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Late Start in Music Lead BYU Musician to Conducting

Late Start in Music Lead BYU Musician to Conducting

Posted - Jan. 7, 2007 at 9:35 a.m.



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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Kory Katseanes was attending a summer music academy when he had an epiphany of sorts.

Having come rather late to the pursuit of music, he found himself surrounded by younger students.

"I was 22," Katseanes said, "and my roommate was a 14-year-old."

He was feeling way behind in his studies, until "I looked at the other students, and I realized that in many cases they were better musicians than me. But I knew they could not love music any more than me."

Katseanes is director of orchestras and associate director of the School of Music at Brigham Young University, and has been a violinist and associate conductor of the Utah Symphony.

He looks at his life and his career, and it reminds him of a pinball game. "It hasn't been a straight line, more of a zigzag."

He'd get bounced in one direction, he says, only to be bounced in another awhile later. "But I scratch my head at how fortunate, how lucky I've been to be bumped in directions that were so educational and so interesting. All the things I've needed to know, I got bumped in the right direction to learn them."

Katseanes' pinball-like pathway began as he was growing up on an Idaho farm. "I was more the typical farm boy. I was into a lot of things. But my mother was a wonderful violinist, so I started violin when I was 8, with my mom teaching me."

It was just something he did, like he did sports and other activities. Still, he got good enough that a few years later he began taking lessons from Lamar Barrus, who taught at Ricks College.

Being a musician, however, was not a goal. "I knew I couldn't play like Jascha Heifeitz because I had listened to his records. I had no idea of the other careers available to musicians. I didn't know of the world of professional orchestras."

He thought about medicine, but after coming back from an LDS mission, "I decided to be a music major. I still had no clear idea of what I would do. At the back of my mind was the idea that maybe I could get a job like my teacher had, teaching and conducting a school orchestra. But I wanted to study something I could pour my heart into, that I could be passionate about. So even though 21 was a little late to begin thinking about a career in music, a series of fortunate events bumped me into orchestral music, and it ended up being my life."

That was when Katseanes happened upon a brochure for the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, where faculty members included Utahns Oscar Chausow and Maurice Abravanel. That was when he discovered that passion for a subject is no small thing.

Katseanes ended up studying at the University of Utah and with Chausow. As a junior, he was accepted as a violinist with the Utah Symphony, so he also ended up getting an education in orchestras. "In my mind, Maurice Abravanel is still the greatest model of ownership and investment in an orchestra. That model has changed now; the way orchestras are administered has changed. But what Abravanel gave is something that is still needed."

Another conducting mentor came along when a man named Josef Rosenstock moved to Salt Lake City. He'd been an assistant to Richard Strauss, had conducted all over the world, but his health was not good, so he moved to Utah in search of cleaner air. "He was a fabulous, fabulous teacher," says Katseanes, who began taking lessons from Rosenstock, "in case I ever wanted to do that other thing that college-orchestra thing."

A few years later, the Utah Symphony was looking for an assistant conductor, and Katseanes auditioned. He didn't get the job, but then-music director Varujan Kojian told him to do what many other aspiring conductors do start his own orchestra.

So Katseanes did, forming the Utah Virtuosi, a chamber orchestra. "The symphony did not have a chamber series back then, so we kind of filled the gap. It lasted three years, and we had great times."

When Joseph Silverstein became director of the Utah Symphony, he offered Katseanes the job of assistant conductor.

It used to be that conducting was more of a mentoring thing, he says. "You learned the craft on your feet. That's largely been phased out. Now you are taught rather than trained. I was fortunate to learn by working with and observing some of the best conductors."

Lots of things go into making a good conductor, he says. "Every conductor has a different set of strengths. There's the physical side, the technique side. Everyone does it differently, but a certain skill level has to be there. Then there's the music side, the interpretation side. There's a lot of variety in how you look but less variety in your understanding of music. You have to have an innate understanding of tempos and styles."

A third aspect is the interaction the conductor has with the orchestra. "Different orchestras require different skills. There are a lot of great musicians, very skilled at their craft, who just don't click with an orchestra."

He loved the assistant job and the people with whom he came in contact. But in 1999, Katseanes got a letter from BYU. "They were looking for a director of orchestras." In some ways it was a new opportunity; in some ways it was the job he always thought he might have.

BYU has one of the largest music schools in the country. Katseanes oversees five orchestras. He conducts two: the philharmonic and the chamber orchestras, which are the main performing groups. (The other orchestras are made up of non-music majors but provide conducting experience for graduate students.)

Working with students is different from working with professionals, he says, but they get a broad spectrum of opportunities. They do concerts. They record on BYU's Tantara label. They also travel. The Chamber Orchestra goes on tour every other year. "My first year, we went to Russia. This year we did England, Scotland and Wales."

On a previous tour to Greece, Katseanes was able to look up the ancestral home of his grandfather and even met some cousins. It was very exciting, he says.

The BYU Chamber Orchestra is probably the most widely traveled university orchestra in the country, he adds. The tours provide experience as well as cultural interaction. "The touring experience most closely approximates the professional experience, where you play night after night. The students learn things they couldn't in any other way. Equally important are the cultural experiences."

Katseanes still plays the violin, teaches a few private students, subs with the Utah Symphony sometimes in the summers. "But mostly, my life now is devoted to conducting." Not that music is his entire life, of course. He and his wife, Carolyn, have four grown children. When his three boys were young, Katseanes served as a soccer and basketball coach. And there's golf. He took that up in his early years with the Utah Symphony. "We traveled a lot in those days, and we'd go to towns and be looking for something to do until concert time. One time we were in Palm Springs, so I borrowed my brother's golf clubs. I got hooked."

Another hobby has been fixing up and restoring the Spanish-style home they have on South Temple. "It's the only Spanish Revival home on South Temple, so everything we did we did in that specific style. We've been working on it for 20 years, and it's been a lot of fun."

However, that task will soon come to an end. The Katseaneses are going to sell the home and move to Provo. "I-15 finally got to be too much. That daily commute is a killer."

Still, the university life has been everything he'd hoped for and more. "I've been very lucky to get two careers that are connected and feed off each other the professional world inspires and informs the educational world, and vice versa."

Working with the students has been invigorating and energizing, he says. "We have wonderful students, very hard-working, talented. I just love them."

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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