The joy of the Utah Symphony is that the players are so flexible and versatile that they can play whatever style you put in front of them. —Jerry Steichen
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.
“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.
Days before "Don Quixote," he made his debut at Avery Fischer Hall in New York. Right before that, he was in Portland, Ore., to conduct the music of ABBA with a tribute band — an awesome experience, he said. After his debut with Ballet West, he will fly out to Virginia for rehearsals of “The Mikado” with the Virginia Opera before flying back to Utah for “Simply Sinatra,” a Utah Symphony pops concert with singer Steve Lippia.
He finds all of the variety in his musical experience fulfilling.
“All of those things feed me as a musician, and they also inform each other — like, I conduct Broadway differently because I also conduct Brahms,” he said. “I don’t think in this day and age we can afford to be musical snobs. Music is music and it all has its own merit and its own value and asks of us our best. Whatever I approach, I’m going to give it my all.”
From the sound of it, he was ready to give his all to the Ballet West performances.
Adam Sklute, artistic director of Ballet West, was excited about Steichen’s debut. Engaging Steichen as a guest conductor had been an easy decision.
“He’s very musically sensitive, he knows dance, he knows ballet and he’s a fine conductor,” Sklute said.
Steichen couldn’t stop talking about how thrilled he was to work with Ballet West’s music director, Terence Kern.
“Terry is such a treasure trove. He is a wealth of information about the world of ballet,” he said. He said that despite his own experience with ballet and conducting dancing with the likes of “CATS,” he’d loved the learning experience of working with a master.
Ballet, both Steichen and Sklute explained, is particularly difficult to conduct.
“The minute the music starts, the two most pivotal people are the conductor and the stage manager and it’s paramount, the conductor’s work,” Sklute said.
Steichen said that versus something like a symphony performance with a program of multiple songs, a ballet orchestra must provide the “dramatic arch” for the entire show. Trickiest is the fact that they are accompanying dancers.
“You are accompanying physicality, which is very different from accompanying a vocal line or accompanying and instrumentalists. ... Thank goodness I had ballet experience,” Steichen said.
“Don Quixote” had four different leading casts. Steichen had spent much of the rehearsal time studying each dancer to adjust to their style. Tempos and breaks in the music must vary from dancer to dancer. That’s a challenge, Steichen said, but he was clearly fascinated and enjoying the experience.
On another side of entertainment is the “Simply Sinatra” concert.
“Oh, who doesn’t love Frank Sinatra?” Steichen said. He gushed about the crooner style.
“There’s a whole skill and style to that that these guys just have down, and Steve (Lippia) — he’s a great entertainer.”
Lippia brings with him the original orchestrations of favorite Sinatra tunes like “Come Fly With Me,” “The Best is Yet to Come” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” which Steichen started singing, fingers snapping, before joking that he should leave the singing to Lippia.
For the concert, the symphony has brought in a group of local saxophonists that “are the best jazzers in town,” Steichen said.
He loves the opportunity that concerts like this provide for the orchestra to kick back. He quickly added that they don't lose footing in quality in pops concerts.
Some orchestras he's worked with, Steichen said, really can't get past strictly classical programs.
"The joy of the Utah Symphony is that the players are so flexible and versatile that they can play whatever style you put in front of them,” he said. “It’s, again, one of the joys of coming and working here.”
Steichen, who’s been known to attend battle of the bands events and loves Utah’s theater offerings and underground indie rock scene, hopes that audiences can be versatile too — perhaps even considering a crossover to attend not only the Sinatra concert, but performances like “Don Quixote” as well.
“My hope is that people will go, ‘Oh, Jerry conducts this and this. Let’s go try something new,’” he said. “If people say, ‘Yeah, it’s not really my thing,’ I kind of go, ‘Have you ever tried it?’”
Steichen believes that attitude applies to all arts and has found his plethora of experiences enriching.
“I think I am the luckiest man in the world because no one gets to have the wealth that I do just of experience,” Steichen said, knocking on the wooden table, declaring he was happy to have so much work, “but sometimes I wish I had a little bit more time to enjoy each one, because I find myself going, ‘OK, what’s the next project?’”
After "Simply Sinatra," he’s off to New Haven for a performance of Latin music, then on to Hartford for a St. Patrick’s Day celebration. Utah audiences will be seeing a lot of Steichen at the Deer Valley Music Festival this summer, and he's expected to stick around for a few more years.
Steichen may always be on the go and sometimes lamenting the lack of time to savor his experiences, but he’s grateful.
“Everyone’s busy,” he said. “I just get to be busy doing more of what I love, so that’s great.”
If you go...
What: "Simply Sinatra," Jerry Steichen, conductor, Steve Lippia, guest artist
Where: Abravanel Hall
When: Feb. 24-25, 8 p.m.
Tickets: $27-$58, ticket price increases $5 if purchased on the day of the concert, group and student discounts are available.