Editor’s Note: This is an assessment of the first of three auditions for the Catskill Symphony Orchestra’s next conductor. Silas Huff directed the CSO Saturday, Sept. 7, at SUNY Oneonta’s Hunt Union Ballroom. Next, on Oct. 12, is Carolyn Watson.
By ROBERT MOYNIHAN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
ONEONTA – At the SUNY Hunt Union Ballroom, an alert and receptive audience Saturday, Sept. 7, heard the first contender for its Catskill Symphony Orchestra leader, Silas Nathaniel Huff. The concert highlighted performances of Haydn, Verdi and Stravinsky. The program began with the younger Strauss’s “Overture to Die Fledermaus.”
The evening was a proving stage for multiple demands of styles from the 18th century to arguably the greatest 20th century modern, Igor Stravinsky. His “Firebird” is as tonally remarkable as anything in the repertoire, including even “The Rite of Spring,” which produced a riot at its first Paris hearing. With repeated performances, “The Rite” has lost some of its revolutionary impudence, and a listener can even hum its first melody.
However, as Robert Craft noted in his first volume of Stravinsky’s letters, “The Firebird’s” success placed the composer on a new artistic planet.
Last week’s editorial praised the local arts and culture scene, after Oneonta and Otsego County were identified as “eighth most vibrant arts community” in the U.S. by SMU’s DATA ARTS’ report.
Silas Huff’s conducting of the Catskill Symphony Orchestra Saturday evening, Sept. 7, added several exclamation marks to all of last week’s positive conclusions.
Huff is the first of three conductors competing to succeed Maestro Chuck Schneider as CSO conductor. Carolyn Watson conducts Oct. 12, and Maciej Żółtowski Nov. 16. The new conductor will lead the CSO at the annual cabaret concert next March.
Two of Huff’s selections – the bookends – a Strauss overture and Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” brought standing ovations. The centerpiece, a Haydn cello concerto, drew a more subdued response, although soloist Andrew Janss impressed.
As for Huff himself, his direction was tight, intense, authoritative, subtle but effective; no showy flourishes. First rate. A top candidate.
If you believe competition brings out the best in people, Watson and Żółtowski appearances will be gripping. Huff’s sure was. If you’ve never attended a CSO performance before, treat yourself. (Tickets available at www.catskillsymphony.net.)
ONEONTA – From the time he was seven, Silas Nathaniel Huff knew he was going to be in music.
“I was a guitarist, so I thought I was going to be a rock star,” he said. “Then I got into college and discovered classical music. I thought I’d be the next John Williams.”
But fate – or rather, his classmates – intervened.
“We had to take a conducting class to get my master’s degree, and my classmates said, ‘Silas, you’re not that good of a composer, but you’re a great conductor!’”
Huff is the first of three finalists for the Catskill Symphony Orchestra’s music director position and will conduct Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite, 1919” at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 7, at SUNY Oneonta’s Hunt Union Ballroom.
“It’s like a first date,” he said. “It’s exciting and intimidating. I get to meet them and hope they like me, and hope that I like working with them. The decision about which conductor, like dating, will be all about chemistry.”
His first task was to work with the symphony to design the program. “It took a little negotiating,” he said. “But once we decided on ‘Firebird,’ we were able to work backwards from there.”
He chose his program based around the number of solos – 10 in all – to showcase the orchestra’s individual talent. “It’s like testing out the orchestra,” he said. “But it’s also about giving them that spotlight. It makes them feel good too.”
Huff is also dedicated to expanding what people think of as an orchestra performance. “If someone asks you, ‘Do you want to go to an intimidating venue where you have to dress up and stay silent?’ You’re going to say, ‘No, I’d rather go get a beer,’” he said. “So why don’t we bring the orchestra to a brewery?”
He also wants to highlight the work of contemporary composers, including Kenneth Fuchs, Alan Shultz, Scott McKenzie and Rachel Whelan. “Who’s today’s Beethoven?” he said. “I want to find that person.”“For me, putting together a program is about the orchestra asking itself, what are some great pieces we know our audience loves, and what music is our audience going to love,” he said. “That’s how I program. You’re going to like it, so let’s listen, shall we?”
Huff is married to “Hello Gorgeous!” author Taylor Morris. The couple live in Lawrence, Kansas, a recent move for Huff when he became Washburn University’s director of orchestras. He also organizes workshops for young conductors to practice with a live orchestra.
“Unless you are a millionaire and can hire an orchestra to play for you, you don’t get a chance to practice much,” he said. “With these workshops, I hire an orchestra and bring in an older maestro to critique the young conductors. You’d be amazed how much better you get, just by doing it for a week.”
Throughout the week, he will meet with community leaders and symphony patrons, as well as rehearse with the orchestra ahead of Saturday’s performance.