The guest conductor who will lead the Delaware Symphony Orchestra Friday plunged into music after a grammar school test showed he had an aptitude for it.
A native of Durham, North Carolina, André Raphel said the schools then gave students a test to determine if they had a musical aptitude and an aptitude for playing a musical instrument.
“It was discovered that I did and I chose the trombone — because it was the instrument that no one else wanted to play,” he said.
Raphel also sang in the choir at his grandmother’s church.
He went on to play in his middle school, junior high and high school bands.
“It not only was a great entry point for me musically, but also socially,” he said. “I think that’s very important, the way it helped me to develop as a person and just the social aspect of being able to play together.”
In high school, he was the band’s drum major and the band director gave him chances to conduct.
“I remember this feeling of curiosity, really, about what conducting was all about,” Raphel said. “And this great feeling that I could influence the sound through my gesture. I think it was then that I knew eventually I would like to become a conductor.”
Even so, he started his collegiate musical education focusing on the trombone, first at the University of Miami. There, the band director there also allowed him to conduct student compositions and he became assistant conductor of the college orchestra.
A conductor, he said, is meant to inspire musicians, bring the intentions of the composer to life and underline the structure of the music as it’s printed so it speaks to the audience.
He earned his master’s degree from Yale University, then studied with Yale Professor Otto-Werner Mueller at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and finally attended the Juilliard School in New York City, where he earned an advanced certificate in orchestral conducting.
He and his wife split their time between Philly and Connecticut.
Last year, the Boston Globe named his Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts with Uri Caine to the “10 Memorable Classical Music Moments from 2023.” It was a glorious weekend of concerts, Raphel said.
Raphel’s appearance Friday, Jan. 19, to direct “From Home to Rome,” a program featuring music by West Chester, Pennsylvania’s Samuel Barber as well as Ottorino Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” will be his second conducting stint for the DSO.
That first time, he said, predated Music Director Laureate David Amado’s 20-year reign. The symphony is relying on a lot of guest conductors this year as it seeks a replacement for Amado, who conducted the first classical concert of the season and will conduct the last.
The music for Friday’s performance was chosen by Raphel and Symphony CEO J.C. Barker. They’ve known each other since attending Julliard together, Barker for clarinet.
The music will include Verdi’s “Overture toLa forza del destino,” and Beethoven’s “Violin Concerto.”
“It’s always collaboration, this matter of programming. And for this particular program, it was a real joy because, again, J.C. and I have known each other for many years,” Raphel said.
They talked a lot about what a good program would be for this time in January.
“I certainly had thematic ideas with respect to what I felt would be an exciting program for the orchestra,” he said. “And so this sort of idea of Italian and American music, you know, came to the fore and and thus the theme From Home to Rome.”
Barber’s “Symphony in One Movement” is a piece that condenses the four movements of a symphony into one quick performance. It’s 21 minutes long and was first played by Rome’s Philharmonic Augusteo Orchestra, another link in the night’s theme.
“The Barber is a path-breaking work in many ways,” Raphel said. “It’s such a great work, and it’s so underplayed. It was a work that I learned early on as an assistant conductor at the St. Louis Symphony, and it’s one that’s really stuck with me. The Respighi is also a work which I’ve had a long relationship with, and I just think it’s one of the greatest works in the standard repertoire, and I’ve always felt a special connection to Respighi’s musical language.”
Respighi’s music is very cinematic, Raphel said.
“I’ve always been interested in film and the sort of visceral effect that music can have,” he said. “Perhaps that’s one of the reasons he is a composer who resonates with me and that it’s easy in a certain way for me to go into his world as a composer.”
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One of the big ways Raphel said he’s seen conducting change is that conductors now are expected to speak for music as well as through music.
When he began, artists largely spoke through their performances, but conductors and others now are expected to do more than just speak about the music, he said.
“I think it’s really important for artists to be advocates, spokespeople for the importance of the music, whereas in a much earlier generation, one could solely focus on the music itself,” Raphel said.
He enjoys helping people understand what the music is about and how it’s getting its message across.
“I think it’s very necessary in this day and age and I’m happy to do it,” he said.
If you go
The Delaware Symphony Orchestra’s Feb. 19 classical concert From Home to Rome will feature guest conductor André Raphel and guest violinist Jennifer Frautschi. It starts are 7:30 p.m. at the Grand Opera House. Tickets range from $25 to $90 and can be gotten here or at the box office Friday night.
To hear more about the program, watch this pre-concert talk on Youtube.
Betsy Price is a Wilmington freelance writer who has 40 years of experience.
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