Orchestral maneuvers

Spell-casting is just part of the job for Barry Jekowsky and the Reno Philharmonic Orchestra

In rehearsal, the musicians of the Reno Philharmonic Orchestra wear street clothes and chat and drink coffee between musical pieces, but when conductor Barry Jekowsky lifts his baton, everyone’s efforts focus on a magical coalescence of sound and motion.

In rehearsal, the musicians of the Reno Philharmonic Orchestra wear street clothes and chat and drink coffee between musical pieces, but when conductor Barry Jekowsky lifts his baton, everyone’s efforts focus on a magical coalescence of sound and motion.

Photo By David Robert

“Some people don’t even know it’s a baton,” says Barry Jekowsky of the instrument he uses to conduct the Reno Philharmonic Orchestra. “They think it’s a magic wand.”

Jekowsky, affable and approachable, with a mustache and thick, brown hair, is listing the many facets of his job.

He says leading the orchestra in concert is only about 25 percent of what the music director/conductor does. He works on budgeting, marketing and educational programs. He selects the season’s musical programs, learns all the musicians’ parts and decides exactly how they’ll be played.

He shows me a page of written music. Because it’s written for scores of instruments, not just one, the first couple bars take up a whole page. Jekowsky goes down the page, listing the parts he needs to learn—piccolo, English horn, kettle drums, harp. He keeps listing. Seventy-six musicians played in the “Master Classics 4” concert he was preparing for, and he had to know what each one should be doing at any given moment. He sees that I’m baffled by the complexity of his task. He modestly cites jobs he wouldn’t know how to do, but I still don’t fathom how the human brain can absorb this much information at once.

The Rehearsal

I use the word “visceral” sometimes to describe a painting or sculpture that has a particularly strong physical presence, but I’ve never witnessed visual art to have an actual, physical impact like that of the collective sounds emanating from the instruments of 76 musicians. Sound waves are actual, physical things created by vibrating objects like wood, horse hair and meticulously designed shapes of hollow metal, and sitting here is a prime opportunity to experience them in perhaps their most refined and attended-to form.

Jekowsky’s baton—it’s hard not to think of it as a magic wand, despite his earlier correction on the matter—is dancing. It is always moving, usually up and down, but occasionally the conductor draws circles or squiggles with it, and a couple times he points straight ahead like he’s fencing.

Occasionally, he stops the music to insert a diplomatically phrased critique or request.

“Seconds, I need you to play with more confidence and less crescendo.”

He comes off like a nice guy with exacting standards. “Basses, when you come in—massively, then relax.”

Back in his office, Jekowsky had attributed a favorite piece of advice to Leonard Bernstein: “Bite your tongue on the sides, so no one can see it bleeding.” In rehearsal, instead of saying something like, “Oh, come on, you guys can do this way better,” he euphemistically instructs, “Let’s adjust our dynamic.”

He points not only with the baton, but also with his heel, his hip and his facial expressions, communicating with musicians in what looks like a language of movements. At times, his whole body hushes. I begin to think a deaf person probably would be able to glean much of what’s going on with the music just by watching Jekowsky’s coded shifts of musculature.

The musicians look absorbed. Some sustain subtle smiles, some look intense while playing, and most of them look like they’re half somewhere else, not entirely present in the unadorned concert hall.

Even with interruptions and behind-the-scenes details, I find after about five minutes of listening that the experience of hearing all these people make one continuous sound is transporting.

The Performance

On Tuesday evening, Jekowsky, in a long-tailed tux with a red flower, takes a quick, no-nonsense bow and gets down to business.

My balcony seat is just far enough from the stage that when the orchestra plays Richard Strauss’ Don Juan, the sea of bows poking into the air and the hands piloting them over blond, wood string instruments all melt a little into abstraction.

The music swells, thins, swells again. At one abrupt moment, every single musician stops on the same dime. The momentary, arresting silence is followed by several climactic stabs of sound. I later learn that the sonic stabs represent the final blows to Don Juan’s heart and that Jekowsky regularly shares this kind of background information during pre-performance talks.

After Alberto Ginastera’s Variaciones Concertantes, he leaves the stage, the audience claps eagerly, Jekowsky jogs back onstage and gives principal violist Igor Veligan a polite, jocular shove out of his chair. Veligan stands up to more applause, and Jekowsky singles out several other individual musicians for the audience’s recognition, then all of them in one gesture.

After a brief intermission, a slow, moody, violin-heavy sound begins. Young violinist Ruth Lenz, looking swank in a flowing, strapless silver gown, solos on Ernest Chausson’s Poème. It’s magic when the other instruments hush and everything stills—even Jekowsky’s always-dancing baton—to clear the way for Lenz’s sweet, intense sound. It’s magic again when the rest of the musicians join back in, and their distinct parts start to coalesce into one big, solid sound. The pace quickens. The sound separates back into distinct high and low layers and begins to drop hints of the tightly organized frenzy that eventually concludes the piece.

Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov is the last composer on the bill. The late-19th-century Russian music is fast, assertive and—if I had any idea how to dance to this kind of stuff—probably danceable. It sounds like a lively conversation, with voices coming and going steadily, like quality banter at a good dinner party. Bouncy viola parts, long, anticipatory drum rolls and sprightly horns overlap in braids of sound. The harp gets to shine for a few seconds, and the strings show their range: slow and plodding, fast and whirly, stiff and upright. Cellists strum strings with their fingers like they’re plucking guitars. The whole thing ends with a bang and a standing ovation.

Jekowsky’s quick, horizontal movement of both hands quiets the crowd.

“What an orchestra,” he says. “It sounds like encore time.”

“Flight of the Bumble Bee,” another Rimsky-Korsakov marvel, is very brief and sounds a lot like real insects.

The conductor looks pleased but contained. Anyone would be excused for gloating as the crowd claps and keeps clapping, but Jekowsky is just smiling comfortably. It seems almost like an ordinary moment for him. This is, after all, his favorite part of the 9-to-5.