Tonight, Lexington gets to meet candidate No. 5 to succeed George Zack as music director of the Lexington Philharmonic, and he's the closest neighbor of the first audition season.
Alfred Savia hails from Evansville, Ind., where he has been the music director of the Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra for 19 years. In fact, some mutual players between the Evansville and Lexington Phils were among those who tipped Savia to the Lexington gig, and suggested he might be good for the group.
This evening, he'll take the Lexington Philharmonic out for a test drive at the Singletary Center for the Arts, conducting Gioacchino Rossini's Semiramide Overture, Ralph Vaughan Williams Variations on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 8.
Earlier this week, we sat down with Savia at Buddy's for a chat about his music and his interest in Lexington. Here's a transcript of a portion of that interview.
Copious Notes: You easily have the longest tenure at one post of any of the candidates that have come through this season.
Alfred Savia: It's worked out that way. It's fortunate for me to have had a lot of other activities to balance with that. For six of those years, I was the associate conductor of the Indianapolis Symphony.
For three years, I was involved in bringing the orchestra in Orlando back to life. I was associate conductor many years ago when they had a full-time orchestra there, and I was the artistic director as they were emerging. In Indianapolis, even though there were six years formally as associate conductor, I continue to conduct quite frequently there. I was just on the phone with them about some of their summer programs. I do at least half of their summer season, still.
And I have sort of reconnected with the orchestra in New Orleans, where I was resident conductor before Evansville and Indianapolis. I just came back from my third time there since Katrina. Evansville has been a really wonderful base. It's a position that gives me time to do a lot of other things, as well.
CN: How has the New Orleans orchestra fared since Katrina?
AS: It actually had a rough time before Katrina, and one could have thought Katrina would have been the ultimate blow, but it's actually been the opposite. They've really rallied. When I was resident conductor in New Orleans, it was called the New Orleans Symphony. I went there really with the knowledge that things were precarious financially. The executive director was very open. He was a friend of mine and really wanted me to come and the orchestra wanted me there. But he also warned me, and his warnings turned out to be quite true. Fortunately, for myself, I found another position. But that orchestra was teetering many years and eventually did fold. The last concert they gave as the New Orleans Symphony -- before they had a hiatus of 14 months and then began playing again and eventually went under -- I conducted a family series and we added the the Farewell Symphony and had the musicians leave one by one. CNN covered it, and there was all kinds of national attention for that.
But eventually the orchestra reformed and is run as a cooperative orchestra. The board is 50 percent musicians, 50 percent business leaders and community leaders. With most orchestras, the board is non musicians. In this case, it's a cooperative. It took them a while to get a season going. They would just say, 'We're going to get as much work as we can put together and subdivide the pie.' Then Katrina hit, and of course they canceled a major part of the season, the whole first part of 2005 and '06, and they started it up again, I think, around March, and that's when I went in . . . They subsequently invited me back last season and just again this season.
CN: What has made Evansville a great base for you?
AS: Well, first, it's a great orchestra.
We have a strong base of local players, many of whom are on the faculty at the University of Evansville. Like a lot of other orchestras our size, the size of the orchestra here (in Lexington), you also rely on a good number of players not permanently located in town, and a lot of those come from the Indiana University School of Music. So the pool of musicians that make up the sort of non-skeletal part of the orchestra is very crucial. The level of those players is very high. People who are really getting really high-level artist diplomas at IU studying with some of the greatest string players in the world, it's great to have that pool of musicians. And it's also sort of that combination of more experienced players, people who are stable and based in town, along with these younger players that creates really good energy in rehearsals. So the orchestra really wants to play well and has the capability to do that. Compare that to the orchestra in Indianapolis, where they're playing together all the time: It's a different situation when you don't have a full-time orchestra -- which Lexington doesn't either -- you're addressing different ensemble things, because you don't have the dynamic of an orchestra that plays together all the time. But short of that, it's a very good situation.
It's also interesting that my wife, who was born in Pittsburgh, moved to Evansville when she was very young and her father was transferred to the Alcoa plant that opened up there. Her brother went away as far as Atlanta, Chicago and South Bend. We were in Florida, and it was like, the brothers are coming back, but there's no way we would come back. Lo and behold, the music directorship opened up and I got the job. So that's been nice, and it's also been nice having kids there. One is in college now, and we're open to what's next.
