the music.
I don't see myself as the fixture of what people come to see.
They come to hear great music and I'm just helping in that journey, basically.
- When you are conducting, not only are you trying to get what you want, what you think you need what from the orchestra, but you're being moved by it as you hear it and that's part of what we get to see.
- Oh, absolutely.
And a lot of audience members say this.
They say I'm a very entertaining conductor to watch, even though I have no idea what I do when I'm up there.
Honestly, nothing is choreographed, nothing is planned.
I think to give a convincing performance, you have to embody the music.
You have to be so committed to it that nothing else is in your mind but that music that's happening at that moment.
So, yeah, it's quite funny.
That, yeah, a lot of audience members say, oh, it's so much fun watching you conduct and that sort of thing.
Like, I can see the music and what you're doing.
But to me, all I'm doing with my gestures is trying to evoke the sound that I'm thinking in my head.
Again, like I said, nothing at all is planned.
Nothing is planned.
- You don't take the podium thinking tonight I'm going to give a good performance?
That's not what it is?
- Oh my gosh, no, no, no.
Like, that is the furthest from it.
The whole, like, even just coming up and bowing, people have noticed this also.
It's really not about me.
As much as I jump around and do my thing, to me, it's always about the music and helping the musicians and helping all of us through a performance to do the very best that we possibly can.
(dramatic music) (music calms) Awesome.
Good, good, good.
Great, great, great.
One request in the strings.
Whenever we head to those long notes, when the trumpet and the piano's playing, can we always diminuendo into that, yeah?
So it's not subito piano when the long notes start, but let's always come away anytime on those last two quarter notes.
So two after 30, those last two quarter notes, quick diminuendo.
Same thing, whenever the grandioso comes back always those two last quarter notes, quick diminuendo, so it clears the texture for them in that section.
That middle section is good.
Let's work backwards.
- People use the term classical music and I know in sort of academic musical terms, it means something a little bit different from what it means to the average concert goer.
But let's just, I'm using the broadest possible term.
- Which I think is okay.
- I think people tend to view it as sort of old-fashioned, old school, solemn stayed, somber, unchanging kind of music.
But if you look into the history of some of these works, they were greeted in their day.
It wasn't uncommon for them to be greeted with a furor almost, riots in the streets, practically.
Demonstrations against this being performed in public, almost the way that you'd hear when, I don't know, when Elvis Presley went on the "Ed Sullivan Show" and they showed him from the waist up because it was just so outrageous.
And that happened with- - Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring."
- With orchestral music - That's the piece.
- sometimes too, didn't it?
So it had cultural impact in its day and still does.
I'm sure you would agree.
- Oh, absolutely.
And going back to like, yeah, people.
The conception of classical music being, I guess, stuffy, and for a certain kind of audience.
I think that is very much changing today.
Orchestral music is part of everyone's life.
It plays a major part in movies, film, video games, TV shows, advertisements.
It is everywhere.
If people recognize it or not, you are constantly listening to orchestral music and you see quite a lot of the big orchestras around the states, they have now started performing films with the orchestra, playing the music live to the film.
So I've done many of those.
Star Wars, Jurassic Park, all those sort of big John Williams things where we play the music live.
So audiences today, they do experience orchestral music regularly in their lives.
- Even if they don't immediately think of it in that way.
You mentioned video games.
The video game is an incredible world of creativity and from many different angles.
And many of the big important games have an orchestral score and orchestra performing it for the game.
Even the conductor.
- Yeah, even that today we've put on concerts where we focus primarily just on video game music.
It has become its own genre.
And for me, growing up, I never went to symphony concerts as a kid.
Most of my exposure to this sort of music was through film and video games.
So that's totally how I grew up.
(laughing) (upbeat orchestra music) because as a conductor, unlike an instrumentalist, you can't just pick up your instrument in the corner of your room and practice it whenever you want.
- This is one of my questions.
- How does a conductor rehearse?
- The very first step is starting from the score, which is our, I guess, giant book which has every single instrument lined out and has every single part.
So it's your job to figure out how that all fits together bit by bit.
