Passing the Baton
A lot of people have been hooked on, amused by, even moved by the movie music of John Williams, the composer behind the scores of “Jaws,” “Star Wars” “Schindler’s List.” But when Damon Gupton met the composer recently, as Williams was making his Aspen conducting debut, Gupton’s reaction was in the extreme range.”When I met him, I about cried,” said Gupton.For Gupton, the influence of Williams’ music didn’t end with his fondness for the music, or even the long list of landmark films with which Williams has been associated. The music in movies like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” was the door through which Gupton stepped on his way toward a career in conducting. Gupton is in his third year with the Aspen Music Festival and School’s American Academy of Conducting at Aspen (AACA), a top-level program for student conductors. By all appearances, the 31-year-old is headed toward a prominent career on the podium; when he leaves Aspen at the end of the festival season, he will go to Houston, where he has a two-year, full-time engagement as a conducting fellow with the Houston Symphony, a position sponsored by the American Symphony Orchestra League.Gupton was an unlikely candidate to be bitten by the conducting bug. Raised in Detroit, he didn’t have much exposure to classical music from his mother, a lawyer specializing in probate, or his step-father, an electrician who has worked in several of Detroit’s massive manufacturing plants. His introduction to Williams’ music was practically a mistake: When his mother gave him a tape of the “Superman” soundtrack, Gupton says he “thought Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder were going to be on there.”But I heard these sounds, and I went nuts. I had to learn that. I was so into those string sounds, cello and violin.” Gupton became a Williams fanatic. He learned his first, basic conducting patterns by watching Williams lead the Boston Pops in their televised concerts. And “it was like an event when one of his records came out,” he said.Some 15 or 20 years after getting hooked on Williams, Gupton applied to be a member of the 2002 AACA class. It was practically a lark. In the intervening years, Gupton had spent hardly any time on the podium. At the University of Michigan, Gupton earned a degree in music education, and also studied trombone. There was a bit of conducting involved when he worked with a high school ensemble as part of his music education training. And there was a smattering of conducting course work. “But none of this was anywhere near what it takes to get into a place like” the AACA, said Gupton.
Instead of conducting and music, Gupton focused on acting. He attended the Juilliard School, but in the drama division. He landed a part in the TV series “Deadline,” a newsroom drama whose impressive cast included Oliver Platt, Lili Taylor, Bebe Neuwirth and Hope Davis. After the show was canceled in 2001, its second season, Gupton came to Aspen to visit his then girlfriend, a violist with the Music Festival.”I’d snoop around, watch some rehearsals,” recalled Gupton, who was in the process of auditioning for stage parts at the time. “It was good to be around music. I said, I should try this some time in the future.”But an application to the AACA was just a few minutes away, and Gupton decided to fill one out. Gupton, who hadn’t even played the trombone in seen years, thought he had a slim chance of being accepted as a lower-rung seminar conductor, and no shot at being picked as one of the select academy conductors. According to Gupton, Joan Gordon, dean of the Aspen Music School, still jokes about looking over his resume and coming to the immediate conclusion that Gupton’s application was woefully lacking.But before he could be rejected, the acceptance committee had to at least look at Gupton’s video tape. It proved to be his ace in the hole.”When I first saw his tape, there was something that leaped out, his personality,” said David Zinman, whose responsibilities as music director of the Aspen Music Festival include direct oversight of the AACA. “I didn’t know he was an actor, but I saw something. I said, this guy is worth our time.”Gupton was accepted. When auditions were held for an open spot as an academy student, Gupton won, putting him in the upper realm of the program with colleagues who held master’s degrees in conducting.”I was shocked. And scared,” said Gupton. “I auditioned and within one week I was conducting Sibelius’ Violin Concerto and Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony. I remember calling my girlfriend and telling her I was terrified: ‘Here comes this actor guy.’ But Zinman and [associate director and program coordinator of the AACA Murry] Sidlin were very supportive, and so were a few of my colleagues.”
When his first session at the AACA – one that saw him conduct Copland’s “Rodeo,” which he says was a huge leap – was over, Gupton was awarded the Robert Harth Prize as the top student conductor. The prize came with an invitation to return last summer as an academy member, and a gig conducting the Cleveland Orchestra at its summer Blossom Festival, on a program with Zinman. Last August found Gupton conducting the Cleveland Orchestra in a performance of Ravel’s “Mother Goose” suite.Still, Gupton feels he is finding his way as a conductor. He describes his current state as a process of building a foundation, listening and fine-tuning.”I don’t know a lot of the time what I want to do with a piece,” he said. “I’m trying to shape thing, form things. It’s an intense process for someone who’s not thoroughly immersed in it. I try to take it one day at a time, but it gets bigger and bigger.”It feels bigger mostly because Gupton has at last resolved to devote a chunk of time to conducting. For some time, he was on the fence between music and drama, juggling conducting opportunities with stage auditions. Last fall, he appeared in “The Story,” another journalism drama, opposite Phylicia Rashad at New York’s Public Theater. But recent events like being accepted into Leonard Slatkin’s National Conducting Institute in Washington, D.C., which led to conducting Brahms’ Haydn Variations – a “very grown-up piece,” says Gupton – convinced him to give himself to the podium. The job with the Houston Symphony is a two-year commitment, with an option for a third year.”Last summer was the last time I was able to come [to the AACA] without feeling the pressure of what’s coming next,” he said. “This year will be challenging because there are bricks that haven’t been laid in my foundation. It’s a lifetime journey, and I’d be a fool not to take the opportunities I’ve been given.”Gupton remains mystified by the attraction to classical music. “Especially growing up in Detroit. It’s a mystery when people pick that up there, and it’s not hip-hop or Motown,” he said. “It’s not the norm for the culture. None of us were brought up going to the symphony hall, generation after generation. You look out into the audience and you don’t see a reflection of where you came from.”But that’s part of the journey, trying to turn people onto it.”
Gupton hasn’t entirely given up his dramatic aspirations. Narrating a recent children’s concert, he spontaneously began reciting a Julius Caesar monologue, substituting in the names of Zinman and Sidlin. This summer, he has also narrated Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” and Saint-Saëns’ “Carnival of the Animals.” Among Gupton’s hopes is to write a screenplay. He doesn’t see any need to exclude one of his passions completely.”One of those fading out – I don’t see that happening,” said Gupton. “These days, it’s a good idea to see how you can blend different elements. I’m still amazed how both arts involve self-expression but how different they are, how I can express myself differently in both. They feed me in different ways.”But I’m following music for at least two years. I think I owe myself that, to see what that world is.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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