Christopher Dragon’s first concert with the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra as its new conductor and music director came later then he’d planned.
He’d looked forward to conducting the pops concert he’d put together for August featuring John Williams film scores.
“I was looking forward to it, because that’s all fun music,” Dragon said, “and I thought maybe the T. rex costume would come out, but I guess we’ll just have to wait now. We’ll just have to wait.”
A delay in paperwork for his U.S. visa meant he had to remain in his native country of Australia while it was sorted out. He doesn’t expect any further issues.
“It was just something so stupid like that that caused me having to miss the week,” he said.
Despite the disappointment, he was pleased everyone enjoyed the concert and that violinist Sandy Cameron was a hit as a guest soloist. He plans to have her back.
Now, he’s off and running with the season, titled “Celebration,” with the musicians and organization he’s been excited to work with before he even landed the job.
Dragon spent last week in Casper for his first concert as the new conductor and music director for the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra. Dragon became the new music director last spring and set to work planning the symphony’s 70th season, which officially started with Saturday’s show.
“I believe the concert came across very well,” Dragon said Tuesday in an email. “... We were able to convey that orchestra concerts can be fun! Onstage and in the audience, everyone seemed to be having a good time.”
A first rehearsal with a new group is always a little nerve-wracking, especially in his new position, he said before the first rehearsal last week.
“I think for everyone, there’s a lot of excitement; there’s a lot of nerves,” he said. “But I’m sure it’s going to be a great week.”
By the third rehearsal Friday night, orchestra members started to tire. But the energy Dragon exuded as moved on the podium and his focus rallied them as they used every minute of rehearsal to hone the music, a group of musicians said after rehearsal. Though Dragon said he took the same approach to these rehearsals, some musicians felt they were more intense than during Dragon’s visit in January as a finalist for the job, and it’s what they want to see in their conductor to continue the symphony’s musical growth.
“The concert before, he was in an audition,” principal trumpet player Scott Meredith said. “He was in a different mode. So this is him in his relaxed, we’re-going-to-get-down-to-business state. And so we’ve already been talking, just throughout the couple of days, that we’re noticing some stuff that he’s doing that we feel like we’ve wanted to see from a conductor — like the engagement with the musicians, and the rehearsal task has been pretty slammin’.”
A ‘Celebration’ season
Dragon programmed and performed his first concert with the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra last January during his “audition” as one of four finalists to become the music director and conductor.
International-award-winning pianist Steven Lin joined him on stage and returns as the guest soloist in January, when Dragon will make his next appearance on the Casper stage. Lin will play Beethoven’s piano concerto No. 1 to kick off the symphony’s yearlong celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday with a piece by the composer in every concert of 2020.
“(Lin) was a massive hit with the audiences and he had such a great time in Casper that he really wanted to come back,” Dragon said. “So before I even had gotten the job, we were discussing possible other concertos and what we might want to do.”
The Beethoven celebration will continue into next season through 2020.
“I can say we do have something very big planned for the end of 2020 for our December concert,” Dragon said. “It’s probably the biggest thing you can do orchestrally for a Beethoven celebration. So that’s all we’ll say for now.”
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This December, the symphony will perform its holiday concert under the baton of guest conductor and last season’s artistic adviser for symphony, Jerry Hou, with singer Devin DeSantis, who’s performed in musicals like “Hairspray” and “Les Miserables” around the country. March’s guest soloist is violin virtuoso Simone Porter, who’s performed with the New York Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
“All of the soloists we have coming are really at the top of their fields,” Dragon said. “I feel like, just going throughout our brochure, any orchestra, anywhere in the world, would be happy to have the soloists that we have coming here.”
Season highlights include a piece the symphony commissioned to celebrate Wyoming’s 150th women’s suffrage anniversary and a century of women’s suffrage in the U.S. Rising American composer Stephanie Ann Boyd is composing the piece for April’s season finale concert.
It’s the only piece the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra has commissioned that they know of, executive director Rachel Bailey said.
Boyd is “known for her ethereal melodies and exploration of feminine themes,” according to the symphony website. “We hope this composition will act as an enduring token of this significant anniversary of women’s suffrage as well as a reminder of Wyoming’s rich history of remarkable women.”
The season features community elements for each concert, some to be announced as the dates draw closer, Dragon said. The December concert will feature the Wyoming Choral Arts Ensemble as well as local dancers on stage for selections from “The Nutcracker,” for instance. Students from VIBES Fine & Performing Arts will perform in the January concert. Something big is planned for March, though that announcement will have to wait, Dragon said.
“So we’re really trying to present these concerts as not just being a concert, but for each concert being a community event and really embracing all of Casper and bringing the community into each of these concerts that we do,” Dragon said.
Ambitions and personality
Symphony musicians agreed Saturday’s season kickoff was an ambitious concert to start the season. The symphony played a lot of music and some more challenging pieces, Jana Hanni said.
“He’s consistent, he’s clear, like I said, he’s just so fun to play for,” the violinist said. “You just want to play well for him.”
Dragon knows how to help the musicians pull it off, principal trombonist Dan Watt said.
“He’s calculating, like kind of paying attention to the entire orchestra, engaging what needs to be focused on the most, and he’s hitting those priorities,” Watt said. “And I think he’s going to take that into the next concert and go, ‘OK, I need to hit this and this and this.’ And he’s going to build the orchestra that way.”
Meredith said Dragon’s personality and contagious love for what he’s doing not only motivates the musicians, he believes it will draw audience members from around the region.
“So audience members are going to come and want to be a part of that,” he said. “I think that people are going to just like to be around him in such a way that people liked to be around — and I’m going to use a big name, but Bernstein.”
During his visit last January, Dragon discussed what he’d like to help the symphony accomplish and hoped for the chance to get to know and work with the community and musicians on what they want for their symphony. Plans have begun for next season, including expanding the season, more pop concerts, educational opportunities for students and connecting with younger community members.
“There’s just such a hunger to do things here,” he said.
It’s been a busy few months for Dragon and the orchestra to prepare for the season after he was chosen for the job.
“But with what we’ve produced, I’m so happy with how the season’s planned out and the music that we’re playing and the community concepts that we’re building into these concerts,” Dragon said. “I think it’s very exciting. I think this is the most ambitious season that the orchestra has put together yet — ambitious in an exciting way.”