CN: What made Lexington an attractive option?
AS: I talked to a few musicians who substitute sometimes in Evansville who, when it became clear there was going to be a change in music directorship and Maestro Zack was retiring, they told me there was a lot of potential, as did Jon Nakamatsu, who I worked with several times. We have a really good partnership when we play. Jon really encouraged me to apply. He played a concert and was immediately rebooked for another concert and said, 'Alfred, this is a really good situation. You could really help it grow.'
So, a year ago around Easter break, I was guest conducting the orchestra in Roanoke. I wanted to leave Evansville late one day and arrive in Roanoke the next day. So I looked at a map and saw that Lexington was right in the middle. So I contacted the search committee that had just been formed and met with them, and I had a chance to look around and found it was really beautiful and charming. I really liked what I saw, so here I am.
I am also very aware of the presence of the University of Kentucky and the music program and particularly the opera program. I had the opportunity to meet Everett McCorvey when his American Spiritual Ensemble was touring, about a month ago while they were in Evansville. I had known of Everett from one of the directors of music at a church in Evansville and one of the major voice teachers who raved to me about Everett and everything he's done here, plus a gal from Evanville, Dede Lawrence -- you probably heard of Three Mo Tenors, well now they have Three Mo Divas, and she's one of the divas. I sort of helped nurture her. She was studying all over the place and I brought her in for some performances of gospel concerts, and she sang in a Porgy and Bess that we did, and sort of gave her a little guidance. She went to New York and did some auditions, and Everett said he went to YouTube or to her website and saw some clips and said I want to take her into the Spiritual Ensemble. She was singing that night. It was her first night back in Evansville since she joined the Spiritual Ensemble, and I went backstage and she introduced me to Everett.
I see so much of what he's done here and I have an incredible love of vocal music. Hopefully there would be ways to collaborate. Any vibrant organizations working together can do some very, very interesting things and make things happen.
CN: How did you get started in music?
AS: My immediate family were not musicians. My mom had played violin. However, on my mother's side of the family, her father, after whom I'm named, who died before I was born, was a clarinetist, as were his brothers, who all came over from Italy. When we would get together as a large family, as far back as I remember, there was always music being played like La donna e mobile and Nessun dorma, all these things I heard since I was born. So I always had an interest. I eventually started in public school on clarinet and got more and more involved.
CN: So you picked up your grandfather's instrument?
AS: Exactly. Literally, for a while, his instrument.
Then I got involved in performing in better ensembles and having success in those areas. My town did not have a strong instrumental program, while some of the surrounding towns did. Growing up in Northern New Jersey (Livingston), I was literally 45 minutes from Broadway. My bus from from Livingston to Times Square takes 45 minutes, which makes things like New Jersey all-state band and orchestra extremely competitive, much more than many other states because you have people studying with teachers in New York and Philadelphia. It's one of the most competitive states. Once I started getting some success getting into those ensembles, which people in my school hadn't done for 10 years, I thought, maybe I ought to consider this. At that point, I started cutting back on the sports a little. I played a lot of sports and still do. I'm an avid tennis player. I wound up literally having to decide between playing on my junior high football team or being in all state. It was a situation where the coach could have let me miss a few practices, but he wouldn't, and I said, 'I want to still be on the team, but no one in 10 years had made it into all state, so that's got to be a little more important,' and I made that choice.
At that point, it's something you have to do. I couldn't imagine doing anything else.
Even in high school, I started learning to read scores, and I was fascinated by them. And I amassed a massive record collection. Since I grew up in a household where we didn't listen to Beethoven symphonies, I basically started learning the repertoire playing the music -- playing in various ensembles, the New Jersey Youth Orchestra and then just collecting records. I was like a sponge, soaking it up, and following along with scores.
Then, they always have a senior be the assistant conductor of the band. That was my first taste of conducting. I like the idea of how does this all work, how does it all come together? How does this voice relate to that? People have this idea that once you get up there, it's the sound and the power. It's not that, at least not for me. For me, it's the process and going through the rehearsals and going through whatever techniques it takes to pull this together. You're taking what's on this page and making it come alive. You're calling on whatever resources, powers of persuasion, whatever you've studied -- to me, the glory of basking in the sound is for the audience. It was not a think where I heard it and said, I have to do this. It was more of an intrigue with the whole process.