Conductor making most of his miraculous musical opportunities
July 8, 2009
ASPEN – When James Feddeck was 8, he spotted the organ at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Westchester County, north of New York City. Already a decent pianist, Feddeck was even more attracted to this complex, oversize take on the piano.
“It was fascinating to me,” Feddeck recalled. “All the keyboards, and you play with your feet, all the stops. It was like seeing an airplane cockpit for the first time.”
He approached the instrument and checked out what sounds the contraption was capable of producing.
“Fortunately no one saw I was near it. They might have pulled me away from it,” he said. “I look back and think, How did anyone let me do this? If I were in authority, would I have let anyone do these things? It was miraculous.”
Feddeck laughed at the notion that onlookers who see him in action now might have a similar reaction: He seems too young to be fully entrusted with such a sophisticated instrument. At 25 – though the standard comment is that he looks as if he could be a teenager – Feddeck is now at the controls of an instrument with even more moving parts than an organ: a symphony orchestra.
Feddeck is the assistant conductor this summer for the Aspen Music Festival, a position that comes with loads of responsibility, including serving as assistant for all orchestral concerts and standing by as substitute conductor in case of calamity. Part of the work load are several scheduled conducting appearances, including Wednesday, when he will lead the Sinfonia in a concert at the Benedict Music Tent that features pieces by Mendelssohn, Lalo Schifrin and Schumann.
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Feddeck was also recently named assistant conductor for the Cleveland Orchestra, considered in the top echelon of American symphonies. Even before that appointment, he was scheduled for a trip to Ohio, invited by Aspen Music Festival music director David Zinman to share the podium for a concert at the Blossom Music Festival, the summer home of the Cleveland Orchestra. This coming season, he will guest conduct the Memphis Symphony Orchestra (where he recently served as assistant conductor) and, for two weeks, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, where one concert will feature cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
Along with his tender face, Feddeck has a remarkably composed demeanor. At a recent rehearsal with the Sinfonia and violinist Jimmy Lin, he appeared confident and at ease. Feddeck has experience under his belt: He has spent three years with the Music Festival’s American Academy of Conducting at Aspen, and last summer won the Aspen Conducting Prize. Still, he has moments where he wonders if someone might yank the baton from his hand.
“I still feel that way,” he said, referring to the experience he had at the organ. “It’s miraculous that I and people like me are given this opportunity to grow. It’s a little nerve-wracking sometimes. But presumably, the people who have been doing it for a while, they had to be entrusted with things like this to get to where they are.
“It takes a certain personality to recognize that in someone, and say, yes, I’m going to give this opportunity that was given to me to someone else.”
Principal among those has been Zinman, who devotes much of his time to the Conducting Academy. “He’s a highly intelligent and musical guy,” Zinman said of Feddeck. “I think he has a great career ahead of him.”
Feddeck wasn’t exactly handed an orchestra on a silver platter. He has been stepping toward it since he was 3, when, to the surprise of everyone else in his musically ungifted family, he went to the piano and played songs he had heard.
“My parents had a piano in the house. For some reason. It was a gift from my grandfather. For some reason,” said Feddeck, whose mature personality is balanced by a keen sense of humor. “If it hadn’t been for that piano, who knows? I might have been an architect.”
At the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, he studied organ and oboe, and for a while even added a third major, piano, to his repertoire. Feddeck notes with grim curiosity that Oberlin was the only school that didn’t insist that he choose his course of study before his arrival. (One school said it didn’t have room on its computers to choose more than one instrument.)
“Rather humbly, I thought, What would you have done with these great musicians of the past, who did many different things?” said Feddeck, who ranks doctor/theologian/musician (and Aspen visitor) Albert Schweitzer at the top of his list of heroes. “It was overwhelming, people saying, You’re going to be a better oboist if you don’t play the organ.”
The pressure to specialize led to a dark period. Feddeck emerged from that phase with the notion of becoming a conductor: “Because it embodies all the musical skills I was learning, and more,” he said. Feddeck went to every rehearsal he could at Oberlin and at the Cleveland Orchestra, took lessons and read scores – all on his own.
At the end of his second year at Oberlin, he rounded up 28 friends to play for him, in a performance of Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll.” The school refused to give him their concert hall, so Feddeck gained access to Fairfield Chapel across the square, and dragged chairs from Oberlin to the church.
“The first thing people said was, What are you doing next?” he said. “I thought it was just going to be me and some friends having a good time. But we had this great, meaningful performance.” The following year, his concert featured 68 musicians playing symphonies by Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Dvorak, which led to many more performances – in Oberlin’s cherished halls.
But Feddeck was a local sensation. When he applied to conducting programs, he was routinely rejected. “I thought, all right, this has been fun, but maybe I’m just not good enough,” he said. “It was crushing, that there was no hope to study this.”
Again, Feddeck came up with his own program, proposing that Oberlin allow him to stay an extra year, in the conducting department. For the following summer, he applied – and was accepted – to Aspen’s conducting program. Here, he was floored by two aspects of the Conducting Academy: That it had an orchestra exclusively for its use, and that all the conducting students were members of the orchestra.
Feddeck understands that not all of America has classical music as a part of their cultural fabric like Aspen does. The greatest issue for classical music, he said, is relevance.
“That’s something we took for granted in previous generations – that orchestras, opera houses, art museums would be relevant,” he said. “But I see that relevance is questioned. And that’s good. That’s an opportunity. As performers and one day leaders, we have to have real reasons for what we do.”
Feddeck has a good answer as to how he came to own such innate musical skills, how a professional musician came out of a family that couldn’t sing “Happy Birthday” in tune. The fact that he was given opportunities to play the organ, then conduct the orchestra, may have been the least of the miracles.
“My mother always wanted to play the piano,” Feddeck said. “The only explanation I can offer is that my mother said she wanted to play so much, that she prayed for a musical child. In her mind, I suppose it was answered.”