LeAnne Martin
Christians in the Arts

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Timothy Michael Powell: The Carnegie Hall Premiere

This week, I'm doing  a follow-up interview with Dr. Timothy Michael Powell, an accomplished conductor and composer. On June 14th, Dr. Powell conducted the world premiere of the full-orchestra version of his "Wedding Mass". (For more information about how the premiere came about, check out my original interview with him on January 14, 2008.)

Dr. Powell holds a DMA in Conducting from the University of South Carolina. He was a Fulbright scholar to Bulgaria in 2002-2003, and a 2002 Fellow with the prestigious South Carolina Conductors Institute, and the 1999 National Choristers Guild Scholar. His compositions include numerous major works, samples of which can be heard here

LeAnne: What was it like to conduct the world premiere of your own work in Carnegie Hall?

Tim: On some level, it was no different than any other concert that I conduct. I had conducted the chamber version of the piece three times in concert in April in Houston, TX, with many of the same singers, so there were no real surprises going into this event. For me, as a conductor, once you turn your back to the audience and face the choir, the audience becomes secondary to making music. They never go away, particularly for the choir since they face them, but a conductor's perspective is much different. The "laser beam" focus that is required to shepherd 130 singers and 35 orchestra players through 45 minutes of complicated music leaves very little room for distractions, so to a great degree you have to tune out the audience and crawl inside of the moment and the music.

That being said, in Carnegie Hall it is much more difficult to ignore the audience and the venue. They are very close to the stage and very close to the conductor. The venue is a bit overwhelming in and of itself. I lost the ability to be nervous in front of people a long time ago, but the adrenaline level is not something that I have much control over. The hour leading up to the concert, I was high as a kite and spent much of it either laying on the couch in my dressing room trying to calm my heart rate or pacing up and down the hall. When the stage door opened and I walked onto the stage with Suzannah Moorman, the soprano soloist, I was struck by the sheer size and majesty of the hall and the crowd (I believe it was somewhere around 2600 people). 

From a musical standpoint, the greatest difficulty was staying objective through the performance. I've lived with the simpler chamber version of the piece for almost seven years. The first time I heard the symphonic version was the day before the concert in an orchestral rehearsal. It was very hard to turn off the analytical part of my brain that wanted to process the sound of the brass and winds and determine if what I wrote really worked or not and focus on leading the ensemble in concert. That was probably the most dangerous aspect of the entire concert: turning off a part of myself for 45 minutes.

LM: What was your favorite moment?

TP: Even though the walk out on stage was overwhelming, it is one of the moments that is cemented in my memory. After that, I had to get down to business. Much of the concert I actually don't remember. It is kind of a wash in my mind of sound and gold and red light (the colors of the hall). But more important than the narcissistic moments of the standing ovation and acclaim that we received was the three times in the piece when I felt safe enough in the moment to wink at my mother Debra, my sister Katie, and my wife Jen, all of whom were singing in the choir and all of whom had an immediate personal and historical connection to the piece in some way. My sister, because the main theme of the Mass was used in her wedding and my mother, because I had dedicated the last movement to her and my late father. I winked at my wife because I wrote the fourth movement for our own wedding and it uses Brian Wren's hymn text, "When Love is Found," which I think is a template for the love that we share. Further, the success that I experienced was a result of two years of shared labor and planning. Without her help, we wouldn't have been on that stage.

On Thursday, more from Tim Powell.

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