Thakar fills up orchestra seats with catchy themes, new sounds

Michael Huebner
Birmingham News
October 23, 2005

Markand Thakar is receiving as much good press lately for programming and audience building as he is for conducting. Since he took the title of Music Director of the Duluth-Superior Symphony Orchestra in 2002, he has built attendance to an average of 93 percent capacity in a 2,300-seat hall.


He signs up new subscribers by the hundreds each year and manages to retain 41 percent of them. His accomplishments have been the subject of recent articles in The New Yorker and Symphony magazines.


How does he do it? With catchy themes like "Fjord Explorer" and "Czech is in the Mail," 50 percent discounts to newcomers and, according to reviews from Duluth to Washington to Denver, exceptional music making.


"The orchestra had an image of being stuffy and elite and we were playing to half-full houses," Thakar said last week from his home in Baltimore. "My message to the community was that the orchestra is the most fun two hours you'll ever have. People pay $30 to $40 to be exalted. If we can make sounds that can send them further, more people will come."


As the Alabama Symphony Orchestra seeks to fill Richard Westerfield's slot, Thakar may be the just the conductor it needs to fill seats.


The author of "Counterpoint: Fundamentals of Music Making" (Yale University Press) has impressive academic credentials as well. A recipient of a Fulbright scholarship and a Ford Foundation award, he has lectured on the concert experience at Harvard University, is a frequent commentator on NPR's "Performance Today" (WUAL 91.5, Tuscaloosa) and has appeared on CBS and CNN. Teaching positions have included the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, Penn State and Ohio University.


Thakar's positions in Duluth-Superior and Baltimore are with per-service (part-time) orchestras, but he would like nothing more than to conduct a full-time ensemble.


"I want to make a difference, and I can make a bigger difference when I'm working week-to-week with people," he said. "I've been carrying around a contract in my wallet that says, `I will be conducting a full-time orchestra.'"


Age: 50.


Currently: Music director, Duluth-Superior Symphony Orchestra; music director, Baltimore Chamber Orchestra. Conducting faculty, Peabody Conservatory.

Previously: Associate conductor, Colorado Symphony; music director, Amadeus Chamber Orchestra (New York).


Significant guest gigs: New York Philharmonic, Aspen Music Festival, National Symphony, San Antonio Symphony, Columbus Symphony.


Raised in: New York.


Education: Juilliard School (violin, composition); Columbia University (music theory); Cincinnati College-Conservatory (orchestral conducting). Additional studies at Curtis Institute and with Sergiu Celibidache at Ciprian Porumbescu Conservatory in Bucharest, Romania.


Family: Wife, Victoria Chiang, is a viola soloist and faculty member at Peabody. They have a 4-year-old son, Oliver.


Biggest conducting influence: Celibidache. "If he didn't change my life, he certainly gave it new focus. He understood this magic moment we all feel from time to time at a concert when some melody gives us chills, sends us. It's possible for that moment to extend from the beginning of the first sound to the very end of the last sound. I've spent a good part of my life studying this magical experience."


Repertoire strengths: Brahms, Ravel, Debussy. "If I had one program to conduct before I pass on, it would have Brahms on it. The German ideal of everything making being an organic whole fundamentally speaks to me, but I find myself loving music with textures and colors, like French impressionistic music. That's not to say I don't love Stravinsky, Bartok and Mozart. I consider myself fairly eclectic."


Non-musical interests: "I try to spend time with my family as much as I can. Sometimes it's going to the grocery store together, going to the zoo or just staying at home. My wife says I watch too much sports on TV, but I try to do it when I'm on a treadmill.


Top three priorities of a music director: "Number one: fill the hall. Number two: along the same goal, put on the best, most engaging performances possible. Number three: make as much noise in the community as possible. Numbers two and three are ways of getting number one accomplished."


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