Roderick Cox is ‘Conducting Life’ at Aspen Shortsfest
Aspen filmmaker profiles the young trailblazing conductor in Shortsfest selection
What: ‘Conducting Life’ at Aspen Shortsfest
Where: Wheeler Opera House and Crystal Theatre (Carbondale)
When: Saturday, April 9, 5 p.m. (Aspen); Sunday, April 10, 5 p.m. (Carbondale)
How much: $25/GA; $20/Aspen Film members
Tickets: Wheeler box office; aspenshowtix.coom
More info: The screening is part of a six-film, 98-minute program that will be following by a filmmaker Q&A including ‘Conducting Life’ director Diane Moore. aspenfilm.org
Still just 30, the conductor and Aspen Music Festival and School alum Roderick Cox is plowing ahead and paving the way for Black musicians in the classical world.
“Conducting Life,” a new short documentary by Aspen filmmaker Diane Moore, profiles Cox through his rise. The film, which screens Saturday at Aspen Shortsfest, tracks Cox’s unlikely trajectory from a hardscrabble childhood in Georgia to his current status as one of the most in-demand and acclaimed orchestra conductors in the world.
It includes illuminating archival footage of a young Cox developing his craft in Chicago, Aspen and Minneapolis over more than a decade. And it follows Cox, who opens up for this intimate portrait, as he struggles to find a full-time conducting position.
Near its conclusion, the film notes just 1.8% of U.S. orchestra musicians are Black.
“When starting my journey, a feeling I remember most was fear and uncertainty about what this career will hold in store for me if I can chart my own path as an African-American conductor,” Cox, now based in Germany, says in the film. “Where I find myself today, I feel like I am still at the beginning. I feel like there is a long road ahead. But there is not fear or uncertainly anymore. There is hope and patience.”
For Aspen audiences, the film is well-timed to preview one of the most hotly anticipated arts events of summer 2022 in Aspen. Cox, who won the 2018 Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award by the U.S Solti Foundation, is due to return to the podium at the Benedict Music Tent on Aug. 22, conducting the Aspen Chamber Orchestra for a program including Schumann’s “Spring” symphony.
“Conducting Life” effectively locks the viewer into Cox’s perspective as he narrates his life from early struggles in Macon, Georgia with an alcoholic father and an iron-willed single mother, who worked two full-time jobs – a day job and an overnight gig – to support him.
“Her unwillingness to admit defeat is something that inspires and influences my work to do what I need to do as a musician,” Cox says in the film.
Cox recalls her waking him as a young man in the middle of the night to go find his dad in the street. He tells of wrenching times when the family pawn his beloved keyboard to pay utility bills.
The keyboard had been his first instrument. When his mom noticed how much he loved music, banging on things and singing, she bought it for a 3-year-old Cox.
As he grew up, he excelled playing drums in marching band and playing the French horn as well as performing in the church choir with his mother.
“Whatever he set his goals to do, he made sure that he accomplished it,” his mother recalls.
In college, viewers might be surprised to learn, Cox struggled with the formal French horn training.
“I felt I had all this music inside to express, but I could not express it through an instrument,” Cox explains in the film.
That realization sent him to graduate school at Northwestern University to pursue conducting. Moore’s film includes fascinating archival footage of Cox in his early attempts on the podium from as early as 2009.
Five years later, Cox came to Aspen to study under Robert Spano at the Aspen Conducting Academy. The film takes us backstage with Cox before a key performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 with the Conducting Academy Orchestra.
We see Spano greet the student conductor moments after he leaves the stage and declare, “It was beautiful.”
Spano later adds: “It was the immediacy of his musical connection that was very beautiful to witness.”
Moore’s film, an inspiring and fascinating portrait of the artist as a young man, underscores that all of Cox’s success this is the result of absolute dedication to the work. Cox recalls the moment he committed to it, challenged by an early teacher.
“She asked me, ‘Are you willing to make the sacrifices to do this? It won’t come easy,'” he says. “‘It’s years and years of hard work, disappointments, rejection, self-doubt – you have to go for it 100%. There is nothing else but your art.'”
“Without any exception the worst snow storm known since the advent of the railroad west of Leadville has been raging over the crest of the continental divide since last Thursday,” asserted the Aspen Tribune on January 31, 1899.