'I'm luckiest man in the world,' pops conductor says

Published: Saturday, Feb. 18 2012 4:00 p.m. MST

Jerry Steichen said he was thrilled to conduct the music for Ballet West's latest production of "Don Quixote."

Scott Jarvie, Andersen and Associates, Scott Jarvie

SALT LAKE CITY — Jerry Steichen hopped out of his car, grinning and waving through the window of the Utah Opera Production Studios in Salt Lake City.

He rushed in, only about five minutes late, quipping that he forgot that Utah's traffic lights are in place to slow people down.

But it seems impossible to slow this conductor down.

Steichen has been living in New York City for 23 years but has frequented Utah since he started working with Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theater in Logan in 1998. He finds himself coming here even more since the beginning of the Deer Valley Music Festival in 2004 and his appointment as principal pops conductor of the Utah Symphony in 2009. He's been looking for an apartment in Salt Lake City.

"I love Utah," he said at one point during the interview, pretending to write it out on his shirt. "I 'heart' Utah. I need to get a shirt."

Steichen had just finished finalizing the classical series schedule for the Ridgefield Connecticut Symphony, where he is music director, that morning. He had plans to lock himself in his room for a few hours that day to study Ballet West's "Don Quixote." Steichen made his guest-conducting debut with the ballet on Feb. 11.

Though clearly busy, he was attentive, chatting about great restaurants in Logan, dropping random bits of musical trivia, pantomiming to make his points and laughing heartily throughout — it felt far more like a conversation with a friend rather than a formal interview.

Steichen was born in Tonkawa, Okla., raised with five very musical brothers and sisters — they sang, danced, played instruments.

"If you were a Steichen, you just did those things," he said.

And, he proudly declared, they farmed. He can drive a tractor and combine.

"You never know when you're going to need those skills, right?" he laughed.

Steichen spoke highly of his father, who taught music and psychology and served as the director of counseling at the local junior college. Steichen said, "He's like the original Renaissance man."

"Renaissance man" might be a good description for Steichen, too, considering the variety of music he's been involved with.

He detailed his college experience, starting with an attempt at law and accounting.

"But I realized I was spending all of my time in the school of music and with all of the theater majors," he said. So he went to his parents to tell them he was going to give music a try, "and they were incredibly supportive."

Steichen attended Oklahoma City University, where he studied tap and ballet, took voice lessons, sang in a choir, played in the orchestra, accompanied recitals for friends, and played in a bassoon ensemble and in the pep band at basketball games.

"I had experiences in every possible kind of music, from serious to Broadway to chamber music — and all at a really high level," he said.

He was eventually hired to run a Tulsa Opera studio program for young artists, getting him hooked on opera, he said. He moved on to a master's program at the University of Southern California in piano accompaniment and eventually landed in New York.

Since then, among many other things, Steichen has conducted the Boston Pops Orchestra, New York City Opera and the Broadway production of "Cats." He's also principal pops conductor with the New Haven Symphony in Connecticut.

This month alone demonstrates the conductor's versatility and demand.

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