Dirk Meyer remembers vividly the day he auditioned for the Sarasota Orchestra.
Well, he remembers one part vividly.
It was January or February 2006. He had just graduated from Michigan State University with a doctorate of musical arts in orchestral conducting. He was up against seven or eight other candidates for the company’s assistant conductor position.
He was incredibly nervous.
“The interview was in this room,” Meyer says, surveying the nondescript conference room in the Beatrice Friedman Symphony Center, where he once sat before a committee of orchestra insiders.
After the first round of interviews, he was pulled aside by Maestro Leif Bjaland.
“Listen,” Bjaland said, leveling with the German-born Meyer. “In this next round they’re going to ask you to introduce a piece. You need to nail this because we’re not 100% convinced your English skills are up to par.”
Much to Meyer’s delight, he was asked to introduce a composition he knew inside and out — “Die Fledermaus” (“The Bat”), by Johann Strauss II.
With the confidence of a seasoned maestro, he elaborated on the overture.
“I think that’s what sold them,” Meyer says in an accent that’s now barely discernable. “I told a good story. An hour-and-a-half later, they called to tell me I got the job.”
A lot has changed since then.
Bjaland, the orchestra’s artistic director for 15 years, has announced that this season will be his last in Sarasota.
To keep things running smoothly during the transition, the 34-year-old Meyer was promoted to associate conductor, a role he was eager to fill after five years with the company.
The new job title comes at an interesting point in the conductor’s life.
In addition to his work in Sarasota and his frequent concerts with the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, Meyer has begun to pad his resumé with guest conducting gigs in other states.
This season, he’ll make his debut with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in Canada, the Springfield Symphony Orchestra in Massachusetts and the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra in Minnesota.
“It’s been a thrill to watch him evolve,” says Marsha Panuce, Sarasota Orchestra Board chairwoman. “We know he’ll probably leave someday for another assignment, and we’ll be talking about how lucky we were that he started with us.”
As many orchestra patrons will tell you, there’s nothing disheveled about the young maestro.
He’s polished, but not so polished that he lacks humility and a sense of humor. He’s a spruce dresser, but not so spruce that he’s afraid to dress down a black suit coat and Versace glasses with jeans — that is, when he’s not in concert.
He’s a diehard student of classical music, fascinated with late romantic repertoire and early 20th-century composers, but at home when he’s cooking for his wife, he’s listening to indie rock bands.
“I think many people, when they think of a conductor, think of the old guy in his 80s waving his arms around at the podium,” Meyer says, flailing his arms for effect. “I don’t think that’s quite the picture anymore.”
It’s certainly not how people picture the Sarasota Orchestra, an 80-member organization with an unusually young body of musicians.
Meyer, who grew up in Düsseldorf, Germany, says he can’t picture doing anything else. By the time he was 14, he knew he wanted to lead an orchestra.
In high school, his best friend’s parents were opera singers. During rehearsals he used to hang out in the back of the opera house, his eyes fixed on the orchestra pit.
“There was just something about it,” Meyer says. “It looked like they were having so much fun making this beautiful music."
So his piano teacher started giving him conducting lessons, and before long, he was hooked.
He graduated from Germany’s Folkwang Conservatory in Essen, Germany, and the University Duisburg-Essen with bachelor’s degrees in music and philosophy, respectively, before moving to the United States to study conducting at Michigan State University.
“A lot of people study it for a year or two and notice they don’t like it,” Meyer says. “It’s weird. People are looking at you and you’re showing them what to do without words. It’s the strangest aspect of the profession and something I’ve only experienced on the podium.”
It’s precisely this strangeness that Meyer says thwarts the career paths of many aspiring maestros.
“The interaction is purely visual,” he continues. “You’re up there and you do some move just a little bit differently and suddenly you cause a new effect. You try to memorize what move causes what effect and it’s never-ending. I’m still surprised by these little non-verbal things.”
When asked if it’s similar to how a coach might direct his players on game day, Meyer shrugs. A puzzled look spreads across his face.
Perhaps the analogy was a bad one.
“Don’t coaches always yell at their players?” he asks.
“It’s a little more civilized than that,” he replies with a chuckle. “And (musicians) definitely don’t throw an ice bucket on my head at the end of the show.”
WHAT DOES A CONDUCTOR DO OFF THE PODIUM?
It’s the question Dirk Meyer gets asked most: “What does a maestro do, other than stand in front of an orchestra and wave a baton?”
“People tend to see the conductor as a pawn,” Meyer says. “Like we’re a thing that just comes with the orchestra, but there’s more to the job than just being a human metronome.”
In addition to dealing with administrative issues, Meyer studies the upcoming repertoire, often by playing scores for hours on his piano. He researches compositions and composers so he can speak about them eloquently during concerts.
He also creates programs. This season, Meyer programmed everything he’ll conduct, including the orchestra’s chamber soiree series.
DID YOU KNOW?
In 2008, Meyer took 250 students from the Sarasota Youth Orchestra to Carnegie Hall. After serving as the program’s music director for four years, Meyer relinquished the post this season to focus on his new position as associate conductor.
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- Dirk, you're fabulous! We are lucky to have you!
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