interview with conductor David Lockington

January 12, 2012, 4:32 PM · David Lockington is in town this week to conduct the Pasadena Symphony, and I just had to talk with him.

It's not just because he happens to be violinist Dylana Jenson's husband of nearly 30 years, or because he's guest-conducting an orchestra in which I sometimes play.

It's because when I was a teenager, David conducted the Denver Young Artists Orchestra, of which I was a member for five years, and the experience of being in that orchestra had a profound effect on my life.

Watching David guest-conduct a rehearsal for the Pasadena Youth Symphony Orchestra on Tuesday, I realized that David himself had a profound effect on my life as well.

There it was again: His assurance on the podium, his obvious love for the music, his ease of communication, the English accent -- and his way of using words like "penultimate" when he speaks with kids! As in, "Please sing the penultimate chord." (They looked around in puzzlement for a moment but then figured it out!)

He's also a Renaissance man, which the kids discovered when one asked, "What are your hobbies?" Beyond doing triathlons, he mentioned his three-decade devotion to yoga, which stemmed from a back injury he suffered in a bad car accident. "I wanted to make sure that I could continue to move well while I aged."

I can see why he was a role model for me: He doesn't talk down to kids, and he's devoted to music, life and family.

I spoke to David just before that rehearsal, not just about old times, but also about David's career and his vision about what an orchestra can be in a community.

David Lockington

David, who is music director of the Grand Rapids Symphony in Michigan (where he, Dylana and their four children live) and of the Modesto Symphony in California, became interested in music because his father, a podiatrist, was an amateur cellist.

"I heard him play the cello all the time, so it was very natural for me to, at first, hide in his cello case and want to experiment," David said. "He eventually bought me a little one of my own, probably when I was just about 10; I started taking lessons then."

Cello became David's love as well.

"I love the tone, I love the feeling of the wood on my chest -- and the natural-ness of the position," he laughs, as I demonstrate an awkward violin position, "…and the singing quality. I think I was really touched by my father's passion, because he was a good cellist and put his heart and soul into everything he played, particularly Bach. Sunday mornings he'd play through the Bach suites, and I would hear the sound floating upstairs, when I would wake up."

As a boy, Lockington sang in the English National Opera in productions such as the Magic Flute. David was principal cellist of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain -- (which incidentally, is where he first met Andrew Shulman, who will be playing the Elgar Cello Concerto with the Pasadena Symphony when David conducts on Saturday.)

David had just discovered conducting when I met him in the early 80s. He was assistant principal cellist of the Denver Symphony, and the Denver Young Artists became a testing ground for him.

"This was a great proving ground -- I know that I learned a lot on you, and your colleagues!" he said, laughing. (Incidentally, we learned a lot from him!)

Working with students and youth can be quite helpful in the development of a conductor, he said. "I personally think it's essential. There are a lot of conductors who, in their youth, get to conduct great orchestras through whatever program, or they become an assistant or an associate. But an orchestra at a high level will play itself. Learning how to pull something apart and to be very specific about what's needed, how to get it, and even to hear clearly, it's really instructive.

"It also kind of sets up the tone of how you want to lead, in a way," he said. "Is it your job to put something into a box and keep it there, or do you like to create the skills that allow musical flexibility? I fall into the latter group. I like the idea of keeping everybody -- not exactly guessing, but making sure that people are learning the skills of playing in orchestra: being able to go between the conductor and the page, being in the ensemble, being part of this morphing emotional entity, in time."

Can a conductor transform a professional orchestra over time as well?

"I hope so! I think, if you know what you're hearing and know what you want, then it's inevitable," David said. "You're just trying to find a match with your inner ear, and heart -- musical heart. So that's going to affect the tone you get. As soon as you move in front of an orchestra, the orchestra will reflect the spirit of something in your gesture, and that will be reflected in the tone. If you're not hearing what you want, you'll modify it, one way or the other, either by saying or by gesturing; by the kind of phrases that you pull, the kind of precision that you require or don't require; whether you're training the orchestra to listen to itself, to be discerning about intonation, to be willing to work together to solve problems, to admit that there are problems. A big part of the job, in a way, is to become a facilitator, and at the same time to provide authoritative leadership that inspires confidence and trust. That's the job."

