On the eve of his final Richmond performance, Music Director George Manahan reflects on his 11 years with the Richmond Symphony.
Richmond Symphony Masterworks conducted by George Manahan, with Donal Fox on piano Carpenter Center 8 p.m. (pre-concert lecture 7 p.m.) May 22 and May 24 $11-$46 262-8100
Two thousand, six hundred-forty hours of practice. One thousand seven hundred-sixty pieces of music performed. Four hundred-forty concerts conducted. Twenty sold-out shows. Eleven seasons with the Richmond Symphony. Five prestigious ASCAP awards. Thousands of satisfied symphony fans. Richmond is about to lose a legend.
On May 22 and 24, Conductor and Music Director George Manahan will give his final performances with the Richmond Symphony. For 11 years, Manahan has led the symphony as it has performed everything from the pops to Prokofiev, from Davidovsky to a performance with Dave Matthews. Manahan is leaving Richmond to continue as the music director of the New York City Opera, a position he took on in 1997.
Manahan will end the symphony season and his Richmond legacy in grand style, conducting three works in the season's final Masterworks concerts, including the world premiere of "Africamerica" written by the symphony's composer-in-residence, Anthony Kelley. The dance and folksy rhythms of Bartok's Dance Suite will lead into Kelley's contemporary piece, while the grace of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" will finish the show. It is certain to be a night full of emotion as Manahan bids farewell to Richmond.
Manahan's entire adult career has involved orchestras. The son of two church musicians, Manahan was exposed to music at an early age. "Every evening before dinner, Dad would improvise [on the piano]," he recalls. "In third grade, I began playing piano in order to be like him."
He continued playing the piano through college at the Manhattan School of Music, where he majored in the instrument. Although Manahan's conducting interest was sparked in high school, he did not formally pursue it until he attended graduate school, also at the Manhattan School of Music. Practicing conducting entails an obstacle that many overlook: To practice the flute, one needs only a flute, to practice conducting, one needs an entire orchestra.
Manahan managed this feat and soon began his professional conducting career in 1977. Before coming to Richmond 10 years later, Manahan was the acting music director for the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. He has also held the position of music director of the New York City Opera National Company, is a former Exxon/Arts Endowment Conductor, and is affiliated with the Santa Fe Opera, having made his debut there in 1980. His conducting has taken him throughout the United States, Europe and Australia and has included acclaimed performances with artists such as Oscar Shumsky and Nathan Milstein.
When Manahan took over as the music director of the Richmond Symphony, he aimed to make classical music accessible and enjoyable to everyone.
"I hoped to break down some of the traditions that tended to intimidate people or make the symphony seem so formal," he says. "I wanted to get it out of the museum."
The symphony's Kicked Back Classics series, begun in 1993, was one initiative created under Manahan's direction. "We hoped to bring in a younger audience," he says. "These days, we need to make up for the lack of sophisticated music education programs. We have to do more of the educating because [the funding for school] music programs [has] been cut. It was a challenge to find a format to introduce this music to young people people in their 20s and 30s."
Adds Michele Walter, executive director of the Richmond Symphony, "Back then, the symphony was going through some difficult financial times. [The musicians] made a commitment to broaden their reach out to the community and had almost no resources with which to do that. We had to make this a success and from the get-go, it was."
Perhaps the most notable achievement of Manahan's leadership are the five prestigious ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) awards he and the symphony received for "Adventuresome Programming of Contemporary Music." ASCAP is an organization that promotes living composers and rewards orchestras that play the music of our time. In his career in Richmond, Manahan is most proud of consistently receiving these awards. "We went up and won against some symphonies that specialize in 20th-century music," he says. "It was quite an achievement, especially for an orchestra the size of Richmond. To win this so consistently showed that it wasn't just a fluke. We had a vision and for that I am very proud."
Manahan's contributions to the symphony do not end here. During his tenure, Richmond recruited some of the finest musicians that play with the symphony. He also brought a new repertoire of contemporary music to the orchestra. And not only has Manahan pleased the musicians by allowing them to play such a variety of artistic works, but he also introduced the community to new types of music.
Although this next era of Manahan's career is exciting, it will not be easy for him to leave the city he has called home for so many years. "I will miss this city and all the arts here," he says. "The Richmond Symphony has been a great orchestra to be with. I will certainly come back. And of course I'll be interested in seeing the new
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