A week or so ago I had the chance to catch up with KSO's Resident Conductor, James Fellenbaum. Jim humored me and agreed to participate in the blog's "getting to know..." series. (Thanks, Jim!)
KG: You have a Bachelor's in cello performance and a dual Master's in cello performance and conducting. When did you decide that you wanted to pursue conducting full-time? What made you want to start conducting in the first place?
JF: I became very interested in conducting in high school and, if there were such a thing as a bachelor's in conducting, I would have pursued that in college instead of cello. But, I'm glad I began my serious musical training in cello...playing orchestra pieces FIRST in an orchestra was/has been extremely important in my career. And, in high school I would conduct along with John Williams soundtracks...I loved the sound, and the idea of leading people through symphonic music. He was a big influence on me as I began to develop musically.
KG: Why did you choose the cello? When did you start playing?
JF: I chose the cello for the same reason Yo-Yo Ma chose the cello: we both wanted to play the bass (the BIGGEST instrument) but were too short! (Yo-Yo and I don't know each other...I've met him once...I just know that story about him). I started playing in fourth grade, as part of the Virginia public school system that offered orchestra instruments (4th grade) and band instruments (5th grade).
KG: Who has influenced your conducting, either as a mentor or just as a conductor you admire?
JF: Victor Yampolsky was, and still is, my biggest physical influence in my conducting. As a youth, I played in a lot of orchestras with unclear conductors, and one of my mantras was to be a clear, physical communicator on the podium, to which Yampolsky's style was a beautiful example. He's also one of my biggest musical influences. I've always liked Zubin Mehta's presence and ease on the podium, and I've picked up a lot of bits and pieces from other conductors while playing cello in the Civic Orchestra of Chicago...that was a GREAT learning and playing experience for me. Learned a lot from Cliff Colnot while in Chicago, too...excellent teacher for score reading, musicality and rehearsal techniques.
KG: Do you have any disastrous moments in conducting or playing that you'd be willing to share? Have you ever had any conducting injuries: baton through the hand, tripped on the podium, etc?
JF: Well, first: no injuries to report...thank goodness! I've never had any "disastrous" moments in conducting or playing, although there have been a few times where I've come close to "failing" at a project. I remember trying to present the Mozart Horn Concerto No. 1 at a summer camp once. The horn player was superb, but the orchestra consisted of mostly 7th and 8th graders; as simple as Mozart can look sometimes, the young students just couldn't quite get it...both technically and musically. So, we ended up doing just one of the movements...I just remember, at the time, it took ALL of my being to get them to play that one movement, so it felt like I was failing.
KG: Now to the IMPORTANT questions! I know you like sci-fi shows like Star Trek, Stargate, etc. (me too!) Which is your favorite series? And, isn't it terrible that Firefly only ran one season?
JF: Yes! I like science fiction very much, and grew up in a wonderful time for it: the late 70's and 80's with Star Wars, E.T., Indiana Jones, Star Trek, etc. And, most all of them have John Williams in common which, as I said before, was one of the biggest influences on my becoming a musician (all three of my YPCs have ended with John Williams...coincidence?!?). Now, I haven't gotten into Stargate, Farscape or Firefly YET...thanks to Netflix, I'm going to, eventually, catch up on ALL of those series someday. I'm a big Star Trek The Next Generation fan, and do like the other versions of Star Trek that have come out, both in movies and TV. What I find terrible is that Fox canceled the Terminator Sarah Connor Chronicles after just a season and a half. REALLY liked that show. I'm checking out the current remake of "V" on TV right now (2 episodes, not bad so far...saw the original 80's miniseries). I like 24, Scrubs, Grey's, the Sunday night cartoon lineup on Fox (Simpsons, Family Guy, etc.), and am a big ESPN fan (PTI, First Take, Sports Reporters, Sportscenter). My wife, Sarah Chumney Fellenbaum, and I enjoy quite a few shows together, and find it a nice way to wind down in the evening. Why is my answer for this question the longest one so far?
KG: Do you have any hobbies outside of music?
JF: I like websurfing/computer things, exercising, racquetball with Lucas, TV/movies, and caring for animals: I have two kittens (I'm a dog person, but have really grown to love the kittens) and four rabbits: Tigger, Roo, Rabbit, and Mr. Bun. Dog coming soon, probably within a year.
KG: Favorite concert moment, KSO or otherwise?
JF: Boy, that's tough. Recently, with KSO, a couple of things: First - our recent Chamber Classics concert with the String Serenades...I must say there were some really special moments in that concert. Second - each time, during a Young People's Concert or a runout concert where adults and children have had a "Wow" or "I get it" or "I love it" moment. You can tangibly feel that during the concerts, and I just love that. And at UT, when we've taken on a big, challenging project and we arrive at moments where we all realize that we've achieved something higher, greater or special...Pines of Rome, Mozart Requiem, Marvin Stamm Jazz concert, last February's Voice concert...those really come to mind.
KG: What is your favorite piece to conduct? What haven't you conducted that you'd love to conduct?
JF: No favorite piece to conduct...really enjoy a lot of works. Now, works I HAVEN'T conducted that I'd like to: that's too long! Mahler Symphony No. 1, Verdi Requiem, Beethoven 3, 7, and 9, Brahms 2, Rite of Spring, the operas Tosca, La Boheme and Der Rosenkavalier, to name a few.
KG: What music are you currently listening to? Not necessarily right at this very second, but what are your go-to recordings right now, classical or otherwise?
JF: Well, right now, I'm listening to bits and pieces of small works, as I plan the LMU Holiday runout concert. In general, I'm not listening to anything right now, since I've been conducting quite a bit of music. When I do listen to recordings, it's usually something Romantic era or 20th-Century era in classical music.
KG: Anything else you'd like to share?
JF: The younger of our two kittens, Pirate (the newest member of the family) has decided he's tired of me typing, and has come over to start chewing on my foot. Typical.