In this ongoing series, Leesburg Today gets up close and personal with several of the 65 members of the Loudoun Symphony Orchestra. To kick things off, we sat down with LSO’s frontman Maestro Mark Allen McCoy.
Trained first at Kansas City’s Conservatory of Music, then receiving his master’s degree at the University of Illinois and doctorate at Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory, McCoy has shared his passion for symphonic music with orchestral bodies across the globe. Still, since 1997, this well-traveled conductor has found his most satisfying musical moments in front of the Loudoun Symphony Orchestra.
Leesburg Today: How did you become interested in being a conductor?
Maestro McCoy: When I was at the Conservatory in Kansas City I was the principal bassist for the conservatory orchestra, while pursuing my performance degree in classical guitar. Then, a couple things happened: one, I got an injury to my hand which was going to limit how far I could go as a guitarist, and, at that same time, I really caught the conducting bug. I started to study very seriously at that, and that was when I decided I was going to make the switch and [conducting] was going to be my focus. That happened about halfway through getting my undergraduate degree.
I grew up in the state of Iowa—right in the Midwest—and I spent my entire childhood trying to figure out how to get out of the Midwest and see the world. I felt like music was the way I was going to be able to do that.
Neither of my parents were musicians—my father thought I was going to go to college on a baseball scholarship at a small college someplace. I told him, no, I wanted to be a musician. They didn’t understand and I think they didn’t believe it, but then I was offered a full ride to the Conservatory in Kansas City, and I think that was the first time they kind of realized it was a possibility [that I might become a musician].
LT: So, if neither of your parents was particularly musical, how did you even get started in music?
MM: When I was in elementary school, my mother said they were giving group guitar lessons at the YMCA, and would I like to take lessons? I said sure. I had six weeks of group lessons, and after that, the teacher there asked me if I’d like to continue on taking private lessons. They were just general lessons, but [my teacher] was a classical guitarist. So I started studying with him in fifth or sixth grade, and I studied with him all the way until high school, at which point I started studying with a college professor near Des Moines.
I was very lucky because not only was [my first teacher] a classical guitarist, he was a violist also, and he played with all the little orchestras in Iowa. He had a huge symphonic record collection, and at the end of my lesson every week we would listen to symphonic music. He was the first person to take me to see a live professional orchestra. So, he had a huge influence on my development, because my parents were not musical, although my mother was very supportive.
LT: You’ve conducted many musical bodies, from youth orchestras to symphonies as far flung as Japan and Russia. You also live in Baltimore, and commute to your duties here. How did you come to settle in as conductor of the Loudoun Symphony Orchestra?
MM: …When I saw the opening for [conductor of] the Loudoun Symphony, I really didn’t know anything about the orchestra. In fact I saw the opening when I as on vacation somewhere—I wasn’t even in the state of Maryland—so I quickly threw some materials together and sent them in.
Actually I was late for the [application] deadline, and wasn’t one of the three finalists for the position. Unfortunately one of the finalists had an aneurysm and died. I was the next in line, so they called and asked if I was still interested in the position. I said yes and we scheduled a series of rehearsals to come down to work with the orchestra and do a concert.
I remember the day they named me music director—in one of the papers, I think in the Loudoun Times-Mirror, it was (sweeps hand to indicate a large headline) “Dark Horse Wins Position.” A lot of people looked at that and said it must’ve been fate! It was also unfortunate because the finalist who died was actually a classmate of mine at Peabody…
LT: You must like working with the Loudoun Symphony, since you’ve stayed on for 14 years…
MM: When I first started coming down here I thought I’d be here three years and move on—and 14 years ago there wasn’t [the development] there is now. I mean coming down Rt. 15 there wasn’t any housing out there, and there was a lot of talk of Loudoun expanding and so forth.
[After I was hired] at my press conference, when the orchestra was very young, I said ‘what a wonderful place to plop down an orchestra in one of the fastest growing counties in the country, and one of the richest counties in the country!’