And it's a very, very long process.
Like for me to, for example, learn a upcoming subscription concert, I would start learning it at least a month in advance if not a little bit earlier.
- Now when you say learning it, you're doing it primarily from the score.
- Do you listen?
Would you ever listen or watch in an earlier recording that someone else had conducted to get a sense of it or no?
- Every conductor's different.
The first step that I do is I mark it up without listening to anything.
So I get my own thoughts and opinions of how the piece should sound and my own ideas.
And then the next thing I do is I write questions.
I write a lot of questions of what is this?
What should I do there, and then I hope that over time those answers will come to me.
But I think to me, listening back to recordings and watching videos, I think that's a very valuable resource, especially today, the fact that we have the internet and we have videos from years ago of these great conductors doing it, why wouldn't you look back at these resources and see how they conducted certain transitions and things like that.
To me, it's all very valuable.
At the end of the day, you can't really copy a recording.
Like, that's never gonna work.
You always have to do your own interpretation.
But I think looking back to those sort of recordings and videos, it can help to answer certain questions you might have.
Good, good, good.
So just be careful before 24.
One, two, three, four, before 24, just be careful.
That bar will probably be stretched slightly.
The downbeat will come later than we expect.
Four before 24.
One, two, four before 24, the downbeat will come a little bit later than we expect.
Good, good, good, good.
Let's, let's try that one more time.
The same spot.
- As a conductor, looking at the score for the first time, how often is it something that you've never even heard performed before?
Is that typical?
- It is actually quite typical, because there's a lot of contemporary music that I do.
Collaborations with bands, a lot of film music, a lot of contemporary music, even that's being discovered and that's being written.
Of course, there's the warhorses of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, those I am familiar with already.
So they're a little bit easier 'cause you you already know the kind of sound world.
But when it's a new piece like that, quite often I will have to then go to a piano or something and play part of it, just to get an idea of where the melody is or what sort of things I should be listening for.
- As a conductor, looking at that score, you have the skillset developed and perhaps innate as well, to at least imagine what it's all gonna sound like together.
I mean, you get a sense of that in a way that someone who plays just the piccolo probably couldn't do.
You better, I guess.
- Yeah, I was gonna say, it is kind of like our job to hear the overall, the sound world of what the orchestra is producing.
So yeah, it is very much in our head, even when you're conducting a performance, which is actually when I first started conducting this was one of the hardest things to get comfortable with, is that when you're conducting an orchestra, you have what the piece should sound like in your head, already going in your head, and then you are analyzing that against what the orchestra gives you.
So I always try not to think about this too much or else I feel like I'll get into my own head about it and make it harder than it already is.
Long way from Wyoming.
It's another day there.
Across the day there.
- Oh yeah.
They're in the future right now.
- And one of the fun things about this job is asking people what brought them to Wyoming if they weren't here at the start.
How did this happen?
So I've actually been living in the States now for about seven years.
I moved from Australia to the US because I won a job with the Colorado Symphony.
So that's been my main position and I'm the resident conductor there.
I've been there seven years.
And when I was there, this was maybe four, four or five years ago, a lot of musicians were letting me know that there was an opportunity in Wyoming for a music director position and they thought that I would be a really good fit.
So I applied and luckily enough I won the position.
So I flew over, I conducted the orchestra.
I had a week with them, and then the orchestra and the committee voted and they selected me as the music director.
So yeah, I've been here, what?
Four years now, something like that.
So yeah, I've loved it.
(upbeat orchestra music) Okay.
So it pushes forward.
This is before 40.
One, two, three, four, five, six.
Oh, it's about five bars before 40.
After that little run, it pushes forward there.
One, two, three, four, five before 40 put an arrow going forward, it pushes forward.
- What expectations can you have for an orchestra in Wyoming?
We're the least populated state in the nation.
And I don't know that these two things correlate exactly but I would assume it's that it might mean there are fewer musicians capable or willing or able or talented enough to perform at the orchestral level right?
- So I think the level of what people expect is always going to be high.
In terms of what we have here, it's always difficult to say.
