Tom: So, we’re talking about music here obviously. What was it about music that it became your life’s work? Was it your family? Was it maybe a performance that you experienced, a teacher that you had?
Thomas: Great. Yes. It’s been part of my life since as far back as I can remember. You know having a musical household, definitely my parents are responsible for an introduction to music and encouraging my musical studies and career. And, I think that after, you know, this early exposure at home it did end up being the teachers that I was able to work with who inspired this kind of lifelong appreciation and the pursuit of the career.
I remember some early piano teachers growing up in St. Louis who really inspired me to, you know, pursue harder and harder repertoire, more and more serious studies. And eventually by the time I was choosing a career and having to make these big decisions it was clear to me that music was the only way to go. And, these days I say to young people if you can imagine yourself doing anything besides music, you should probably do it because it’s such a tough career to build. But, evidently I picked the right one for me and I’ve been very fortunate to have a career built around music. As you know it’s not an easy undertaking.
Tom: Is the piano your instrument of choice?
Thomas: That’s right. Yeah. I was a Piano undergraduate major and I’m now sort of “artist formerly known as pianist.” It’s something that I like to keep up for social engagements and you know sort of impromptu performances. But, no, I’m leaving that to the classical pianist these days.
Tom: So, how does one make that transition from a musician to conductor?
Thomas: Sure. It’s always an interesting thing and there’s really no set path. I would say that each conductor finds his or her own way – especially these days – to make it on to the podium with an orchestra.
For me, it was through composing that I found out about conducting. I was writing in high school some Broadway shows and then original classical compositions in college that I had a chance to direct myself and I realized that what is so wonderful about conducting is that it’s a collaborative musical exercise. There are other people involved that you get a chance to coach and work with musicians on musical expression and ideas. And, that really meant for me sort of a breakthrough, whereas I had been in a practice room as a piano player very much a solo enterprise and suddenly this wonderful world of conducting meant that I had other people to work with and that suited me.
So, it was through my own writing and performing that I finally had a chance to try conducting and it was a great fit for me.
Tom: What is the most exciting thing to you about the program that you’re going to be conducting here in Lexington?
Thomas: Oh, it’s a wonderful program, a big program, lots of music to enjoy. I think there are many, many specials components of this program. The concert is called Home, and that’s largely because of the music of Julia Perry.
Julia Perry was born in 1920’s in Lexington, so it was her home. She lived there for I think the first ten years or so of her life before moving to Akron, Ohio and then, having a long career in Europe. I shouldn’t say a long career, an extensive career with notable teachers like (Luigi) Dallapiccola and Nadia Boulanger, but anyway, having this career that was actually cut relatively short due to health issues for her.
But, one of the most notable early African-American women composers whose music is still performed today; it’s a wonderful opportunity to explore her works that are relatively unperformed. That kicks off a performance of the Stravinsky violin concerto, one the most technical works for the solo violin in the repertoire, a wonderful chance to work with Stefan (Jackiw) whom I’ve not worked with before. We have some things in common though. His parents are both physicists, mine are both biologists, so I can’t wait to touch base with him on what that means.
But, of course the big bulk of the program is Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony and it’s one of the most passionate works of Tchaikovsky, his last symphony, his last work. He actually conducted the premiere just a week or so before he passed away, incredibly emotional and significant because of its autobiographical nature for Tchaikovsky. And it’s just incredibly passionate music that showcases the orchestra and as a guest conductor as a music director finalist, it will provide so much opportunity to work with the musicians to get to know the musicians of Lexington Philharmonic and bring this incredible music to life. I can’t wait.
Tom: Thomas, if you were pressed to describe your musical personality, what would you say?
Thomas: [Laughs] That’s a good question. Again, when I think about conductors, it’s such an individual art. You know there’s as many different styles of conducting and personalities as there are conductors I would say. Generally speaking, I would say I’m a traditional type of conductor in the sense that I love the classics, I love the core repertoire which I think still resonates with audiences; Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Berlioz, Mozart, you know the names that are familiar to us. But, traditional also in the sense that I think our programming needs to incorporate contemporary voices.
That was always true that symphonies were responsible for promoting the artistic voices of our time and of the day and I’m traditional in that sense too where I think that the great works need to have a balance of the voices of the living composers and that is in a sense traditional. So, again, I do lean on the great repertoire and try to pepper in some works by living composers. That would be my programming personality.
Tom: We only have just a little bit of time left and I want to be sure to talk to you about your vision of the future for classical music. What do you think needs to happen to keep present audiences engaged while also working to attract new younger audiences? For example, are you open to exploring roles for other genres?
Thomas: Absolutely. Well, it’s one of the most important issues facing the industry today. I am a firm believer that there’s still a hunger for excellence in the communities of audiences, that whether they’re coming to the symphony for the first time or they’ve been coming for generations, there is always this desire for something extraordinary to happen on the stage and that needs to be the vision for the future still. There needs to always be that focus on quality and excellence.
And then, you get into accessibility of your programming, how is it marketed? Are there popular shows mixed in with the classical shows? I think the Lexington Philharmonic does a beautiful job of that, of having a balance of programs that are meant to appeal to the subscription base versus the first time audiences and younger audiences.
The younger audiences will eventually come to a place where they have the time and means to enjoy season tickets for a symphony orchestra and so, we’ll always see younger people coming on. I don’t think it’s a dying art form by any means. But, my vision is always to keep the focus on the quality and to make the musicians realized that that is our mission: not to just present programs designed to attract audiences, but to always be doing our musical best.
Tom: In your experience, what do you think an orchestra does for the life of a community?
Thomas: Many things and especially when you think about the education enrichment of the culture. There’s so much behind the scenes going on with an orchestra like Lexington Philharmonic; classroom visits by the musicians, education programs designed for families with young people, so there’s, you know, an introduction to the art form going on at the organizational level.
But then, there’s also what the symphony does for the bigger picture of what is our community by having a symphony orchestra? At a high level that speaks volumes for the kind of financial commitment of the community the kind of support for the arts that exists in the community. So people looking from the outside will say look at what we have, look at what cultural entities we have. And the symphony orchestra is always in my mind, the peak of those entities. It’s always the one that is sort of carrying the beacon of the cultural excellence in the community.
So, as the conductor, that’s your role, you’re a critical leader for engaging the community, setting the tone for the approachability of the organization, the personality, and for the musicians too, they want to have a conductor and partner on the podium who they trust and believe in and can get behind. So, we do a lot as a symphony orchestra for the life of any community.
Tom: One last very quick question. I’m just very curious. What has you excited about Lexington, Kentucky and thinking that, hmm, that’s a place where I would like to bring my family to live?
Thomas: Oh, it’s a fabulous community. We have a few ties. I’m from Missouri as I mentioned, St. Louis. And, my wife actually grew up in Hart County, Kentucky, so we’ve spent much time there. Her folks still live down there, so great friends in the community. I also went to school in the Midwest, so I know a few musicians in the orchestra. So, that connection is still very strong for us.
I just think it’s a wonderful part of the world. You have Shakertown, you know obviously the university provides a wonderful community in and of itself. So Lexington has a lot to offer. And conducting is definitely go where the job takes you kind of lifestyle and I think you could do a lot worse than a town like Lexington.
Tom: Thomas Heuser, candidate for conductor of the Lexington Philharmonic. Thanks so much, Thomas.
Thomas: Thank you very much, Tom.