I was very excited about the potential growth, but somebody at the luncheon reached over to me and said, “Oh, you shouldn’t have said anything about growth because part of the county is fast-growth and part is slow-growth and we don’t want to alienate anybody.” Of course I had no idea.
I thought well, give me three years to see what I can do and I’ll move on—but I absolutely fell in love with the orchestra and with the people that represent the orchestra, and I’ve made a point in all my travels all over the place that if I can be here I’ll be here, for as long as I’m still able to do good work. And after 14 seasons there are still a lot of things I think we can do together.
LT: What are you doing as a conductor?
MM: There are two parts of my job: one is music director and one is conductor, and yes, they have some things to do with one another, but really they’re two drastically different things.
The conducting aspect is all about communication- there are a lot of different conductors out in the world and lot of different ways to conduct, and everybody will get different results. If you put five different conductors in front of one orchestra each time they’ll sound drastically different.
Part of that is totally subjective depending on the makeup of the conductor—how tall or short, fat or thin, his motions and so forth—but when it really comes down to it it’s about communication—a two-way communication between conductor and orchestra.
I am constantly asked, ‘what do you work on after all these years?’ I’m still working to be a better communicator with the orchestra and do that the best I possibly can.
And in turn [the orchestra is] communicating back to me with what they’re playing, but also I can read their body language, facial language, whether they’re understanding, agreeing or disagreeing. There are a lot of different ways to do that, with your hands, face, eyes, baton…
…In this day and age its no longer the tyrant on the podium and what he says goes. It’s more of a diplomatic process about arriving at the best possible performance you can get, and really that’s the best working situation anyway. It means everybody gets something out of it—a lot more than just playing for a paycheck or to keep your chair or your job.
LT: Have you ever hit a wall with this orchestra, where perhaps you took on a piece that was too difficult and had to backtrack?
MM: In these 14 years it still surprises me—this orchestra, from day one, I’ve always felt played beyond their ability. That was one reason I took the job and a reason why I’ve stayed, because they never cease to surprise me.
I say that as a good thing. We don’t have a huge budget, not everyone in the orchestra is conservatory trained and there are some technical limitations. But, you get to the concerts and I’m just amazed at what they’re able to do—and I think the audiences are amazed, too.
There are times that I have put things in front of them, even new pieces, contemporary works, and at the first reading I’m thinking, ‘Oh, what have I done?’ But, we get to where we need to be in the amount of time that we have.
I really cannot think of an instance where we’ve gotten to a performance and it was a disaster. I’ve always asked myself with this orchestra ever since I got here, what is possible and what is right?
A lot more things are possible if you don’t do what’s right. I’ve been cautious over the years of not putting something in front of them until they’re ready for it. For example this past season we did our first Bruckner symphony—it took 14 years for me to get to the point where I was comfortable programming a Bruckner symphony. The year before that we did our first Mahler symphony, and it took me 13 years to get to the point where I was comfortable with that. And I have to say both performances far exceeded my expectations.
LT: What’s your favorite part of being a conductor?
MM: I think it’s the interaction—the joy of working with people and arriving at the same common goal. There are a lot of conductors who love rehearsals and don’t like performances, but I don’t know very many people like that. There are a lot of conductors who hate rehearsals and love performing—most of us are in that category. I enjoy the process.
Certain rehearsals—they’re just painful. You’re waiting for the light to come on with the musicians for this or that piece, but I have to say it’s a really good working atmosphere I have with the [Loudoun] orchestra.
Pretty early on when I got here, the orchestra was kind of shocked because they had been used to getting to dress rehearsal and things were still not where they should be. People were very nervous and anything could happen with the performance. Shortly after I got here several members of the orchestra said, ‘Gosh by the time we get to the dress rehearsal the orchestra is so well prepared that the nervousness has gone away and we’re able to enjoy these concerts.’