Like, it's hard to say, oh yeah, the Wyoming Symphony quality is the same as the LA Philharmonic because the people that work in our orchestra, they also have day jobs, they also have other professions outside of playing their instruments.
- And it's a smaller group as well.
- Oh, it is a much smaller group.
Whereas, the people that play in Colorado or the LA Philharmonic, that is their profession.
That is what they do.
And because they do so many concerts, they're playing every week and maybe sometimes two or three different programs in one week alone.
So the fact that that ensemble is constantly playing together means that the quality is always gonna be a little bit better because they're playing as a group constantly.
Whereas with any sort of regional orchestra, because you're only meeting for that one week, and who knows, maybe the next concert is a month 1/2 away.
So there's always a gap.
So it's hard to build that same quality when the concerts are so spread apart.
So there are definitely difficulties.
But like I said, I couldn't be prouder of what we've achieved here.
- At this rehearsal, the orchestra welcomed guest pianist, Diego Caetano, who would tackle the rousing piano solos of "Rhapsody In Blue."
Illustrating the challenges faced by a small regional orchestra, this was the first time the orchestra and the soloist had ever rehearsed together, and the concert was just 24 hours away.
(upbeat piano music) - Okay, and then you have to watch me for the one-two.
Do the blu roo roo roo.
(piano chiming) One.
(Christopher humming) (piano chiming) All right.
Even slow, even slower.
Give me your tempo.
What is your tempo on it?
(piano chiming) ♪ Da da beep da ba ba It's really slow.
♪ Ba ba beep, ba ba beep Right on it.
(upbeat orchestra music) (Christopher humming) One, two.
(Christopher humming) (upbeat orchestra music) Okay.
We need a consistent tempo.
It started slow and then it got quicker.
It started slow and then it got quicker.
So what tempo do you want for this?
(piano chiming) ♪ Ba ba ba bee ♪ Ya ba ba ba, ba ba ba bee Okay.
Right on it.
(upbeat piano music) Good, and this is why we need to have the cutoff on beat too each time so we can be clear, else it's muddy and we can't hear what's going on.
Same spot, 37.
(upbeat orchestra music) Good.
Go with him, he's right there.
Something's going on.
He's right there.
He's right there.
Go with him.
Go with him.
He's right there.
Go with him one.
One and... (upbeat orchestra music) So in a rehearsal especially, you're trying to analyze it and work out what you need to fix or just match that image.
Or sometimes your image gets changes, changes to what the orchestra gives you.
It's very flexible.
It's very, very flexible.
- So you might hear something better than you had in mind when you hear good grouping musicians playing?
- Yeah, absolutely, and you go with it.
- [Host] Here's an example of that flexibility.
The soloist is playing one section of "Rhapsody in Blue" blue at a different tempo or speed from the tempo Dragon had conducted in earlier rehearsals.
He listens, asks the soloist what his preference is, then happily agrees to the change.
- What tempo do you want for this?
So way quicker.
Okay, much quicker than what I wrote.
♪ Dat dat dat dat, bump bump bim bump ♪ Okay.
♪ Dat dat dat dat, dat dat, three four ♪ (upbeat orchestra music) Okay.
So be ready for it to be quite perky.
I've not heard it in the quick tempo like that, but just be ready for it to be quick and perky.
No, it's fine.
We've got it now.
We got it now.
I'm not changing.
We got it now.
We're good, we're good.
It just caught me by surprise.
♪ Dat dat dat dat, dat dat, three four ♪ (upbeat orchestra music) - What's the state of the arts, the fine arts, so to speak, in Wyoming as far as you can tell?
- After the end of every concert, seeing the audience and just seeing how and getting to speak with them after seeing how happy and appreciative they are.
And like I said, everyone can see the growth, and as a music director you can't ask for much more.
There really is such a thirst and hunger for orchestral music here and for the arts, not just orchestral music.
I, I see so much potential in Wyoming which to me is the most exciting thing about being here.
(upbeat orchestra music) Good.
The hairpin will happen at the end of this little phrase.
I'll show where that hairpin is.
Also, just be careful... (upbeat music)