Lynn Felder/Winston-Salem Journal
He’s only been in town three months, but Christopher James Lees knows his local history — and he’s making good use of it.
Lees is the new music director for the UNCSA Symphony Orchestra and an associate professor of conducting at the school.
He will open the orchestra concert, “Friends in Music,” on Saturday with the “Overture to Candide,” the same piece that Leonard Bernstein conducted at the re-opening of the Stevens Center in 1982. Bernstein also wrote it.
“It’s peppy, rousing and uplifting,” Lees said. “It’s a hoot.”
The concert will also include Benjamin Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” which was featured prominently throughout the indie-movie hit, “Moonrise Kingdom,” by Wes Anderson.
Chancellor Lindsay Bierman will be narrating the “Young Person’s Guide” in what he said is his world debut as a performing artist.
“My schedule always poses a challenge, but how could I possibly say no to Maestro Lees?” Bierman said. “I’m so honored to share the stage with him. He’s one of our most prized talents.”
Also on the program is Edward Elgar’s “Enigma Variations,” 14 variations on a theme and dedicated to “my friends pictured within,” each variation being a musical portrait of one of Elgar’s close acquaintances.
As music director, Lees sets the repertoire. The faculty assign students to play the different parts, based on their need to learn something or their ability to play it already.
The Britten piece showcases all of the instruments in the orchestra.
“And the ‘Enigma Variations’ is all about friendship,” Lees said. “It’s personal, it’s vibrant, it’s uplifting, it’s captivating — it’s really dynamic.”
Lees, 32, and his wife, Lindsay Kesselman, moved here in August from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where Lees was associate director of orchestras. Kesselman is a new-music soprano who just finished a globetrotting tour with the Philip Glass Ensemble doing Glass’ “Einstein on the Beach.”
“My wife and I do a lot of contemporary music,” he said.
They are both recreational runners and are looking forward to North Carolina’s milder weather and longer running season. “I’m working up to a half marathon. Now that I’m living in the South and not the tundra, it’s much more fun to train,” Lees said.
Lees started his college career as an organ performance and music education major with the intention of going back to teach chorus in his Washington high school and play organ in his old church.
That all changed when he was 17.
“I think every conductor has a Road to Damascus moment, a moment of conversion where they realize what their real calling is supposed to be,” Lees said. “For me, I was a freshman in college, and I was singing in the Verdi Requiem, and I wondered, ‘Why don’t the choral people get to conduct this? Why does the orchestra person conduct this? Well, then I had better be an orchestra person, because I want to conduct this.’
“And I went from being a keyboardist with very little knowledge of the instruments to studying very intently and intensively string instruments, wind instruments, percussion, harp, history, repertoire, language.
“At that moment I got bitten by the conducting bug and haven’t looked back since.”
Lees finished his undergraduate education at University of Michigan and then went into the graduate conducting program there, and received a master’s degree.
The Verdi was the “moment” he knew he wanted to be a conductor. “It was the piece. It is one of those high-octane, Mount Vesuvius-type, screaming to get out of hell kinds of works that everyone should hear,” Lees said.
But there was another reason. “The reason that I wanted to conduct is the fact that the rabbit hole goes on forever. There is no end to the learning that you have to do to do this well.”
And how does he feel about doing a concert with the boss, Bierman?
“I am delighted he said yes. I love that he is making his Stevens Center debut with us, and we get to work in a performance capacity with him. It’s very exciting. He’s such a knowledgeable, well-spoken and savvy human being,” Lees said.
“It’s exciting. He’s just arrived. I’ve just arrived. I think it’s an interesting moment in the school’s history. I certainly am coming in with some energy and ideas, and I get the sense that the chancellor is, too.
“It seemed like a great chance to introduce people to this dynamic moment.” UNCSA opened for its first classes in September 1965, so it is celebrating its 50th year through September.
“We have a unique script prepared (for the ‘Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’). It’s modified to be Pickle specific,” Lees said, referring to UNCSA’s mascot. “There are a few fun jokes in there.”
He declined to say if the Pickle will be putting in an appearance.
And what about Bierman? Will he perform again?
“On occasion, schedule permitting, but I need to stay fully focused on some very urgent priorities over the next year,” Bierman said. But then he added, “Look out for a funny cameo in an upcoming production next spring!”