As an elementary school student, Harvey Felder knew he wanted to be a public school teacher and decided that music would be the subject he would teach. What he did not know was that his decision to pursue a life in music would lead to conducting symphony orchestras around the United States and the world.
“My path to the conducting podium was rather circuitous,” says Felder, who earlier this year joined the faculty of the School of Fine Arts as an associate professor of music and director of orchestral studies. His appointment is part of UConn’s expansive hiring initiative, designed to attract up to 500 professors in four years. He will conduct the UConn Symphony Orchestra on Thursday at von der Mehden Recital Hall.
Felder did teach music in a public school in Wisconsin for several years before deciding to continue his study of music in graduate school. Those studies set him on a new path teaching college students and attending conducting workshops, and eventually led to an audition to become the assistant conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony.
Working with the Milwaukee Symphony immersed Felder into a busy schedule helping to prepare musicians for 300 performances a year, including about 50 concerts that he conducted.
He would go on to serve as Resident Conductor of the St. Louis Symphony and work with orchestras in Atlanta and Baltimore before being invited to make his Carnegie Hall debut with the American Symphony Orchestra. Following his New York performance, Felder received invitations to serve as guest conductor for the Chicago, Kansas City, and San Antonio Symphonies, New Japan Philharmonic, Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional de Costa Rica, and Mikkeli City Orchestras of Finland, among other renowned orchestras.
As Felder’s conducting talents became widely known, Symphony Magazine described him as “one of America’s promising conductors.” His further studies with such notable conductors as Kurt Mazur and Seiji Ozawa led to his selection as music director of the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra, which he led for 18 years.
Interpreting a score
Felder says there’s a lot more to conducting than meets the eye.
“The whole process of deciding on a composition and presenting it to the public I find fascinating,” he says. “The vast majority of what you do as a conductor is never seen by the public. Every hour the public sees in performance represents about 50 hours of solitude, working and studying the music.”
Felder says the hand signals, facial expressions, and body language seen by the orchestra as he conducts a piece of music provide reminders to the musicians of the way they rehearsed the work for as many as 10 hours together. The rehearsals are developed based on his intense study of the piece, “note by note, measure by measure.”
“The learning takes place sitting with the score,” he says. “I sit at my desk, read the music, hear it in my mind, study it, and learn it based on what I’m hearing and seeing. I often tell people that audiation – the process of looking at something through your eyes and hearing it in your brain – is something most conductors do at a very sophisticated level. However, my contention is that all humans learn how to do this, but some go further with developing the skill than others.”
Across the generations
Felder says he was looking for the right opportunity to return to a university setting when he learned of the position at UConn, where the resources also were available to allow him to pursue his interest in broadening the audience for symphonic music.
In the current edition of Symphony Magazine, a publication of The League of American Orchestras, Felder addresses the challenge of broadening the appeal and relevance of orchestral music to the current generation of young people who view the world through the technology they are connected to 24 hours a day. Noting that orchestras have worked for many years to be more inclusive and diverse in their audiences, musicians, and board memberships, Felder says generational diversity is just as critical.
“I’ve worked hard to help my industry with the issue of diversity,” he says. “Now, we’re losing generation after generation’s interest in this art form. I’ve made a shift in my focus to make our art form more appealing.”
Felder says that some orchestras around the nation are seeking ways to bring technology into concert halls, such as having a docent backstage during a performance sending messages to hand-held devices describing what is happening in a score. Some orchestras post videos online during the weeks leading up to a performance to describe the various aspects of the music presented on stage.
“Working with young people every day as a professor I’m learning even more about their inclinations and their comfort with technology and desire to fuse all sorts of disciplines,” he says. “The lines between things are much grayer for them than us. We need to find ways to use that in outreach.”
Felder says that as a major research institution with a wide range of academic disciplines, UConn has the resources to address such issues.
“This is the environment, the place where we can bring all these disciplines together over a cup of coffee,” he says. “That’s something I would like to explore with my colleagues in engineering, computer science, and digital technology – how to change our concert halls.”
Harvey Felder will conduct the UConn Symphony Orchestra in a program of classical and opera music on Thursday at von der Mehden Recital Hall at 7:30 p.m. The program includes Dvorak’s “Symphony No. 8 in G Major;” an aria from Handel’s “Julius Caesar” performed by Meredith Ziegler, adjunct professor of vocal music; and Mark Edward Wilson’s “The Phoenix Rising,” conducted by graduate student Paul McShee.