Wednesday, August 16, 2017  

Michael Repper: New Life for the Northern Neck Orchestra


ichael Repper’s resume states that he began his studies in conducting at age ten. Curiosity demands an explanation of that beginning, and it comes with a chain of circumstances that led the California youngster to Melbourne, Australia, for piano studies with Nehama Patkin, a noted instructor in the Suzuki method. While in her studio, the students helped produce concerts structured around a meet-the-composer theme. Ordinarily, an actor would play the part of the composer, but at one such planned performance, the actor was a no-show. With that as background, picture ten-year-old Michael as the last minute stand-in. The boy, now in man’s clothing, was to portray Joseph Haydn conducting his “Surprise” Symphony. Michael stood before the orchestra, dutifully waving a baton that looked suspiciously like a radio antenna. The surprise noted in the music’s title occurs during a very quiet passage, when an extremely loud chord shocks the audience to attention. To Michael, “That chord was like a slap in the face! And I knew immediately that I had to be a conductor.”
The events that brought Michael to Ms. Patkin’s private studio then seemed to be an alignment of the stars, a good beginning as well as a good story. Actually, the boy’s interest in music had begun even earlier, when his grandmother, a pianist, took the child to concerts starting at age three and encouraged piano study at age five. Neither activity was a chore for the boy—he truly enjoyed it all.
Continuing education always included music. Violin, clarinet, and trombone instruction joined the piano lessons as Michael completed high school at the Orange County School of the Arts. Stanford University would provide a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in music, along with all the peripheral study such programs offer. A cross-country move then took Michael to Baltimore to pursue a doctorate degree at the Peabody Conservatory, the music school at Johns Hopkins University.
Supplementing the academics, time in Baltimore was filled with more music, working with a number of professional conductors and musicians. He traveled to conducting workshops as well as venues for guest conducting across the country and around the world, including events in Italy, Brazil, and Australia, gaining from the experience and expertise of more people in the field.
In 2014, Michael received the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/Peabody Conservatory Fellowship, allowing him to study and work with Marin Alsop, the music director/conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO), who had been his mentor since he was much younger. Michael cannot say enough good things about Ms. Alsop. “She’s been my strongest mentor since I was 13 or 14. She’s an excellent conductor and teacher, and she’s also been very influential in bringing more women into the field, which is very important,” says Michael. “I’m very close to Marin. She is very supportive of me. We are extraordinary friends. She’s family.”
Michael finished the classroom work for his doctorate in 2015, but he’s still actively involved with music in Baltimore. He’s now the New Music Consultant for the BSO, the assistant conductor for Concert Artists of Baltimore, and the managing director of the Chamber Music Society of Maryland concert series.
Also in 2015, Michael learned that the Northern Neck Orchestra (NNO) in Kilmarnock was looking for a new conductor. With just three months to prepare for the upcoming season, Eric Jacobson, musician and member of the orchestra’s board of directors, volunteered to lead the search committee. “I had observed similar searches performed by the Richmond Philharmonic,” said Eric. “That group had found excellent conductors, so I was confident we would also.”
Of the individuals who responded to ads, three finalists were chosen, and each was asked to conduct one eight-week rehearsal/concert cycle for the following season. Board members and musicians were all involved in the rating of these three.
“We considered such matters as technical abilities, understanding of music, ability to communicate and inspire, and willingness to perform new compositions by regional or local composers,” explained Jacobson. “The final decision was made by the board of directors. We reasoned that our supportive community deserved to be considered, so we chose the candidate who related best to our audience, and this was Michael Repper. I think the musicians are now delighted with his musical ability and apparent respect for our group.”
Michael doesn’t plan to change the type of music the orchestra will play, which has always been geared mostly toward classical. “I love classical, but I also love pops, jazz, all kinds of music. I led the Peabody Symphony Orchestra in first recordings of new compositions. This was student work, and I enjoyed being in the forefront of new work.”
Michael’s first concert as NNO’s official conductor was an all-Beethoven program in October. Musicians are accustomed to different conducting techniques, but to this nonmusician, watching the rehearsals for the concert was a fascinating short course in the special kind of teamwork that must exist between conductor and musicians. Michael’s enthusiasm for the music is obvious and contagious—at times he almost dances the tempo. As the right hand waves the baton, the left may point a cue to the cellos or horns. A raised hand pulls the sound up, while a back-hand motion lowers the tone. He coaxes and critiques, repeats when necessary, and praises the end result. A favorite directive is “Have the confidence—trust each other.”
“There is an inherent language in conducting,” says Michael. “Beyond tempo, you use miming, body language, facial expression, whatever it takes. Each conductor finds his or her own way to convey their interpretation of the music to the orchestra. And everything is open to interpretation.”
At the performance, Michael proved he’s a confident speaker as well as conductor, giving the audience some insights into the composer as well as introducing the work. He also showed he’s not averse to inserting some humor into an evening of classical music. One of the evening’s selections describes a battle between the British and the French. Percussionists were divided into two sections, one at each side of the stage to represent the two combatants’ cannons and gunfire. After the introduction, Michael stepped offstage for a few moments. When he returned, he was wearing a long red coat and a three-cornered black hat, and he conducted the entire piece in costume.
The final selection of the concert was Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, familiar to many for its dramatic start and ongoing theme. At the end of the evening, the audience response was warm and enthusiastic. “He’s great!” …“I loved it.” …“He’s brought new life to the orchestra!”…and a thoughtful “Thank you!” to a member of the board of directors, all apparent confirmation that the board had indeed made the perfect choice.

Upcoming concerts:

On March 19, 2017 and repeated on March 26, 
Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony and Mahler’s Songs 
of a Wayfarer.
On June 3, 2017, American Heroes: Randall Thompson’s Frostiana with the Chesapeake Chorale, and other works by American composers.