Celebrating RPO director Christopher Seaman

10.10.10
Christopher Seaman
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

By Anna Reguero

After 13 years at the helm of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, Music Director Christopher Seaman bids Rochester adieu in June.

This season will be a celebration of his long tenure — the longest of any music director of the RPO — but there will be an undercurrent of melancholy. Seaman has led the orchestra with his British wit and warmth that will undoubtedly be missed.

"I think he has such a wonderful sense of humor, which puts everyone at ease," says violinist Janice Macisak, who has played with the RPO since she was an Eastman School of Music student in 1962. She's played for almost every single music director since Theodore Bloomfield. "He's been very kindly, I think more so than any other conductor that I can remember."

Beyond his personal touch, Seaman leaves a significant legacy. When he passes the baton over to the RPO's music director designate, Arild Remmereit, Seaman will have had an immense impact on the orchestra's musicianship.

"He ran, artistically, the orchestra for all these years with incredible wit and humor, and he brought the orchestra up to a point where we do attract top conductors," says cellist Stefan Reuss, who was on the musicians committee that brought Seaman, and now Remmereit, to Rochester. "All conductors who haven't heard about this orchestra come in and are incredibly surprised and blown away artistically by the orchestra. That is in large part thanks to Christopher. He has brought the orchestra to this level and precision."

Seaman has hired more than 30 players, including the concertmaster and principal oboist positions, two of the most vital in the orchestra. He has recorded two commercial CDs with Van Cliburn-winning pianists Olga Kern and Jon Nakamatsu. He helped the orchestra navigate through challenges, including the recent recession. He has connected with the community in a deeper way than perhaps any other RPO conductor with the Symphony 101 concert series, where he engages the audience in witty yet educational discussions about pieces before the orchestra plays them in full. And he has overseen the first total renovation of the Eastman Theatre, to bring it closer to George Eastman's vision from 1922.

He'll add to that list this year by recording another commercial CD, this one of British works with Harmonia Mundi. The recording is currently set to be released by his 70th birthday celebration next season.

Behind the scenes

Some of his accomplishments aren't easy for the public to see, such as the personal kinship he forged with the musicians. "He is someone who has taken a real special, fond interest in the musicians — and their families as well," says trombonist Mark Kellogg. "Your workplace doesn't have to be like a family, but when it is, it's that much better."

Concertmaster Juliana Athayde, who Seaman hired during his tenure, says, "Christopher is just a wonderful person all around, and that trickles into the music-making."

Seaman feels he has had the most influence on the orchestra's ability to play as one, with style. "I think what we managed to find in the first few years — which I hope has grown — is a cohesion and unanimity."

Seaman's final season, built around personal associations, many from his percussion-playing days, opened in September. He played the triangle as a 14-year-old boy in Elgar's Cockaigne Overture with the National Youth Orchestra in England. And Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 was the work that won him his first professional timpani job with the London Symphony Orchestra at the age of 22, where he gained a bird's-eye view to top conductors.

"That's a piece that's got associations, sitting there terrified trying not to come in wrong on the timpani, and then getting a job," he recalls.

Now, of course, all traces of terror are gone. On opening night, Seaman led with easy confidence and control, and the orchestra responded with an outpouring of energy and excitement that filled Kodak Hall.

Influence from the start

The RPO was the first U.S. orchestra Seaman conducted, back in 1984. David Zinman, then the music director, invited him to guest-conduct. Principal trombonist Mark Kellogg was a student at the time, but he remembers the concert so vividly that he can recall the works on the program: Britten's Young Person's Guide and Strauss' Till Eulenspiegel.

"The orchestra seemed to come to life under him," he says. "There was a real clarity and just a real sense of organization about the music."

Seaman remembers it, too: "I fell for this orchestra immediately." Returning for a second performance a year later cemented his feelings. "I loved the way they play, how they could create things at the concert, the flexibility."

Seaman's fourth appearance with the orchestra in 1997, when he led Vivaldi's Four Seasons from the chair of the harpsichord, would decide his future.

"What I did not know when I came for that visit in the snow was that they were looking for a music director," he says. "Nobody told me."

Later that year, he got a call from his agent that the orchestra wanted to talk. By that time, unbeknownst still to Seaman, he was the only name on the short list.

"That was the first I heard, which I found immensely flattering," he says.

