Kenneth Bowermeister hovers over his breakfast. With his fork in his conducting hand, he takes tidy and reasonable bites until his plate is polished clean.
Quietly eating, he waxes poetic in almost breathless sentences on his most passionate topic — conducting.
And in the rehearsed cadence of a seasoned violinist, he makes every sentence count. It’s as if he has spent his entire life talking about music over eggs and wheat toast.
Retired, 61 years old and living in Sarasota, you’d think Bowermeister would rather spend his days playing golf. Instead, this spring, he spent three weeks auditioning to be the Venice Symphony’s new conductor and music director, a trial run he nailed despite a nagging upper respiratory infection and no preparation time.
“I was at a little bit of a disadvantage,” Bowermeister says. “I had one day’s notice and I was sick at the time, but the orchestra made it easy. It turned out to be a really amazing and pleasurable experience.”
Bowermeister is painfully nice. A straight arrow with a teacher’s patience and an artist’s soul, he was the first of four guest conductors to try out for the position after longtime conductor Wesley Schumacher announced last year that he was retiring.
For all that worked against Bowermeister during his three-week audition, one huge factor remained in his favor: The man is a household name among classical musicians in Sarasota.
For 30 years he served as Pine View School’s orchestra director. For two decades he was Sarasota Orchestra’s assistant concertmaster and its youth symphony director. Bowermeister, now the conductor of the Sarasota Pops Orchestra, is arguably one of Sarasota’s most ubiquitous maestros. When he faced the Venice Symphony for the first time in February, a sea of familiar faces and former students smiled back at him.
“It was comfortable from the beginning,” Bowermeister says. “I got immediate support.”
He started his career at Pine View a year after the school opened. Operating out of six rustic portables off Alta Vista Street in downtown Sarasota, Bowermeister was one of a handful of teachers employed at Sarasota County’s charter school for gifted children. A violin major at New College of Florida, Bowermeister was 22 years old years old with no teaching credentials when he took the job.
He spent most of his tenure as the school’s lone music teacher, until a chorus and band director joined the faculty in the late 1990s to offer relief.
When he retired from Pine View in 2000, the school had the largest string enrollment in the state of Florida — 340 students across five orchestras. Bowermeister, who was also directing the Sarasota Youth Orchestra at the time, was also seeing 40 students a week for private violin and viola lessons.
“It was demanding,” he says, letting the understatement of that remark hang in the air for a minute.
Bowermeister admits he’s never taken a conductor’s course. He learned how to conduct by watching other conductors and by filling in for his high school orchestra director, who liked to hand Bowermeister his baton during rehearsals and ask the young violinist to fill in while he worked with the string instruments.
After Bowermeister retired from Pine View, he started playing with the Sarasota Orchestra again, but it wasn’t long before he gravitated back to conducting, signing on as the music director and conductor of the Sarasota Pops.
In just two years he doubled concert attendance.
Those who play for Bowermeister says it’s his consistency and passion that keeps ticket holders happy and his good-guy persona that musicians find endearing.
“Oftentimes, conductors are dreadfully rude and pushy,” says Carolyn Clark, a Sarasota Pops violinist and a 16-year veteran of the Venice Symphony. “Ken is just one of those nice guys who handles himself well.
He inspires people, and the orchestra just rises to a level beyond what you’d expect.”
Clark says the 35-year-old South County symphony is itching to grow. When Schumacher retired after a 20-year tenure, patrons worried his departure might hinder growth.
“We weren’t looking for someone to just stand at the podium and raise a baton,” Clark says. “We needed someone who could interact with the audience, and Ken was the whole package. Those of us who know him couldn’t be any more pleased that he’s landed this position.”
Bowermeister is eager to win over the Venice audience and even more eager to take the orchestra to the next level. He’s planning for a crowd-pleasing concert season this winter, which includes music from the Broadway musical, “Wicked,” and violin concertos by composer Max Bruch.
He says he sees “enormous potential” with the Venice Symphony, and as he settles back into a familiar and exciting rhythm, he’s already begun to raise the organization’s profile with little bravado.
“In music, there’s no room for ego,” Bowermeister says. “I view each musician as a colleague. — you have to. Without them, you’re just a person standing up there waving your arms.”
Behind the baton
Some maestros have a story behind every baton they’ve ever used. Many maestros hold onto their first one for posterity’s sake or attach good or bad luck to a particular stick.
Kenneth Bowermeister succumbs to none of it.
“I pick up a baton every other year when I go to conferences,” he says matter-of-factly.
There are, however, a few things he abides by when choosing his tool of the trade.
When he conducts children, he uses large batons so they’re more apt to pay attention. Now that he’s conducting adult orchestras, he uses a shorter baton with a cork handle and rubber grips to prevent accidental slippage.
“Never hold a baton too tightly,” Bowermeister says. “If you conduct with too much rigidity you’ll be exhausted in five minutes. Easy, natural movements convey the music in a much better fashion.”