Archive for Sunday, September 7, 2003

Orchestrating change

New symphony director hits U.S. soil running

September 7, 2003

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A few hours of silence would be music to Nicholas Uljanov's ears about now.

The new director of orchestral activities at Kansas University arrived in Lawrence from his home in Salzburg, Austria, on Aug. 21 -- the first day of classes at KU -- and has had barely a moment to himself since.

"I go to bed at one o'clock in the night and get up at five o'clock in the morning," says Uljanov, whose English is a bit shaky. "It's a lot to do for the first time."

But Uljanov's colleagues don't doubt he's up for the challenge. Uljanov, who was educated at St. Petersburg Conservatory in Russia, has conducted major orchestras, operas and festivals throughout Europe, including the Orchestra Philharmonique de Radio France, the Orchestra de la Suisse Romande, the Bavarian State Opera Munich, the State Opera Leipzig and the Munich Opera Festival.

In addition, Uljanov (pronounced OOL-yuh-nov) taught and was conductor of the Youth Symphony Orchestra at St. Petersburg Conservatory for two years.

And he doesn't just look good on paper, says John Paul Johnson, KU's director of choral activities and head of the committee that hired Uljanov.

"When we watched his videotape and we heard his music making, his ability to make amazing music stood out among all the applicants," he says.

He recalls the committee members leaning forward in their chairs to see the television at the other end of the room. And when Uljanov auditioned with the KU Symphony Orchestra, "he had to say very little," Johnson recalls. "Everything that he wanted from the students was in his body language, in his hands, in his facial expressions. He truly is the consummate conductor. We're all really excited about him being here."

Increasing visibility

Uljanov is excited, too.

After all, he has big plans for KU's orchestra program. And as soon as he gets a chance to sit down and think, he'll plot out his strategies to achieve those goals.

In the short term, he wants to build the orchestra's numbers and improve the quality of playing. He notes a shortage of violinists and the challenge of squeezing the best sound out of an orchestra composed of a mix of music and nonmusic majors.

Down the road, Uljanov would like to increase the visibility of the orchestra, both by increasing the size of audiences in Lawrence and by showcasing the orchestra outside Kansas -- perhaps even outside the United States.

"It's not acceptable during the concerts here to have just 200 or 250 in this large hall," Uljanov says of the Lied Center. "My goal is to bring the audience here, to improve the level of the orchestra and then to show this orchestra in student orchestra competitions inside the United States, also in Europe. Why not? If we can find the money to make possible a tour in Europe, it would be great."

Uljanov hopes to expand the orchestra's repertoire, maintaining a careful balance between what Lawrence audiences will appreciate and what his students need to learn to be professional musicians. He also wants to explore modern American composers.

Uljanov also will teach conducting students and recruit future orchestra members from area schools.

Under pressure

Uljanov takes the reins from interim orchestra director Timothy Hankewich, associate conductor of the Kansas City Symphony, who filled in after maestro Brian Priestman retired after 10 years in the spring of 2001.

Manning the baton will be a high-pressure gig, Johnson says.

"KU is one of the most visible music programs in the United States," he says. "We have all followed great legends, like, in his case, Brian Priestman; in my case Simon Carrington and James Ralston; in John Lynch's case Bob Foster. So we all feel that pressure that we have to maintain that quality that people around the United States expect.

"He (Uljanov) is putting extra pressure on himself because he knows the numbers and quality of players he's needing to make amazing music and to be able to teach his students what it is to be in a pre-professional symphony orchestra."

Johnson is sure that once people realize the caliber of KU's new orchestra director, recruiting will become easier.

Uljanov's looking forward to all the challenges his new post entails. He first rehearsed with the orchestra last Tuesday and says he saw in his students faces the desire to learn how to play better.

"They are begging for my experience," he says. "I have a lot of orchestras in Europe and around the world, and they hope that I can share these experiences."

Uljanov's wife and 21-year-old son will move to Lawrence next year. When things settle down, he hopes to get back to some of his hobbies: downhill skiing, swimming, jogging and chess.

"Time is so short that we can't do everything," he says. "My colleague said we are married with the music. We don't have much time for our families. To combine them is key."

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