Reuss, the cellist who was on the music director search committee, remembers that Seaman provided a kind of leadership that the orchestra was hungry for after a couple years without a steady music director. "He became the new father figure for the orchestra, so to speak."

Reaching out

Being a music director is more than simply standing up in front of the orchestra with a baton and keeping time. It includes administrative tasks and public appearances. In Seaman's case, one of his first forays into public outreach was to turn around on his podium and face the audience to talk about the music. He introduced pre-concert chats, which packed the hall. There was so much interest that Rick Nowland, the CEO at the time, suggested expanding the chats into the Symphony 101 concert series. Seaman would talk about the music while directing the orchestra through important excerpts from a score, and then the orchestra would perform the work all the way through. Seaman had done a similar series for the BBC in London, though never before with a general audience.

Despite Seaman's knack for talking to audiences, doubt surrounded the start of Symphony 101. The series began only a month or so after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"It destabilized the financial world and made it a very dangerous time to start a new series," Seaman remembers. "But in fact, fortunately Symphony 101 sold out before it opened. Rick, by suggesting it, put his finger on an absolute need in Rochester."

Seaman's Symphony 101 concerts will be one of his legacies — for conveying his enthusiasm for the music, encyclopedic knowledge, personal anecdotes and, of course, his humor. The concerts could illuminate music for any listener out there, novice and expert alike. "What I try to do is give people something to look forward to, something to listen for and just to sharpen their sensitivity, so when the music hits them, they're ready for it."

Alexandra Terziev, 55, of Brighton, has attended the Symphony 101 concerts for two years and says she enjoys them even more than traditional concerts.

"It can really increase your appreciation for the music to hear the conductor talk about what the composer is trying to do and what the conductor is trying to get from the musicians," says Terziev, who considers herself a music novice. "Christopher Seaman, he's obviously knowledgeable and he's funny, and that's a great combination."
Even Jon Nakamatsu, a Van Cliburn-winning pianist who has recorded two commercial CDs with Seaman, says that during his visits, he listens to Seaman's pre-concert chats — and always learns something new.

"Where he has no peer or equal is in the pre-concert talks," says Nakamatsu. "With the piano out there, his demeanor and the substance of his discussions, the humor. That I've never seen done better."

Early influences

Seaman was born in Faversham, a town about an hour east of London, in 1942. Like many professional musicians, Seaman got his start young: piano at age 5, violin at age 9. He had wanted to be a conductor since age 12.

When he entered a high school at the age of 13 and told the music director that he was going to be a conductor, the advice was: "If you want to be a conductor, my boy, learn the timpani."

Playing the timpani afforded Seaman the opportunity to watch and study conductors.

Not every conductor enjoyed that kind of scrutiny. Once, when Seaman performed with the Glyndebourne Opera, conductor Vittorio Gui complained to the management that the timpanist was staring too much. After learning of Seaman's intentions, he understood and even offered advice.

Seaman has been able to use his timpani expertise to help the orchestra, which was especially handy for deciding the timpani audition that brought Charles Ross to the RPO in 2003. He also says the timpani gave him "really good wrists."

It's the kind of comment where his quintessential humor comes through: "That means that when I'm 100, even though nothing else will move much, my wrists are going to be OK, which I'm grateful for."

Beyond Rochester

Seaman's final concert as music director of the RPO will include, among English works that the orchestra begged for, Brahms' Second Symphony. It was the work that launched Seaman's professional conducting career: It won him his first job as the assistant conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony at 25, "although it was probably a little bit rough at the edges," he recalls.

But he says that will not be the end of his association with the RPO. "I'm laureate for life and will be here, using wrists only, when I'm 100."

Seaman, who will be 69 when he leaves, still has a long career ahead. He'll guest-conduct and increase his bookings in Europe. He'll have the opportunity to go twice a year to Australia for six-week conducting and teaching stints — a trip he could make only once a year because of his commitment to the RPO. He has also said that he might write a book.

"I'll be, I hope, a busy conductor," he says. "The great thing is that I've decided to blow the whistle on myself here while I am young enough to be flexible."

Seaman will be back during the 2011-12 season for his 70th birthday bash — hopefully one of many trips back, the musicians say.

"Even though he's leaving us, we're still his orchestra," says Athayde, who Seaman will lead in a concerto in the RPO's next concert. "I'm so glad Christopher will be a regular guest after this year. I think we're going to miss him more than we know."