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First impressions: Conductor Leif Bjaland

October 18, 2010
photo - Leif Bjaland is the first candidate for music director of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic Orchestra.  Photo by
Leif Bjaland is the first candidate for music director of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic Orchestra. Photo by  

Editor’s note: On Saturday, Oct. 23, the Colorado Springs Philharmonic Orchestra shows off the first of five candidates for Lawrence Leighton Smith’s role as music director. What follows is a rundown — in his own words — of Leif Bjaland, who takes the podium Saturday and Sunday.

LEIF BJALAND (leaf bee-YAH-lund)
Current positions: Music director, Waterbury Symphony Orchestra, Waterbury, Conn.; artistic director, Sarasota Orchestra, Sarasota, Fla.
Hometown: I was born in Flint, Michigan.  My father, uncles and grandparents emigrated from Norway in the mid 1920s, first to Canada and then to the USA. My grandfather became a foreman at Chevrolet and participated in the famous 1936 sit-down strike. Much of my family still lives in Flint
Home today: I travel a lot (I’m on a plane headed towards Atlanta as I write this). Sarasota, Fla., is my legal residence, though I still have a house in San Francisco. My partner and I both had jobs there once upon a time, and we still like to spend our down time there when we can.
Family: My partner of 26 years is Emil DeCou.

Question: What is the high point of your career? So far, anyway.
Answer:  Wow. Tough question. There are a lot of emotional highpoints; experiencing Bernstein’s transcendent performance of Mahler 2 for example, or collaborating with James Ehnis on the Brahms Violin Concerto last season — the slow movement took my breath away. Career high points are different, and I guess the most crucial one happened in 1981 when I participated in a conducting workshop taught by Chicago Symphony music director, Sir Georg Solti. He saw something in me and was incredibly helpful in getting my career started. More recently, I think the collective high point has been creating the “Journeys to Genius” series in Sarasota. It’s a kind of live documentary with a script, actors, visuals and underscoring, which chronicles the creation of a great work of music. It seems like a work like the Beethoven Fifth Symphony has always existed, but there was a time when it wasn’t there. Events in Beethoven’s life and currents in early 19th century society contributed to its creation, and we tell that story.

Q: Who’s conducting style do you most closely align yourself with: Arturo Toscanini, who believed music should be conducted exactly as written, or Wilhelm Furtwangler, who molded the work to his own interpretation?
A: These are both great, great conductors. For many reasons, I gravitate towards a third giant, about the same vintage as Toscanini and Furtwangler; Leopold Stokowski. It was Stokowski, who understood the impact of new recording technology (he was the first, in collaboration with Bell Laboratories, the record in stereo). He worked in films and even helped to develop “Fantasia” with the Disney studios.  His breadth of vision and imagination made it possible for millions of people to experience Bach, Beethoven and Mickey in his pointy sorcerer’s apprentice hat. As we deal with new technologies and demographic shifts in 2010, I often ask myself, “What would Stowkowski do?”

Q: What’s your attitude about talking to the audience between works?
A: I really enjoy it.

Q: What’s on your Top 3 list of works you’d like to conduct if you were the music director here?
A: It depends on a lot of different factors. What is the current (and potential) audience like?  What have they already heard and what do they want to hear? It also depends on budgets and orchestra personnel. On the top of the list would be a great piece of music that the audience and I don’t already know. I have very wide ranging tastes and really enjoy mixing up different types of music. I guess that’s why I like Mahler and Bernstein, because their music is a kaleidoscope of klezmer, parlor song, military march, ’50s lounge music (1950s for Lenny, 1850s for Gustav) and Beethoven, Bach, Wagner, etc. Not dodge your question completely, I’m a huge fan of Brahms, so I glad to be conducting his sometimes sunny, sometimes cloudy second symphony in Colorado Springs!

Q: Looking at the progress the philharmonic has made in the last few years and where they are now, what do you see as the next step?
A: That’s what I’m here to find out.  The first step for me will be to acquire some knowledge and begin to build a relationship with the orchestra, staff, board and community.

Q: Your time here is also a way for you to evaluate the orchestra, administration and community. What are you looking for?
A: I’m looking for a community that has pride and ownership in its orchestra and its musicians.

Q: Would you retain your positions at Sarasota and Waterbury?
A: I don’t know.  First, I have to get to know the Colorado Springs community and the orchestra, and to conduct the concert this weekend.  My responsibilities to Sarasota and Waterbury are very important to me, but it’s also very important to seek new challenges and to continue to grow.

Q: Where do you plan to live?
A: I think it is very important for an orchestra’s music director to have substantial roots in communities that they serve.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This is the beginning of your search.  It’s like a series of first dates. A lot will happen between now and next May.

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