Robert Olson has changed the Longmont Symphony, and the Longmont Symphony has changed him.
“I’m very, very proud of what we’ve done over three decades,” says the director who brought the Longmont Symphony Orchestra (LSO) from a group of raw amateurs who had to be led measure by measure through Stravinsky’s Firebird to a first-rate community orchestra that tackles major repertoire unafraid. And along the way, he says he learned something, too.
With a concert on Saturday (7:30 p.m. April 9, Vance Brand Civic Auditorium, Longmont), Olson will step down after 33 years as the orchestra’s music director — more than half the LSO’s 50 years of existence. He will return in the fall to conduct the opening concert of the 2016–17 50th anniversary season, but most of the concerts during the year will be conducted by candidates to take his position.
Saturday’s concert brings to an end a season-long exploration of Russian music. The major work will be Tchaikovsky’s über-popular Piano Concerto, performed with pianist Chih-Long Hu, whom Olson has known for many years. Other works on the program will be the March and Scherzo from Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges, familiar from its use in TV shows and commercials; Shostakovich’s youthful Symphony No. 1, written when he was just 19; and one non-Russian work, the Intermezzo from Leoncavallo’s I pagliacci.
Leoncavallo’s very Italian Intermezzo is on the otherwise all-Russian program, Olson says, “as a favor for a very close friend.”
If this doesn’t sound like a valedictory program for an outgoing maestro, that’s because Olson doesn’t like to think about making a grand exit. “That’s not in my personality,” he says. “It would be fine with me just to quietly go away.”
He points to two elements in his success. For one, he made it a point to bring in good soloists and make sure the players knew how to accompany well. “Our skill level was pretty basic (at first), but I told the orchestra, ‘We’re going to provide one of the best accompaniments our soloists can get.’ The orchestra became quite proud of that.”
The other element he mentions is a lesson that he learned from the orchestra. “I always took great pride in being a clear technical conductor,” he says. “Nobody was ever going to feel lost.”
Then, early in his tenure at the LSO, he put together a performance of Verdi’s Requiem that was given in Denver. “It was really good,” Olson says. “After the performance, one of the musicians in the symphony came up to me and said, ‘That was just the most inspiring experience of my life.’”
Olson says it really hit him that his clarity didn’t matter if the musicians weren’t inspired. After that, he says, “I took a completely different approach to my time on the podium there.”
Kay Lloyd, the LSO’s executive director and principal flutist, praises both sides of Olson’s conducting. “From the musician’s perspective, his conducting is very clear,” she says. “His transitions are just so seamless, and that is very important with a community orchestra.”
But she also praises his “innate ability to bring the most amazing music out of a community orchestra. He inspires us, and really brings out the best about the music.”
In one way, the concert on Saturday will close a circle for Olson with the LSO. He programmed the Shostakovich very early in his years with the orchestra, and he says it was a mistake at that time.
“It was way too early for the development of the orchestra to do that piece,” he says. “So the only time in my 33 years with that orchestra, a member of the board said to me after the concert, ‘Please don’t do anything like that again.’ And she was right to say that, because the performance was not worthy of being on the concert.”
You can be certain that this time, the Longmont Symphony is ready for Shostakovich’s First, which is one of Olson’s favorite pieces. “I like it because there’s so much chamber music,” he says. “It’s a very transparent work, (which is) just the opposite [of Shostakovich’s best known symphonies].”
Olson recalls one more element of his success in Longmont, and that is the support he has received from the community — and, in spite of his one misstep with Shostakovich, the orchestra boards. “I’ve just been blessed with wonderful boards over the years,” he says.
Longmont is the second high-profile conducting position in Colorado that Olson has given up. Last year he ended his 28-year tenure as founding director of the Colorado MahlerFest, which will welcome new artistic director Kenneth Woods in May. Olson lives in Kansas City, where he will continue to teach at the University of Missouri, Kansas City.
On the Bill: “Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto”— Longmont Symphony Orchestra, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 9, Vance Brand Civic Auditorium, Longmont. Tickets: 303-772-5796, or http://tix2.centerstageticketing.com/sites/longmontsymphony/