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And the Winner Is…

The Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra Passes the Baton


From Dayton Monthly, March/April 1995

It was a stroke of marketing genius. The Dayton Philharmonic opened its 1994–95 season with the launch of the great conductor hunt. Auditioning five promising talents for the position of top brass with the DPO, audience members were asked to rate each candidate on a series of issues relating to musicianship, interaction with audience and overall performance appeal.

Competition was fierce. With each visiting artist, audience scrutiny intensified and favor seemed to shift. Behind the scenes, musicians evaluated conductors through a three-page questionnaire they designed themselves. In the end, only one could prevail. Opening his guest performance with Mozart’s Don Giovanni Overture on November 9, Neal Gittleman proved himself to be the one.

Gittleman, raised in Brooklyn, is the son of two educators. His father was a naval officer-turned-English instructor; his mother was a public school music teacher who taught piano in their home. Young Gittleman himself was a student at that piano and later took up the violin. As his college years approached, Gittleman decided to pursue a solid liberal arts education with an emphasis on music.

During Gittleman’s undergraduate years at Yale, his interest in the dynamics of orchestral music quickly developed. The grouping of musicians and instrumental sound became increasingly interesting to him. It was at Yale that he first stood on the conductor’s podium.

After graduating, Gittleman continued his studies in Paris under the tutelage of the eminent Nadia Boulanger and Annette Dieudonné. He continued to hone his skills through six summers of study at the Pierre Monteux School in Hancock, Maine. Within a few years of completing his formal studies, Gittleman was competing and placing in conducting competitions. In 1984, he took second place in an international event in Geneva; two years later, he won third prize at the Leopold Stokowski Conducting Competition in New York.

Gittleman’s first professional position was as assistant conductor of the Hartt Symphony Orchestra and the Hartt Opera Theatre in Hartford, Connecticut. Since then he has served as assistant conductor of both the Oregon and Syracuse symphony orchestras. Gittleman currently serves as music director of the Marion (Indiana) Philharmonic Orchestra and resident conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

“My schedule over the next dozen or so months is something between crazy and depressing,” admits Gittleman, who will conduct more than 80 symphonies by the end of the 1995–96 season. His intention is to fulfill his obligations to both Marion and Milwaukee through their next performance seasons. “It is fairly miraculous how the different schedules fit together, with very little overlap. For a year, it’s possible; as a career, it would be insane.” He and his wife, Lisa Fry, plan to make the Gem City their permanent residence sometime in 1996.

Music professionals with whom he has been associated are quick and generous with praise. James DePreist, music director of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra, touts Gittleman as “one of the most promising talents of his generation.” Music reviewers frequently depend on the vernacular of excellence in critiquing a Gittleman performance: “breathtaking,” “powerful,” “perfect.” And perhaps of greatest significance, particularly to the Dayton Philharmonic, his rapport with musicians has been consistently strong.

Gittleman is excited by the chemistry that he has already felt with the musicians of the Dayton Philharmonic. “I was impressed with how willing they were, how hard they worked. Every musician rolled up their sleeves and got their hands dirty—and the audience could tell.” Indeed they could tell. At Gittleman’s first press conference in Dayton, a member of that audience queried if the conductor felt “courageous” in selecting such a daring and formidable symphony as the Shostakovich No. 5. And, true to his reputation for strength and excellence, he responded that he felt both courageous and confident.

“I feel a tremendous responsibility, not just to the composer and the music, but to the musicians, the audience and to the community,” asserts Gittleman. “The operations of an orchestra are important to the livelihood of many people, certainly. But, even more, there are those whose spiritual life hinges on the experience of music. It is my obligation to see to it that they are satisfied and stimulated.”

When asked about his life outside of the concert hall—something he will scarcely know for a while—the young conductor stresses the normalcy in his life. Though his livelihood centers on the classical, his tastes range from the intellectual to the strictly popular. As likely to attend a Schwarzenegger film as a Cannes award winner, Gittleman and his wife are regulars to the cinema. Doris Lessing, John le Carré, Stephen King and John Irving can be found on his bookshelves (“A Prayer for Owen Meany is my very favorite”). Gittleman’s musical interests center on the orchestral, but classic rock is a mainstay in his record rack, and he was recently seen at a Nine Inch Nail concert, an experience he described as interesting but loud. The conductor is also an admitted Trekkie, who, because of a professional appearance, was forced to tape the recent premiere of the newest Trek series, “Voyager.” (He is pleased to see a Vulcan presence in the new cast.)

With so much being made of his achievements by the age of 39, Gittleman approaches 40 with an easygoing confidence. “In my line of work, you’re not really good unless you’re gray. But age doesn’t make much of an impression on me. From where I am, it’s only getting better.”
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