What can an orchestra can do for a community?

"My mantra is that the orchestra has to reflect the community, thereby making itself relevant," David said. "It can reflect the community in the repertoire, in the people that play, and being a cultural leader. The orchestra is at the center of so many things: ballet, opera. And it can play all the different musical styles and genres. The musicians are so adept at doing everything. We are marginalized, as a genre: symphonic music. But we are part of just about everything musical that you hear. Even the technology that's been created -- there's a whole sound world out there that doesn't include orchestra, but it grew out of the sounds of orchestras. So we're sort of second-cousins to a lot of musical genres."

"I feel that we have a great opportunity, not only to be leaders in the arts, reflecting culturally; but to be educating, too. This kind of institution, and others like it, are vital for providing opportunities for young people to express themselves. We all know that if kids don't have these opportunities, then they may not do as well. Music facilitates learning and teamwork."

"We have to advocate strongly for the music that we play and the importance of music in people's lives," he said. "Teaching young people is a very strong way of advocating. If it's going to go on, generation to generation, they've got to play the great repertoire. It's got to be a part of their blood -- as sort of a proving ground, but also a leaping off point for other repertoire."

"Doing music and being a part of it has been life-changing for me, and I've seen a lot of people for whom it also has been life-changing, who are not musicians," David said. Having a community around the making of music can be transformative. "Music is nondoctrinaire, and it's secular for the most part. It's open to everybody. Even though it's very culture-specific, it can also embrace a very diverse cultural mix of people."

When it comes to promoting the symphony in our communities, we all have a responsibility.

"You can't just put up a sign and say, 'Come and see it,'" David said. "You've got to go out and talk to people, go to the libraries, go to homes. It's one-to-one. That's the only thing that works: person-to-person. You can have a great marketing budget, but unless people are really moved to come, they won't."

How can musicians get involved?

"Of course a lot of musicians are deeply involved with the community, with teaching," David said. "They are teaching thousands of hours a month. But this is something that has struck me, especially in Grand Rapids: our audience members will often come out and support a player from the orchestra playing a concerto, more than they'll support a well-known soloist. So the audience really does pay attention to who is playing in the orchestra, and they have a projected relationship with that person. The more opportunities that there are for the audience and the orchestra to connect in real time, the stronger that bond is. It's possible to move a ticket buyer to a subscription buyer to a donor to a conductor's circle…that's what we are always trying to do. We've got to move people up this chain of giving."

David himself does quite a lot of outreach. He still plays his cello (in fact next season he will premiere a cello concerto by his longtime friend, the composer Philip Sawyers, whose "The Gale of Life" is also on the program this weekend in Pasadena).

As a conductor, "I tell everybody what to do all the time," David said. "I like the idea that I can actually do it. But apart from anything else, the habit of keeping these fingers in shape -- I need it, it's like exercising. I need to get out and run or swim or bike, every few days. Gotta do it, gotta do it!"

Here's a little something from an outreach program David performed for kids at a library in Grand Rapids.


January 13, 2012 at 04:40 AM · Laurie, thank you for another great interview. The video clip of Mr. Lockington with the kids was a lot of fun. In case you want to read more about the "bad car accident," Susan Tomes (pianist of Domus and Florestan Trio) writes about it in her book, "Beyond the Notes: Journeys with Chamber Music." - Johnny

January 13, 2012 at 04:39 PM · Laurie,

Thanks so much. It's great to have these interviews, not just of the top-tier performing violinists but of other great musicians who are perhaps not household names. Obviously this gentleman is an incredible talent. Clearly you know how to pick your subjects! The documentary value of your journalistic work is very high.

Cheers -- Paul

January 13, 2012 at 09:29 PM · Very inspiring. Thanks.

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