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An Interview with David Lockington - Music Director, Grand Rapids Symphony

Q and A about the orchestra world and classical music with a cellist turned conductor.

by Drew McManus
August 30, 2004

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Q. Drew McManus: What were you’re formative years as a classical musician like?
A. David Lockington: Most of my family has a relationship with music. My father was an armature cellist and conductor and while I was in high school I performed in the National Youth Orchestra and took private lessons. 
Later on, I studied at Cambridge as a choral major and continued to perform on cello. After that I decided to hone my skills on cello while attending Yale.
I won my first professional cello audition at the New Haven Symphony and later won the Assistant Principal Cello position in the Denver Symphony [now known as the Colorado Symphony].

Q. Drew McManus: Tell me about the decision to move from performer to conductor?
A. David Lockington: When I was at Yale, my interest in conducting was rekindled and after my first year of playing in Denver I decided to work toward becoming a full time conductor.
I was able to become the assistant conductor of the Denver Symphony and did that while also playing full time for a year. After that initial time I relinquished my position as a cellist in the orchestra and concentrated on conducting full time. From there I moved on to the Cheyenne Symphony as their music director.

Q. Drew McManus: What has been your most memorable concert experience as a performer and later as a conductor?
A. David Lockington: As a cellist I would have to say that my most memorable performance was when I played the Elgar Cello Concerto with the Denver Youth Orchestra. It was the first time I allowed myself to really succeed and didn’t allow distractions to influence my playing.
I remember during the 3rd movement I was looking into the audience right when someone in the balcony decided to take a picture. The flash caught me right in the eyes during a particularly tricky section but it didn’t throw me off.
As a conductor, I remember a particularly overwhelming experience leading the New Mexico Symphony through separate performances of Mahler 5 and Mahler 9. Both concerts were at the end of my tenure there and they were both very emotionally charged performances.

Q. Drew McManus: Do you ever get stage fright?
A. David Lockington: Not stage fright per say, but I used to punish myself for a lack of perfection. Since then I’ve really worked on developing my sense of visualization; walking on stage, seeing the lights, and using all of those as triggers to relax instead of adding to the pressures.

Q. Drew McManus: What’s the most difficult artistic and non artistic aspect of being a music director and a conductor? 
A. David Lockington: As a music director, having a long range vision on so many different levels while simultaneously balancing all of the orchestra’s needs and still ending up with a good overall product is always something to work at.
As a conductor, pacing a rehearsal and making exciting performances while keeping a balanced artistic framework in mind is always a paramount concern. Most orchestras tend to have a collective consciousness and I do think musicians have an innate sense of artistic justice and want ensemble issues addressed.
My approach has been to call a spade a spade and if I’m right then I’m right and if not, then I’m responsible. I’ve worked on this issue over the years, especially being able to talk about intonation with the players during rehearsals. But I also work on creating an environment where there isn’t a sense of negativity surrounding rehearsals.

Q. Drew McManus: Is conducting more difficult than being a performer?
A. David Lockington: I like to take a similar approach toward conducting as I do when I’m a playing. During rehearsals I like to build works in sections and focus on difficult passages until we’re all prepared and feel good about the concert program.

Q. Drew McManus: Do you change your approach to conducting based on the musicians you have to lead?
A. David Lockington: I don’t like to develop any preconceived notions about an orchestra I’m going to conduct. I try to react to what I hear and I get a sense of personalities when I glance around. I don’t enjoy forcing a pulse of a piece on the players; instead, I like to find a more collective progression.
You can tell very friendly people right off and others that are more unresponsive or critical in their judgment. But I always remember that musicians are highly trained and critical by nature. Typically, in my opinion, players have the measure of a conductor by the second rehearsal.

Q. Drew McManus: You recently conducted a week of the World Youth Symphony at the Interlochen Arts Camp, how do you find working with students different than working with professionals?
A. David Lockington: With students, you have to harness the vitality and passion.  Mixing that enthusiasm with technique is always a focus. I think it’s important to have enough rehearsal time because they learn so quickly.

Q. Drew McManus: What accomplishments as a musician are most satisfying to you at this point in your career?
A. David Lockington: During my tenure at the New Mexico Symphony [1995-1999] it was very satisfying to see the organization turn around from considering bankruptcy to becoming solvent. Equally satisfying was recording the CD, “A Cellist's Heart” with the NMSO.
I’ve also considered one of my greatest achievements has been to make myself a part of the community where I’m serving as music director. 

Q. Drew McManus: Are there any goals left unfulfilled?
A. David Lockington: I would love to do some more orchestral recordings promoting unrecognized composers.

Q. Drew McManus: What advice would you offer to younger musicians who are just entering the audition circuit?
A. David Lockington: I would advise learning all of the excerpts as soon as possible. An audition is a mechanical task and as such the basics need to be self evident; intonation, rhythm, and tone. If you’re a string player I would suggest practicing without vibrato to help with those issues. If you can project musicality over an above the basics then you’re all set.
Players should also take the time to work on their concentration; they should take some time to practice in noisy, distracting environments. You also have to have a great deal of personal tenacity and money. Musicians just starting out don’t always realize how expensive it is to go take an audition.

Q. Drew McManus: Do you think the orchestra industry will be very different 20 years from now?
A. David Lockington: I have no idea if it will be in better or worse shape than it is right now. But I do think it will be important for musicians to be diverse, we all need to learn how to talk to an audience and to individual patrons. I think we need to show people that classical music is a vital part of their lives.

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An Interview with David Lockington - Music Director, Grand Rapids Symphony
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