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Davidson Orchestra Director Tara Keith to Cover Conduct for Charlotte Symphony Orchestra

by Amanda Preston

Tara Villa KeithRehearsals begin today with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra for their upcoming Classics Concert this weekend at the Belk Theatre in Uptown Charlotte. The performance will feature Britten's Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Schumann's Symphony No. 3 ("Rhennish"), and Haydn's Cello Concerto in C Major, featuring Davidson's own Alan Black.

Black, however, won't be the only familiar face for Davidson audiences. Out in the audience, completely focused and at the edge of her seat, will be Davidson's Symphony Orchestra Director, Tara Villa Keith. For the second consecutive year, the Charlotte Symphony has reached out to Keith and asked her to serve as cover conductor for one of their performances.

Cover Conducting Responsibilities

The Charlotte Symphony has been bringing in cover conductors over the last two seasons to perform the tasks that one might think would normally fall to an "assistant conductor." This means Keith will be responsible for conducting the group should director Christopher Warren-Green fall ill during a concert or a rehearsal. She is expected to attend every rehearsal and to learn the scores so she will be prepared to conduct at less than a moment's notice.  

Furthermore, in rehearsals, Keith reports, "my job is to be a second set of ears for the maestro. I have to listen really carefully and watch his interpretations, because my job is to interpret the music exactly as he does." So, should Warren-Green like to go out into the hall and listen for himself, Keith is expected to take the podium and match his reading as closely as possible. Keith is also expected in rehearsals to listen for balance within the orchestra, especially in the case of soloists, to make sure everything sounds right in the performance hall.

In addition to attending numerous rehearsals and two performances, Keith will also be giving the pre-concert talks on both Friday and Saturday evenings. In 25 minutes, she will "try to give the audience something that they can listen for during the concert. It's a fly-by history lesson on the pieces, but [she is] probably going to focus more on what they're going to hear in the music." Conveniently for the Charlotte Symphony, when they ask Keith to cover conduct, they not only get a top-flight conductor – they get a Davidson professor. 

Challenges of Cover Conducting

Cover conducting presents a variety of challenges for Keith, as she has to learn extensive new repertoire each time she serves in this capacity. For every minute of new music, Keith remarked that she would need at least one to two hours of score study to prepare fully for her position. British composer Britten's Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes is a new score for her (which means 16-17 hours minimum preparation), but she says it's worth the work. Of this piece particularly, Keith expressed that she was "curious to see how [Warren-Green] approaches a score written by someone of his nationality, because that could shed a lot of light on any given piece."  

Although she's had limited score study of Schumann's Third Symphony before this opportunity arose, that piece also presents a set of challenges because it is widely programmed. Being the piece that the orchestra musicians will likely know the best, Keith recognizes the difficulties of performing a work of this kind. She notes that "as a conductor, you have to approach a professional orchestra that's played this piece a million times and make it invigorating and feel like it's new again." She will have to carefully observe how Warren-Green handles this piece differently to previous performances and recordings and find a way to use her distinct conducting style and technique to achieve the same feel, sound and pacing for the group as Warren-Green would in his interpretation of this symphony.  

DCSO Director Tara Keith conducts Haydn's Cello Concerto featuring Alan Black, celloWorking with soloists can be quite daunting for conductors who may be directing an orchestra for the first time, as it adds another layer into the mix. Luckily for Keith and Black, the pair worked together earlier in the season when Black premiered the Haydn Cello Concerto with the Davidson College Symphony Orchestra at their October 8, 2013 concert. Keith is excited about potentially working with Black again, this time backed by a professional orchestra. Although she's clearly well-versed in the score and can build on her past collaboration with him, she knows that this performance will be different, as Black will have shaped his interpretation over the last few months. This time, he also will likely feel a bit more freedom, since he's working with a professional group with near limitless capabilities and not a student orchestra. When asked how he felt about Keith working with the CSO, he responded, "I think it's wonderful that Tara will be the cover conductor. Having already done the Haydn with me she will know it very well and be a great resource for me in rehearsal – and if she had to jump in to conduct, our already working together will put me at ease."

The Ultimate Multi-Tasking Career

Given this opportunity to work with the Charlotte Symphony, Keith will be actively involved with three full orchestras this week alone. To add to the chaotic schedule of the week, Keith still needs to drive the two-plus hours out to Sanford, NC, on Tuesday night to lead the Lee County Symphony Orchestra. Primarily a community group, this is Keith's fifth season with Lee County.

On Thursday, Keith will be spending a lot of time on I-77, as she will be attending CSO rehearsals down at the Blumenthal and then heading back north to run the Davidson College Symphony Orchestra's afternoon rehearsal, then going back down to Charlotte. The DCSO has their next performance of all film music coming up in another couple weeks, and the Lee County group is also preparing for their next performance. All three groups are all working on completely different music, meaning that Keith must be performance-ready with diverse repertoire.

It's a lot to juggle, but Keith is up to the task. The Charlotte Symphony has previously flown in conductors from around the United States to cover their concerts in order to get the right people to back up Maestro Warren-Green. Although everyone hopes that cover conductors end up not being used to conduct a concert, the Symphony needs to make sure that they are completely satisfied with the consummate professional ready to take the podium pending any unforeseen circumstances. Fortunately for them, and for the institution she calls home, there's a brilliant orchestra conductor just 20 minutes north of Charlotte.