And that’s what I’ve found most satisfying over the years—it’s really arriving at that common goal for performance that I enjoy. Otherwise I wouldn’t do it.
LT: What’s the most difficult aspect of your job as conductor?
MM: I think it’s the constant feeling that you’re missing something—that you’re missing some aspect of how to connect with the community or bring more people to the door.
Because you still have people who say, ‘I had no idea there was a symphony in Loudoun County.’ That is incredibly frustrating to me. There are times that, when I choose to have a bad attitude—and I very rarely have a bad attitude, I’m a very optimistic person—but if at any moment I choose to do that, what comes out of my mouth is, it doesn’t matter what we program, people in Loudoun County are not interested in classical music.
And then I think about that, and I think about other communities, and I realize that’s a bit of an unfair statement. Cultural arts and supporting cultural arts in this county is very young—[the symphony] is barely 25 years old—it’s not like a community that’s had an orchestra for the last 100 years…
So I realize that part of it is still a work in progress and we’re trying to work very hard to get one more person, five more people in the door to experience the symphony. Because we know if they come once, they’ll come back.
LT: What’s the most important thing you’re doing, as conductor and musical director, for your orchestra?
MM: Getting them out and introduced to the community. That is the biggest thing, that’s what I’ve tried to do for 14 years, and we still are spending all of our efforts in trying to get people to know they have a great orchestra here.
They don’t have to spend a fortune to go to the Kennedy Center just to hear a great orchestra. The [professional] growth this orchestra has had since I’ve been here has been phenomenal and we are constantly trying to get the orchestra in front of larger groups in the community.
This year we did the 1812 concert collaboration with the town [of Leesburg]—that was all intended to be a huge event for the community. For our regular concerts during the season, we try to do all kinds of varied programming from holiday things to family concerts to something for the connoisseur to pops—because not everybody is going to go to every concert. To appeal to people’s interests and get more people supporting the orchestra and enjoying it from an entertainment and educational aspect—that’s what it’s really all about.
LT: Do you ever fear there’s no place for symphonic music anymore?
MM: Not so much that…I fear sometimes there’s not a place for that type of music in this county, but then I look at the 100 kids who come to audition for the Youth Orchestra; I look at the 1,000, 1,200 people that come to the holiday concerts; the 800 people who come to the family concerts…and I realize that yes, there is a place for this kind of music.
…It’s realizing that [patrons] are not going to go to all the concerts. I think it is important to try to do [as many styles of music as] you possibly can, and hope that all those areas you are serving will grow together at the same time.
LT: What sort of music do you listen to in your off time?
MM: Nothing. I have no CDs in my car and I rarely turn the radio on. I have a huge CD collection and I still have almost 1,000 albums at home in my basement, but I rarely listen to anything.
Most of the time I’m thinking about what I’m working on at the moment…
LT: You take the month of July off each year to relax and gather yourself—how do you spend that time?
MM: My wife and I [McCoy married in 1999 and has no children] usually try to do a little vacationing—we go up to the Finger Lakes, drink good wine…I try and play a little golf occasionally, and I really enjoy cooking. I can get in the kitchen and totally shut everything else off…
LT: What would you like to say to those folks in the community who perhaps haven’t been to one of your performances?
MM: Come hear the symphony. It’s so important, especially for the development of young people, whether they get involved with the Youth Orchestra or come to our family concerts or have never heard a symphony before…Families who are looking for an outing that’s affordable—kids under 12 are free—symphony ticket prices are cheaper than going to the movie theater.
We’re not asking anyone to make an investment to buy a complete subscription [to the symphony], but come to one concert and see what you think. I guarantee you’ll want to come back. I think [Loudoun Symphony Orchestra] is a hidden gem in this county—I think there will be a lot of pleasure and surprise in finding that hidden gem. I think people will enjoy doing that.
McCoy also spoke at length about his style and the nuts and bolts of the symphony. See "Related Stories" above, left and under the Maestro's picture to read on.