One thing you can say about Kevin Rhodes: He’s juggling a lot musically.
The 41-year-old arrived in Tacoma last week. He’s one of four candidates for the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra’s music directorship and will conduct Saturday’s concert at the Pantages Theater.
Rhodes also is the director of the Springfield Symphony in Massachusetts, the Traverse Symphony in Michigan and Boston’s Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra. He’s a regular at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, the Vienna State Opera and Paris Opera, as well as many other European ballet houses.
As if that weren’t enough, he’s also a concert pianist who often conducts from the keyboard.
In addition to more than two decades of conducting experience, he’ll bring to Tacoma what one member of the orchestra’s advisory committee called “a European sensibility.”
He also brings a penchant for mid-century American compositions, such as the William Schuman overture he has chosen to open Saturday’s program, and a pianist’s love of Rachmaninoff, whose second symphony he chose as the program’s main work. (Concertmaster Svend Ronning will perform Bruch’s beloved “Violin Concerto No. 1.”)
But the question the symphony and its audience will ask Saturday night is what Rhodes will offer Tacoma if he’s appointed. The decision will be made in the two months following the fourth candidate’s appearance in November.
In a gregarious tone and precise, Euro-East Coast accent, Rhodes explained over the phone to The News Tribune why he loves classical music, and why that helps him bring others to that love.
Question: Is this your first time in Tacoma?
Answer: Yes, absolutely. I’m a newbie to the Northwest.
Q: A lot of your conducting has been opera, ballet and solo piano work. Does this influence your style and musicianship?
A: I imagine it does a lot. My work in theater goes back to when I was 13 and was the rehearsal pianist for community theaters. Growing up with the idea of music describing some dramatic situation tends to inform the way you see notes on a page, and with more musically complex things, like opera and ballet, you’re finding every way the composer sets the text into the orchestral music.
And though I don’t spend that much time at the piano, it’s still a terribly important part of my life. The reason I became a conductor was that I loved making music with other people — that was really a driving force for me. It changes for the positive your musical relationship with other musicians.
Q: A local composer (Greg Youtz) advising the selection committee commented earlier this year that you “bring a European sensibility” to your work. Is that true? What are some of the differences you find between European and American orchestras in sound and style?
A: There’s a difference in orchestral approach between every country. Since my professional career really started in German-speaking countries, I’m very influenced by some of those style characteristics. I don’t like making broad generalizations, but the American school of wind playing is rather more direct with articulation. That alone greatly changes the essential mix of an orchestra. Europeans have a tendency to play strings with rather more vibrato and pressure on the bow, also.
Q: What would you bring to the Tacoma Symphony as a musical director?
A: This is where my own story comes into play. The job of music director in American orchestras, particularly in towns the size of Tacoma, is to spread the word about music, to serve as a lightning rod for the kind of music an orchestra plays. It’s something people have to find and be brought to — we’re not in the days anymore where the radio’s always on (playing classical music). So that’s the job of the conductor.
It hooks up with my own story in that we suffer from myths about symphonic music that you have to know a lot about it or grow up with it to enjoy it. My own parents owned a 24-hour trucker diner in southern Indiana. That’s where I grew up. At some point I wanted to learn piano, so they got one, and I fell in love with classical music. I am a living example that you don’t need to know anything about it to love it. That’s my central message.
Q: If you get the job, what kind of music would you like to see the orchestra playing in the future?
A: At this point I don’t have any documentation on the orchestra, what they’ve played in past seasons, so I need to get a sense of (that). If something’s never been played, I might gravitate to that. At the same time, what are the tastes of the audience? You have to play to that taste and expand it. You try to understand the community and see where they are. It’s not just about pulling a program together.
Q: You chose two of the works on this week’s program — Rachmaninoff’s “Symphony No. 2” and the “American Festival Overture” of mid-century American composer William Schuman. Is that overture from a period you’re fond of?
A: It is, absolutely. One of our inferiority complexes as Americans is that we look to other places and forward in history, but not so much to our own past (for culture). But the fact is that we have an incredible range of symphonic pieces written in the middle of last century that had a great deal of popularity. A lot of those pieces are forgotten now. They also didn’t fall into the avant-garde category, which got most attention in music circles in the ’60s and ’70s. I’ve made it a thing of mine to introduce these works to audiences for whom I play, with a bit of historical introduction. They’ve all been very enthusiastically received.
And for the “American Festival Overture” — Schuman was a New Yorker, and in his music you have this crazy speed, incredible energy, like you see in old films of New York in the ’20s and ’30s. Now we’re used to that speed, but at that time it was really quite something, and his music reflects that over-the-top energy that’s uniquely American.
Q: And the Rachmaninoff — why that choice?
A: I fell in love with his music when I was about 10 or 11, and I learned his C# minor prelude — everyone’s first Rachmaninoff piece. It really struck me that I was entering a new musical world compared to all those classical composers like Mozart and Clementi. That love continued through my years as a serious pianist and conductor.
I program Rachmaninoff as often as I can possibly get away with it, because I love playing it — the emotions, and the emotional journey the work takes you on. Critics often complain that he didn’t understand structure or symphonic development. I disagree. He had his own unique way of doing it. He uses classical techniques but creates amazing waves to a climax, then pulls back, then another climax, then pulls back.
Q: You have a lot of musical commitments in Michigan and Massachusetts — would you move to Tacoma if you got this job?
A: I couldn’t say. When you look at such a large responsibility as directing an orchestra, you have to re-look at your whole life and make sure you have the right balance.
Q: Do you have family?
A: Yes. My wife, Jane, is coming with me to Tacoma. And we have a 3-year-old Chihuahua called Lola.
Q: You may have heard that our Pantages Theater is completely dull acoustically. Have you had to handle that challenge before?
A: Over the years I’ve been lucky with concert halls. So that would be challenging.
Q: What do you like to do in your spare time?
A: I’m a huge “Star Trek” fan — I watch a lot of that. And not just “Star Trek.” I’m an enormous movie fan. I enjoy shutting off my mind and body — because conducting is so physical — and losing myself in old movies.Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568