For Jeffrey Pollock, it started with Fantasia.
“Before I'd ever seen any live music, my parents took me to a showing of Fantasia on a big screen,” Pollock says, recalling his childhood in San Diego. “That opening sequence with Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, where with the timpani strokes the drum would glow red or something, I was done. I was completely hooked.”
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It would be a couple of decades before Pollock would pick up a baton like the legendary Leopold Stokowski. But now, Pollock's conducting career has brought him to Lexington, where he is the seventh candidate vying to succeed George Zack as music director of the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra.
Pollock, 40, conducts the Phil on Friday night in a concert featuring Ludwig Van Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major “Eroica,” W.A. Mozart's ballet music from Idomeneo, and Dmitri Shostakovich's Concerto in C minor for Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra with piano soloist Conrad Tao.
Conducting wasn't Pollock's first musical endeavor. After seeing Fantasia, Disney's 1940 classical music classic, he started taking piano lessons. The keyboard remained the focus of his musical life, but not his life.
He went to the University of California-Berkeley, waiting for a ba-da-bing moment when he would figure out what he was supposed to do with his life. That didn't happen, so he dabbled in various business pursuits before it dawned on him that he wanted to try conducting.
Pollock pulled together a pickup orchestra in San Francisco, liked conducting, and enrolled in Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory.
“It's such an enigmatic job,” Pollock says of conducting. “There's a mysterious quality about what a conductor is and does. A conductor makes no music of their own. The technique is playing people. Something about that has always appealed to me: facilitating group dynamics and being able to set an agenda and basically be at the center of these great masterpieces.
“My ear has always been drawn to orchestral pieces more than other expressions of classical music … an endless fascination with the largeness of the compositions and with the organism itself. It's a beautiful thing, what we do. Outside of maybe church, in today's world, there are very few things we do together as a large community.
“At this concert, we're going to have 65 people together on stage. And to have 65 people there, all with the same purpose and the same goal of playing great music well, the amount of energy is palpable. It's like nourishment for me.”
After conservatory, Pollock spent a year conducting at Oklahoma State University, then he spent three seasons as assistant conductor of the North Carolina Symphony in Raleigh and two seasons as associate conductor of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra in Texas.
Pollock is currently free-lancing and lives in Hamilton, Ontario, where his wife, Melinda Gough, teaches English literature and women's studies at McMaster College. That have 2-year-old twins, Henry and Cecilia.
If he gets the Lexington job, it would be Pollock's first music-directing gig, and it is not lost on him that he would be taking over the Phil at a time when orchestras are searching for ways to attract new audiences. In a way, that brings us back to the visual thrills of Fantasia.
“We have to admit to ourselves that we are an increasingly visually dominant culture, to the exclusion of our other senses,” Pollock says. “The experience of sitting in a concert hall, listening to a piece of music, even if it is only half an hour, has suddenly become an enormous amount of time. A half an hour today is longer than a half an hour was 30 years ago because of the speed our lives have become accustomed to.
“The orchestral concert experience is almost antithetical to the speed of our lives.”
Pollock says the job of the orchestra, starting with the music director, is to find ways to make that concert experience relevant to the younger person who loves music, but it needs more than sitting in a dark theater looking at people in formal wear.
Pollock points to experiments he's done, such as projecting images from the Hubble Telescope behind the orchestra for Gustav Holst's The Planets, or even just working with lighting to match the moods of works.
“I'm riveted by Beethoven,” Pollock says. “It rocks my world. If I can find a way in which, through the way the concert is presented, a person who doesn't normally come to the concert, who leads one of these fast lives, feels what I feel viscerally … that's what we have to do.”
Pollock wants the audience to get hooked the way Fantasia caught him and never let go.