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Performing From The Podium

by Kathleen Moye

HE STANDS AT THE PODIUM before a choir. Maestro Joseph Caulkins diligently prepares each week for this moment: memorizing music, imagining the gentle swells and pointed enunciations and phrasing. Then he steps before his musicians to introduce a new musical composition.

He’s been instrumental in maintaining the high quality musical programs at the Southwest Florida Symphony in the wake of Maestro Paul Nadler’s retirement and throughout the search for a new conductor (Michael Hall, of Canada, was recently announced as the winner of this search.). In his six years as Associate Conductor and Director of Choruses for the Symphony, Maestro Caulkins has been noted for his fresh, engaging approach to life and music.

This year, certainly, his diligence paid off: Maestro Caulkins was nominated for the Angel of the Arts Award for Performing Artist of the Year for his work with the Symphony. Now, he looks forward to sharing his talents with an additional group, the Key Chorale in Sarasota. His personality and passion set him a step above other candidates in a national search for the ensemble’s new conductor, qualities which, along with a healthy dose of humor, also shined brightly throughout his interview.

Where are you from?

Belmond, Iowa. A town of 2,500 people and sporting two stop lights…We didn't have a lot of culture or arts in our community, but I did have several really good music teachers that nurtured the spark within me.

My entire family grew up playing in dance bands so music was always a part of my family. Ironically, I was the only one who ever went to music school. I went to Northern Illinois University on a jazz scholarship since they had a very strong jazz program with five graded Jazz Bands.

Why did you come to Fort Myers?

The Southwest Florida Symphony was doing a national search for a Director of Choruses to rejuvenate a very stagnant choral program. The chorus had been a part of the symphony practically since its first season 46 years ago, but now really needed someone to come in and totally change the atmosphere and build a program.
I came in for my audition here in Fort Myers, and after working with the chorus, was certain I couldn't turn this program around. Fortunately, my wife Michelle believed in me more than I and encouraged me to take the plunge. It has really been one of the best plunges ever. I love this organization and have really been amazed at the artistic strides the program has made!

When did you decide to make music your career?

At NIU, after only a few semesters I knew I wanted to conduct. Some things in life you just never decide. Music found me, not the other way around. The only thing that really changed was how I would make my living as a musician. I started out as a jazz saxophonist, and then got really interested in being a vocalist.
For a time, nineteen and a half years, I made my living as a church musician, I even conducted one of the best barbershop choruses in the country for six years, The West Towns Chorus, a 100+ man barbershop chorus that routinely competed at the International level. Then, in some mysterious way, all of those experiences led to me being a classical conductor.

What do you love most about it?

I have discovered the hard way that this is really the only job I can keep. I am not a 9-5 type of guy. I need freedom and space to be creative and this particular vocation embraces that. I never think about how many hours a week I put in, although in season, it is pretty nuts, because I do what I love for a living. There aren't many people in the world who have this wonderful blessing that I do. So in return for that blessing, I try to be the very best I can be to help inspire musicians, singers, and audiences by the unbelievable wealth and richness music has to offer.

Tell me about the Key Chorale?

I am really excited about this opportunity because of the amazing amount of potential within this superb ensemble. They are the ‘Official Chorus of the Florida West Coast Symphony’ and regularly perform great masterworks with Sarasota's fantastic orchestra as well as presenting programs of its own.

What I like about Southwest Florida Symphony is that our choral program is under the umbrella of our Symphony organization. What I like about the Key Chorale is that it is not. Both are good. Being under the umbrella of an organization provides a lot of stability and the infrastructure for the program, but being independent lets you really sharpen your artistic vision to explore and define your mission in a very amazing way.

How did you get the opportunity to audition for leading them?

It was really by chance. I was hired as guest conductor by the Sarasota Ballet to present four performances of Orff’s ‘Carmina Burana’ in the spring of 2006. The orchestra was our Southwest Florida Symphony and the choir was the Key Chorale. Their director prepared the chorus and then I came in and worked with them a few times the month prior and then we immersed ourselves in the rehearsals and performances with the ballet for the final week.

Their conductor was Daniel Moe, which may not mean a lot to the casual classical music lover, but to a choral conductor like me it was a little like, “Daniel Moe? You mean the Daniel Moe?” Daniel is a choral conducting icon of the 20th century. He taught for 20 years at Oberlin and seems to have taught every major choral conductor working today.

Having Daniel prepare a chorus for me was really strange. I enjoyed working with Daniel and the Chorale very much. I remember going out to dinner between a soloist's rehearsal and a choral rehearsal and enjoying the dinner for quite some time before I realized they were interviewing me. I didn't know Daniel was retiring and was quite surprised. After another national search, I was appointed as their new artistic Director and Conductor just recently.

Daniel leaves immense shoes to fill and quite a legacy in Sarasota.

So now you'll be sharing time between Sarasota and Fort Myers. What's exciting about that?

Being a musician, you get used to a certain amount of travel. In some ways I am usually wired after a concert or rehearsal anyway so the commute helps me to wind down a bit. In addition, conducting involves an enormous amount of study time. I like to try to memorize passages as a part of my study, so now I can do that while making lane changes. Stay away from that silver Elantra on Highway 75!

What makes a Maestro a performance artist, not just a leader of performers.

A Maestro spends most of his or her time in quiet study, not just learning the music or composition, but creating their artistic vision for each specific work. Through many ways; the written notes on the page, an understanding of the history and background of the composer, performance practices of today and when it was composed, and through your own experiences; a conductor shapes that artistic vision much as a solo performer would.

The major difference is that if an orchestra or chorus, made up of many individuals, each brought their own musical interpretation to the piece without some sense of unanimity, it would be chaotic. With large forces, the conductor must share his or her vision and have it be compelling enough that the performers are inspired to utilize their artistry and technique to the fullest helping the conductor realize that artistic vision.

What's your style? How does that influence the musical result by the orchestra or choir?

I prescribe to the rehearsal technique of “Don't tell me how to do it. Show me.” Conductors have the ability to express so much through gesture, facial expression, and a little dose of cosmic ESP. I do my best in rehearsal and performance to show the musicians not just when to come in, but how. Not loud or soft, but triumphant or ethereal.

It seems that orchestras and symphonies may have a difficult time bringing in new audience members. What do you think is a common misconception in, or something that most people may not know about the classical music scene of today?

I try to program my concerts differently than some. I don't do concerts, I do concert ‘events.’Most people don't get thrilled attending just another concert. I try to offer our audiences something unexpected at every concert. Audiences want to be mesmerized, captivated, challenged, inspired, and entertained. A good program can do all of that, and if it doesn't, it isn't a program I will want to conduct and most likely one the audiences won’t enjoy.

How can you work to change or clarify that issue from your podium?

If an audience is inspired and excited at the end of a concert they will come back. If it was truly an amazing emotional event, they will tell their friends. Every time I step up to the podium, I am struck by the incredible responsibility I have to take these pages of little black notes and make them come alive in a meaningful way that makes those moments in a concert hall or church truly inspiring — unforgettable!

Over the summer, in between planning, auditioning, and fundraising with the Key Chorale Maestro Joseph Caulkins will be temporarily unavailable. He’ll be pursuing his other passion – mountain climbing. This year’s adventure takes him to the point of Mount Rainier (elevation: 14,410 feet) in Washington State. He’ll begin regular rehearsals with both Choruses this fall. •

from the July-August 2007 issue

"Some things in life you just never decide. Music found me, not the other way around. The only thing that really changed was how I would make my living as a musician."

"I prescribe to the rehearsal technique of 'Don't tell me how to do it. Show me'."