New faces at the ISO: Vince Lee, bringing new conductors to light 

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The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra opens their 2015-16 season with handful of new personalities.

“It’s been several years since we’ve seen this many new faces at the start of a season. It’s very exciting to welcome them to the family, says ISO Music Director Krzysztof Urbanski.“Just like our entire orchestra, our new musicians and new associate conductor come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. It will be such a joy for me to lead all of these talented individuals. I hope our patrons notice the continued quality of our outstanding Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and are proud of what we present each and every week.”

NUVO took the opportunity to learn about the new ISO faces. In the mix you’ll find sports enthusiasts, a professional photographer, a trained engineer; some with acting, opera and national musical tour credits. 

Vince Lee, Associate Conductor

NUVO: At IU while pursuing your graduate degrees, you premiered 50 plus works by student composers. Out in the professional world, the total tally is over 200. What’s the pull to be on the podium to help birth new works?

Vince Lee: My first steps into the world of new/modern compositions were initially a result of circumstance and opportunity. Conducting students receive very limited podium time during their official studies, especially during their first year at a new school. However, every music school with a composition program is going to have a need for conductors, so I really put myself out there and I ended up conducting on a composition recital during my first semester of grad work at IU. It turned out that I had a particular knack for modern compositions and my relationship with the phenomenal composition department at IU ended up being one of the cornerstones of my studies there.

There are so many things that appeal to me when it comes to bringing new works to life. I love the challenge of it; every new work is like a puzzle and it's my job to put that puzzle together. For ferociously difficult pieces a complete rehearsal game plan is essential to a successful performance. For aleatoric music [where there’s some element of chance in the composition], one needs a clear picture of how the musical elements combine, or else the piece will fall apart. With a piece that has flaws in design, the challenge is to still have an effective, compelling performance. Each work brings a unique set of challenges, and it's a ton of fun to solve them.

I also love the creative and artistic aspects. Many conductors treat new music with what I refer to as the "Guitar Hero" approach, where (like the video game) the goal is to push the keys down at the right time. However, just as you wouldn't perform Mozart without consideration of line, phrase and color, modern works need those elements as well. If an entire page is marked forte, there might be a specific line that you can bring out in the texture. If there is musical repetition, you might play it differently the second time around, similar to what is often done with classical repertoire. With clashy clusters there are often anchor notes that, when highlighted, can give depth to what would otherwise be a flat texture. To dive headfirst into the musical narrative of a work, get inside the creative mind of the composer, and then bring all of those elements to life- for me, this is the ultimate thrill.

NUVO: Opera, ballet, orchestral works—what travels through you as these different genres come alive with you on the podium?

Lee: I'm a big believer in living in the moment when I conduct in performance; my mentor at Juilliard, James DePreist, would often talk about "allowing the music to take you where it wants to go" even when it's not where you were planning to go. I'm very proactive with my hands, especially when it comes to shape and color, and *especially* so with genres that are sometimes given the musical short-shrift (ballet, educational concerts, pops). I recently conducted a Memorial Day concert with the fantastic Toledo Symphony Orchestra and much of the music had been played by the players dozens of times over the years. While the brief rehearsal was focused mainly on technical concerns, the performance was all about music making; and yes, not only can you shape a John Williams fanfare, it's a lot more enjoyable that way (for the musicians and the audience).

At the same time, I'm also focused on the logistical and technical concerns of these works. This is especially important for genres like opera and ballet, where you are working with stage artists that have separate but simultaneous tasks. The need for musical freedom and expression has to fit within the boundaries of what works for the show, and there are moments when those boundaries are very narrow. You have to hit those marks as a conductor; the key is to take advantage of the places where the music can be flexible.

NUVO: As a pianist and coach for opera singers, how do you literally become at-one with the singer, breathing, thinking, listening as one body to dimensionalize a character envisioned by a composer and librettist?

Lee: I used to be a singer and stage actor as a kid so I feel that it helps that I've been on the other side of the baton. I've always found it very natural to connect with singers— in situations where that wasn't the case it's because the performers didn't have a clear idea of their dramatic intent. There are so many tools, physical and aural, that a singer has at their disposal to tell their story; once the narrative is mapped out in their mind the music quickly follows. In short, my goal is for singers to strive for the same artistic expression and flexibility that I aim for with orchestras. Most of that process happens in coaching: learning how each singer thinks, leaning on their strengths, working on their weaknesses and connecting with them as artists. Then, over the course of the staging rehearsals, that foundation matures into the full stage performances. It's a beautiful, one-of-a-kind process.
NUVO: Musical collaboration—what’s so special in this for you?

Lee: Wow, I still remember the first musical I performed in. I was nine years old, and the show was Oliver! I had goose bumps during every performance; there was something so magical about being on stage, singing in harmony with the entire cast. Those goose bumps were even bigger when I performed in my first opera just months later: Bizet's Carmen (and I'm incredibly excited that the ISO is doing Carmen for the season finale). Carmen was an even bigger collaboration; a huge orchestra, a huge cast and a conductor who was conducting us! Carmen was my first experience with collaborative leadership; long story short, I was the only kid with any experience with the French language, and the vocal director had limited French diction knowledge, so I ended up being the main pronunciation resource. I transitioned into the world of conducting at age 13, fittingly for another production of Carmen (where I fully prepared the boys chorus). Over the years I've been so fortunate to have had hundreds of musical experiences with every imaginable style of artist, in just about every musical genre, and it's still an absolute thrill. It's such a privilege to have the opportunity to lead the charge from the podium, but it's the collaborative aspect that makes it so powerful and rewarding. Music is the greatest team sport in the world,

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Rita Kohn

Rita Kohn

Rita Kohn has been covering craft beer and the arts for NUVO for two decades. She’s the author of True Brew: A Guide to Craft Beer in Indiana.

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