Conductor says reaching youth is key

The Kansas City Symphony will give a benefit concert for music education in Lawrence Public Schools at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Lied Center. The performance is part of the group's Support School Music program and will feature well-known works by Mendelssohn, Rossini, Verdi and others.

Although he claims the title of apprentice, Damon Gupton’s score of accomplishments reveals he has room to be less modest. As assistant conductor to Michael Stern for the Kansas City Symphony, Gupton’s musical career has skyrocketed.

The symphony’s full-time staff of musicians practices four to five times a week and usually performs two to three concerts during the weekend.

“It is a job where you really need stamina and endurance,” Gupton says. “For 90 minutes, you’re one with 70 or 80 people. Together you make a statement, and you create something. It’s something that you can’t type out or write on a piece of paper.”

Inspired at an early age by composer John Williams’ soundtracks for movies such as “Star Wars” and “E.T.,” Gupton took an interest in the trombone and decided to pursue music. He received a bachelor’s degree in music education at the University of Michigan and a diploma in the drama division at the Juilliard School in New York.

Before joining the Kansas City Symphony about a year ago, Gupton was busy balancing two careers: being a musician and acting.

“I like doing both to feed different parts of my creative energies,” Gupton says. “I like being able to recite a verse of Shakespeare and also perform Tchaikovsky. I am fortunate enough to do both; it feeds me and helps me grow.”

His acting credits include television appearances on “Law and Order” and “Third Watch,” a film role in the 2002 drama “Unfaithful,” and the main character in “Carter’s Way” at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre in 2005. Gupton appreciates the continuity of conducting versus the ‘permanent freelancing’ of acting.

“There are times when you get to a piece and everything clicks,” Gupton says. “It feels like the greatest triumph in the world. Honestly, the biggest thrill is the audience’s response. If I can look out and see little happy children waving their arms, it makes me jump for joy. We are doing what we are supposed to; we are giving the audience something to feel.”

Appealing to all age groups, however, is difficult.

“It is an interesting art form in the sense that it competes with television and sports,” Gupton says. “To sustain the form, we need to reach young people. A big part of it is to get out, touch and inspire.”

The Kansas City Symphony has carried out this mission with programs and workshops with guests like Yo-Yo Ma. Conducted by Michael Stern, Ma performed in front of hundreds of students.

“He is a brilliant musician and he brought so much joy to the children, including me,” Gupton says. “Moments like that are what you want to share with youth.”