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Pianist turns conductor

Eugene Albulescu

On Oct. 19, Eugene Albulescu debuted as the second director of music and official conductor of the Lehigh University Philharmonic Orchestra.

Albulescu, the Ronald J. Ulrich Chair in Orchestral and String Music, began his Lehigh career as a lecturer and then as professor of practice for 10 years. He follows a distinguished line of “pianists turned conductors,” including Christoph Eschenbach, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Daniel Barenboim and many more.

The Romanian-born citizen of New Zealand contributes musical and teaching excellence, says Paul Salerni, professor and chair of the Music Department. “He’s a great musician, a great technician, and he understands Lehigh’s mentality and students,” Salerni says.

Albulescu, an internationally recognized pianist, has performed at the White House for the millennium celebration and for the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Celebrated critic Harold C. Schonberg hailed Albulescu’s “power and infallible fingers of steel,” declaring that “nothing anywhere has any terrors for him.”

Bassoon player Jeff Abel ‘07 anticipates that Albulescu will perform as wonderfully as a conductor as he does as a pianist.

“He is an outstanding musician and is respected in the music world, but he is also respected as a teacher,” says Abel, a master’s of education candidate. “He teaches great classes and is really here for the students.”

Albulescu will teach his students to play as a single unit that produces a “cohesive sound with a distinctive personality,” he says.

The constant ebb and flow of students will challenge the conductor as he cultivates this characteristically “Lehigh sound.” Albulescu recognizes that he needs to treat his students as individual musicians, and although the core “sound” may remain constant, it must reflect the players as much as the conductor.

“You want to hear a very interesting dance between the creative head, which is what the conductor is, and the collective consciousness of the ensemble,” he says.

In this “dance” Albulescu will be assisted by newly-appointed professor of practice and head of strings, Timothy Schwarz.

Schwarz, an accomplished violinist, plans to cultivate a "unique string program," he says, "by providing non-music major students with the opportunities most universities reserve for majors, such as direct contact with world-renowned artists. This season, students will work with Philadelphia Orchestra Concertmaster David Kim and cellist Ovidiu Marinescu. Artists of this level normally only visit schools like Juilliard or Curtis."

Doubling as a teacher and a researcher

Like most Lehigh faculty, Albulescu doubles as a teacher and a researcher. Music research, such as his, is debated and proven through performance, and the orchestra will become part of this research. “A very vibrant set of arguments will be made through performances about what the composer intended for that piece,” he says.

Most orchestral music was composed before the days of recordings, so the only clues musicians have as to how Beethoven wanted his Ninth Symphony performed is the written score and tradition, which may or may not be accurate. Before Albulescu plays a piece, he clears his mind of all previous performances.

“I try approach the music as new, as though it was the first time it was ever performed,” he says. “I ask myself, if no one had heard this piece by Bach, how would it be played so that it becomes what it has become? My focus is always to bring the score to life in a unique way.”

A good conductor seeks not only to perform a piece as the composer intended, but also to capture his audience’s attention, says Linda Ganus, the program coordinator for the Music Department. “In bringing music to life, you’re looking at the score and the music and what the composer’s intent was, but we are now living in a different time and culture; you want to bring that music to our life as well,” she says.

To “bring music to our life,” Ganus, also a visual artist, frequently provides projected illustrations inspired by music performed by Lehigh faculty, including Albulescu. “Our society is increasingly visual,” she says. “If images get somebody to come to the orchestra for the first time, that’s great!”

In the future, Albulescu hopes to occasionally incorporate images into his performances. “Once in a while,” he says, “I’d love to do multimedia projects.”

Playing with “an amazing ensemble”

The orchestra Albulescu inherits was founded in 1993 by Paul Chou and initially had only three students. When Chou resigned in September of last year, the orchestra had over one hundred members.

Unlike many university orchestras, most LU Philharmonic Orchestra members are not music majors, says Ganus. “A lot of students at Lehigh could have easily have gone to a conservatory, but they choose to major in another field,” she says. Lehigh’s music program offers these students the opportunity to develop musically. “The university really tries to tailor the class schedules, including the music ensembles’ meeting times, so that non-music majors can be a central part of the music making experience,” Ganus says.

Abel has thrived in the orchestra’s student-musician atmosphere. “It has been great to play with an upper-level group,” he says. “Playing at Lehigh has been all positive. It’s a great opportunity to develop musically and to meet people. Some of my best friends are in the orchestra.”

The orchestra integrates students with fellow musicians who are faculty and community members. A civil engineering student may perform a few seats away from Rick Weisman, professor and former Associate Dean of Engineering. Even musical instructors participate. Albulescu remembers that during one performance, David Diggs, oboe instructor and professor of practice, played a supportive role to his student.

“You don’t find that at music schools—the professor and student playing in the same orchestra,” Albulescu says. “You learn hands-on from playing with your professor. It must be the most incredible thing to hear her or him sitting next to you in a group. You can’t replicate it.”

In previous years, Chou led the orchestra to Europe, China, Brazil and South Africa on tours that infused performance with vacation and education, says Abel. For instance, before leaving for South Africa, Abel and other orchestra members took a course in the Global Citizenship Program. Once in the country, they enjoyed safaris and sightseeing, but also visited poor communities and studied the culture of the people. When looking for a country to tour, “we try to pick places where we could learn and give back to the community,” Abel says. Even without Chou, the orchestra has maintained its focus on teaching and performance.

During the search for a new director, the orchestra continued to thrive under the direction of renowned guest conductors like JoAnn Falletta and Jung-Ho Pak, who “invigorated” the students, Salerni says.

The conductors treated the students as professional musicians. “It was intense but never stressful,” says Abel. “They worked with us at a very high level, but understood that we were college students.”

Although performing under guest conductors challenged the orchestra, they eagerly anticipate practicing with one consistent leader. “We hope the orchestra solidifies under one director,” Salerni says. “Eugene will inspire the students and grow the orchestra musically.”

Albulescu also looks forward to his time with the orchestra. “The orchestra is a credit to its previous director and to the amazing conductors it has had in the past year. They have become a great ensemble,” he says. “I’m hoping to continue and build on that.”

The upcoming concert year features several of Lehigh’s faculty members as soloists, including the newly-named Professor of Practice and head of strings, Dr. Timothy Schwarz performing Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major (Schwarz will also mentor the orchestra’s string players). Other soloists include oboist Diggs featured on a concerto by C.P.E. Bach, as well as Albulescu himself performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 while conducting from the keyboard.

“He creates a powerful synergy by leading the orchestra from inside as the soloist,” Salerni says.

Albulescu’s first concert series on October 19 and 20 will feature works by women composers: The Symphonica Gaelica by Amy Beach, America’s first successful female composer, and, commissioned especially for the occasion, Monologue for Orchestra by Lehigh’s own respected composer, Tae Sakamoto ’02.

--Becky Straw

Photo by John Kish IV

Posted on Friday, October 12, 2007

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