MSU Director of Orchestras Leon Gregorian is retiring. He’s led the MSU Symphony for 28 years. He'll soon conduct his last concert with the orchestra at Wharton Center. WKAR’s Melissa Benmark spoke with him last week, and asked him what music he’d be leading at his farewell concert.
LEON GREGORIAN: We start with the Strauss “Don Juan” Symphonic Poem, which is probably one of the most difficult things ever written for orchestra. And then after intermission we do Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which is probably one of the longest and one of the best works that’s ever been written for orchestra. So, Strauss and Beethoven, you can’t go wrong. At least we’re in a good ballpark.
We have wonderful soloists. Melanie Helton as soprano. Jayne Sleder, who many people don’t know. She’s a very, very well-known mezzo-soprano from Traverse City, actually, who’s an MSU graduate. And then of course, Richard Fracker and Peter Lightfoot. So, these are four wonderful people who I have had the pleasure of working with, and I look forward to this concert again working with them.
And of course, the wonderful symphony orchestra, which has been under my leadership for 28 years. I mean, can you believe that? My God. 28 years. So, we come to a close. This chapter is over. It’s been a great run. So, there it is! That’s it!
MELISSA BENMARK: Do you remember when you first started conducting the orchestra 28 years ago, do you remember what your spring concert was, and what was going through your mind?
GREGORIAN: Yeah, I do remember what it was, because that was the concert that it was announced that President Mackey was going to leave MSU and then go to University of Hawaii to become president or chancellor of that university. So, his request was, because he loved Mozart, and he still does, of course, and he wanted some Mozart to be included. So, I asked Ralph Votapek if he would play, and Ralph, of course, always. One of the 30 or 40 piano concertos that he has from memory, you know, and he said he would. So the program was a Mozart concerto. Don’t ask me which one. Ralph would know but I can’t remember. And then we did Shostakovich Five. So, that was my last concert in my first year. But I must say, the orchestra since then has improved dramatically. And now I would say this orchestra sounds as professional as any orchestra. So. We’ve come a long way.
BENMARK: What do you think your fondest memories are of your time here, musical or otherwise?
GREGORIAN: Well, I think there’s probably several things that stick in my mind. I think one was that we did the complete cycle of the Beethoven Piano Concertos with Ralph. I think that was very, very special. Another was the world premier performance of Ellen Zwillich’s Symphony #4, “The Gardens,” which we later, the following day actually, we started recording that for International Koch Classics. So, that certainly was a highlight. Gosh, there’s so many, that I just, it’s hard to recall, but those two really stay out.
Of course, our trip to Salzburg and Vienna was very special, although we did not take the complete orchestra. We took a chamber orchestra. But the reception that we received there was just unbelievable. And I must say the students rose to a totally different level.
The other one that sticks up was a trip to Lincoln Center, and that was at the time John DiBiaggio was president. And he and his wife did come. And then the following day a group played the Mozart Quintet, the Clarinet Quintet, before a New York Philharmonic concert at Avery Fisher hall. So, it was very special. And then we had three concerts in Pennsylvania, prior to the New York. So, we came really prepared. So anyway, so those are the ones that stick out, but you know, after every successful concert, it’s very special.
BENMARK: Can you remember any times involving animals, power failures, set failures, instrument failures, when you went, “what am I doing here?”
GREGORIAN: It’s very interesting that you mention that. Because it did happen. A power failure. It happened at the Wharton Center while we were playing. We were playing…I believe it was my first or second year here, and to some extent, Wharton Center was still new. Because I think it opened in 1982, and I arrived in 1984. So, middle of a piece, total darkness. And, of course, what do you do? I don’t know. But it was very amazing. The orchestra continued to play until there was a cadence, and then they all stopped by themselves. It was unbelievable.
And we had to wait for about 45 minutes where they put on the generators or whatever it was. And we continued, we started that same movement, I don’t remember what it was at this point. But we started it again, and we played it through. And the audience was very nice about it. They just sat there and waited in the dark. That was once.
And then, the other one, when we did “The Incredible Flutist” by Walter Piston. There’s one place that there’s a dog bark that has to be done. And usually, they have a person imitating the dog. Well, I thought I would hold auditions, you know, as fun. And some of the kids took it very seriously. So, we had quite a few people auditioning on their barking ability. And we finally found the very best one, and they did the barking at the concert. So, you know, those are the ones that sort of stick in my mind. But we’ve had some interesting moments, let’s just say.
BENMARK: How do you think that, in your time here, how do you think classical music has changed, especially in terms of engaging young people.
GREGORIAN: Classical music, I think, has become so accessible to everybody and sometimes I wonder if it’s that good to do that. Because I know it has hurt the recording industry. I know it has hurt the record sellers immensely. And, you know, why go to concerts when you could see Internet, you could do it free, and so on. I think that has affected audiences.
And I think with young people being so much involved with computers and so on, it’s a lot easier to download things on your leisure time than to look halfway decent to go to a concert, look for a parking place, and buy a ticket and then go inside and listen to a concert. So, I think as wonderful as the Internet is, I think it has some drawbacks, too.
BENMARK: So, you’re retiring in May. What do you intend to do on the first day of your retirement?
GREGORIAN: Well, actually I have three days before I do the next thing. The concert is on the 28th, and then May 3rd, I fly to China. I have two weeks of master classes in Beijing and Wuhan. Then I come back and three weeks later I go to Maine to do a conducting institute for a week, and then seven weeks of a summer music camp. And then, I think purposely I left September free so that I could stay in Maine if I want to, I could go and visit my grandchildren if I want to. We have that freedom since my wife retired last year.
So, we have a freedom now that, frankly, is hard to believe after so many years. I mean, I’ve been doing this type of thing for 41 years, since 1971. And it will be quite a change to do other things at the time that you wanted to do it. It’ll be different.
BENMARK: Well, thank you for your leadership and your time here.
GREGORIAN: Well thank you. I must say, I’m very, very proud to be part of this great university. Michigan State has been very, very good to me, and my family, and I’m very, very grateful to have the opportunity.