The Art of Understanding

Thomas Conlin, Grammy Award-winning conductor of symphonies and operas, was gearing up to conduct the West Virginia Symphony on tour when he was contacted by a local television station requesting a live interview in advance of the concert. The interview had been assigned to a somewhat green new member of the station staff who was excited about the opportunity but nervous about interviewing someone with Tom’s impressive resume. A preparatory staff meeting included a question of how she should address him on air. Wanting something appropriate but not overly formal, they decided upon the traditional “maestro.”

The live broadcast day arrived and the interview was going well enough but the interviewer’s nerves were showing. About midway through their talk, a bit of a shift occurred – a slight but significant shift which came about without any awareness on the part of the rookie interviewer. She had ceased referring to Tom as “maestro” and had instead started addressing him as “Your Majesty.”

“Another question, Your Majesty…” “On the topic of technique, Your Majesty…” “Your Majesty, what do you imagine will be the highlight of the evening?” Tom had a quick decision to make – did he correct her, or just let it go? Fearing that any correction might fluster her and completely derail what was left of the interview, he decided to let it go. Now, all he needed to do was just keep it together for ten or so more very long minutes. “We can’t thank you enough for speaking with us today, Your Majesty. Back to you, Julie.”

This is one of the many, terrific stories I heard Tom regale to the Toledo Opera chorus for a necessary moment of levity during our somewhat arduous three-hour rehearsals. I adore Tom and his stories and he has oodles to share… like the time he got on a public bus in the former Soviet Union in the dead of winter wearing his tan L.L. Bean duck boots. You should know that in the Soviet Union boots were only made in one factory and only came in one style: utilitarian. The entire bus lost their collective minds at the sight of them.

I’ve sung under Tom’s direction of the Toledo Symphony dozens of times back during his residency with Toledo Opera. I’ve often said that singing with a full symphony orchestra is one of the greatest thrills of my life. There is simply nothing like it and the camaraderie that develops among the chorus in these endeavors is tremendous. In many ways this was an anomalous time in Tom’s career as so much of his conducting work was done internationally. 

Then another slight but consequential shift occurred and this time it was no laughing matter. International performing arts organizations began resisting hiring American artists. This all commenced during 45’s rise to the presidency and foreign audiences weren’t having any of it. Suddenly, they wanted little to do with Americans. No matter your prior achievement or acclaim, overseas work for American artists like Tom dried up. That difficulty led straight into another, COVID-19.

Surely I don’t need to explain that it’s a dire time for the arts on several fronts. Most arts organizations have had to radically transform themselves in an attempt to outlive the pandemic. The Cleveland Museum of Art, for example – one of Ohio’s largest arts institutions –  had to resort to significant layoffs during this past year. They have also been forced to close their doors to the public for notable stretches which means they’re also not able to fully accomplish their mission. Nationally, current estimates hold that up to one third of all nonprofit organizations (and not just the arts) might not survive the pandemic. 

That is stunning. Some amazing foundations like Mellon are stepping up, but will it be enough?

The challenges facing independent artists like Tom and arts organizations more broadly are difficult to animate when the number of simultaneous national conflicts is so immense. How much goodwill might I gather for the cause of the fine and performing arts when fellow Americans are being killed as a result of systemic racism? With so much happening, can we possibly bring focus and support to all of these substantial concerns? Should we even try? I would argue that we must.

Tom, as is true with most artists, is a gifted storyteller. Aside from his rehearsal room tales (which, honestly, we could have sold tickets to), he breathes life into stories on stages and in concert halls through music, the kind of music that makes your pulse quicken. Most of that particular work is now on hold due to COVID but a simultaneous revolution in streaming has created unprecedented demand for new works unseen by audiences stuck at home. The streamers hope that highlighting brave new art might excite their audiences and differentiate them in a time of notable competition. Netflix and others are increasingly reaching beyond the usual suspects to give voice to all sorts of talented if lesser known storytellers. Or maybe they’re truth-tellers? 

In any case, it’s a fantastic trend during a time with little else to celebrate. Many of these storytellers are theater artists whose work until recently was rarely seen outside of urban playhouse stages aside from fleeting showcases in places like PBS. Pieces like Anna Deavere Smith’s incredible Notes from the Field (HBO) or Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me (Amazon Prime) come to mind. These are important works that help us confront and make sense of the issues that are our collective struggle. And that’s only referencing a single arts medium. There are so many others, and more still that form in fascinating combinations – all unique, wonderful and worthy.

Artists are the healers with the tools to dazzle us, to enlighten us – and yes, to sometimes make us uncomfortable in the push toward new kinds of understanding. In our quest for justice and resolution on any number of urgent crises, let’s be certain to support and bring these artists and organizations along with us. We’re going to need them in the coming months and years.

Bringing back those international artistic opportunities also means repairing our reputation as a country. That journey begins by looking inward and our artists will be crucial to that task.

Tom’s next flight to a European engagement won’t just serve as a symbol of a pandemic beaten back, it will signal that the arts and America are back too. 

And in that moment, Tom will step up to the podium and at long last cue the glorious music. The orchestra will crescendo in rapturous melody as the chorus sings jubilantly under the meticulous baton of His Majesty.

Additional reading: Both Hands – Conductor Thomas Conlin on His Passion for Mozart, Opera vs. Symphonic Concerts, & Modern Composers (OperaWire)

Special bonus: Recordings from Maestro Conlin’s last pre-pandemic concert: The Intermezzo from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut and tenor Pene Pati performing an encore of O Sole Mio

Both pieces were recorded at the Empress Theatre with the Vallejo Festival Orchestra as part of Three Tenors! – The Next Generation. This was likely the last live concert to have been performed in Northern California in 2020.

6 thoughts on “The Art of Understanding

  1. Judy Williams

    Thomas Conlin’s preconcert commentary during his WV Symphony era were always a big part of the pleasure the evenings provided. 🙂

  2. Lisa Baker

    Hi Scott! I love your blog- you are also a gifted story teller and writer. Thanks for sharing these great insights to some quiet and unpublicized artists. I agree that during this unusual lengthy HOME time we all have experienced- we owe big thanks and kudos to our art organizations to stream and offer incredible concerts to the public. A few checks would be good too! Also thanks for the links – I will look them up. Keep writing!


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