American conductor

The music director of the Reno Phil talks about life, music and Leonard Bernstein

Photo By David Robert

He isn’t larger than life. He isn’t even larger than me, I later notice when I shake his hand. But sitting in the fifth row directly in front of Barry Jekowsky as he conducts the Reno Philharmonic is something like, ironically, watching Buster Keaton in a silent film exaggerate the motions of life to the point of, not hyperbole, but drama.

It is here, in the auditorium of Reno’s Pioneer Center, that Jekowsky paints figure eights, points and slashes his baton with the finesse of a magician and makes sounds come to life. The polyphony floods our ears; the music becomes part of us. This is our communion with Jekowsky, but he stays somehow foreign. Conspicuous but integral. There’s an aspect of rebelliousness that’s undeniably American.

A look at his performances over the past few years reveals his affinity for other Americans’ work. They include compositions by Hollywood mainstays John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith, as well as George Gershwin, Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, Lou Harrison and Jekowsky’s mentor, Leonard Bernstein, who still commands attention more than a decade after his passing.

Bernstein was criticized as much for his political activism as for his conducting. He was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, and he was condemned for condemning the Vietnam War and supporting the Black Panthers.

“Leonard Bernstein was criticized more than just about anyone I know of,” says Jekowsky, now in his fifth season at the Reno Phil. His speech is like his conducting, articulate yet kinetic. He dismisses the dinosaurs that often roared at Bernstein for being too self-possessed, too animated, too uninhibited in his conducting. He dismisses frigid critics who have not acclimated to the times, who still see steam escaping a pot on the stove where there is a river flowing to the sea.

“Greatness is always criticized,” Jekowsky says. “Look at what Leonard Bernstein did—he reached millions and millions of people through the Omnibus television program and through his young people’s concerts.

“His Harvard lectures on poetry and music and art are historic. He was always way ahead and found ways to bring people to what he did. And look what he did by writing West Side Story.”

Jekowsky conducted selections from Bernstein’s West Side Story in the Philharmonic’s October concerts. The kindred styles were as clear as ever.

A month earlier, during the performance of Samuel Barber’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, as guest artist Karen Gomyo bowed her Stradivarius, overwhelming the audience in the sweetest paroxysm, I watched both of Jekowsky’s feet leave the ground. He jumped.

Jekowsky’s background is in percussion. Just as a percussionist plays with his hands and his feet, Jekowsky feels the pulse throughout his body; it animates him. He’s a “drummer at heart,” says Mary Miller, personnel manager of the Reno Phil and principal flutist in the orchestra. His “personal stamp,” she says, is his “extraordinary sense of rhythm and time.”

But how much of Jekowsky is a result of Bernstein? What influence did he really have?

“The most profound influence of anyone in my life,” Jekowsky says. He tells me a story about practicing to conduct Beethoven’s Second Symphony and failing to achieve a communion with the orchestra.

“I could’ve cried if I’d let myself,” he says. “But then I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Leonard. He said, ‘I gave you every opportunity to find your own way.’ “

Finding one’s own way is the key, Jekowsky says, to understanding Bernstein, music and life.

Jekowsky rested. He contemplated, tried again and succeeded. He says that without Bernstein’s guidance he never could’ve made it.

“Leonard’s still teaching me things today,” he says.

Like Bernstein, Jekowsky has taken an interest in exposing young people to classical music. He conducts Reno’s Young People’s Concerts and helped to form the Reno Philharmonic Youth Chamber Orchestra. In 1991, he created the California Symphony’s Young American Composer-in-Residence Program. He has also introduced audiences to a number of young prodigies, such as Sarah Chang and Kyoko Takazawa. Those two women, as well as the previously mentioned Karen Gomyo, were students of the master violinist Dorothy DeLay, who died in March 2002.

Scene: Juilliard. Occasion: Arrival of 9-year-old prodigy Barry Jekowsky. He meets the legend, DeLay. Though Jekowsky’s performance on the violin is not spectacular, over the years the two form a close friendship that lasts for the rest of DeLay’s life.

Jekowsky believes, of course, that a teacher has a great influence on students. But students are not extensions of the teacher, he argues. Students are seeds. They take all they can and discard the rest. What is useful for one will not necessarily be useful for another, and for that reason a teacher must give all that a teacher can.

Jekowsky has learned from and worked with legends. He won a Leopold Stokowski Conducting Prize and has led ensembles in the United States and in Europe. This season marks his 16th as the founding music director of the California Symphony and his fifth as music director of the Reno Phil.

More important, Barry Jekowsky seems to know what matters in life. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area with his wife and their three children. Nikki Waggoner, operations manager for the Reno Phil, tells me how Jekowsky took his 7-year-old, Alexander, to see the Giants and the Angels in the World Series.

“He’s a family man," Waggoner says.