One year ago, Australian conductor Christopher Dragon left his post at the West Australian Symphony Orchestra to join the Colorado Symphony as Associate Conductor. It’s been a time of learning, leading, and adjusting to the Mile High City’s notoriously thinner air. Known for his emphatic conducting style—and blink-and-you’ll-miss-him power walk onstage—Dragon’s growing fan base is spilling into the “Dragon Pit,” a special seating area in Boettcher Concert Hall that directly faces the emotive conductor for prime Dragon-watching. Here, Dragon shares his impressions on his one-year anniversary with the Symphony and all that’s happened since his arrival.
How did it feel when you led the orchestra for the first time at Boettcher Concert Hall?
Walking on stage at Boettcher Concert Hall to lead the orchestra for the first time was a surreal and beautiful moment for me. I remember thinking, “This is my home now. This is my life.”
Your big-audience debut was with Pink Martini at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. How would you describe the experience?
Conducting at Red Rocks Amphitheatre right at the beginning of my career here was just amazing. I always compare Red Rocks to the Sydney Opera House, in that both have a special atmosphere you cannot describe. We are so lucky in Denver to have such a unique venue—and the concerts that Colorado Symphony perform there are always a lot of fun!
You interviewed to be a conductor a year ago. Looking back, how did conducting the Symphony feel then, especially compared to now?
Straight away in the audition, it was clear there was a great chemistry between the musicians and myself. A year later, this connection has only gotten stronger. Having a bond like this with an orchestra is not always something that happens easily, so I feel so fortunate to be able to make music with them all. It is such a joy!
How do you define the role of a conductor?
Our orchestra consists of about 80 musicians, and each of them has a different perspective and interpretation of a piece of music. To me, the main objective of the conductor is to get everybody onto the same page so we can have a unified vision of the piece.
What have you learned in your year with the Colorado Symphony?
It has been a massive learning experience working with the Colorado Symphony, as the repertoire is so diverse. This first year alone, I have conducted a semi-staged musical, videogame-themed concert, worked with a dance company, presented youth concerts, collaborated with major pop artists—and, of course, conducted numerous classical concerts.
The biggest — and maybe most unexpected — lesson learned so far has to be from conducting the Movie at the Symphony concerts, where we perform the soundtrack in front of a full-film. The scores are often extremely complex, and to align the music to a movie and click-track can be quite difficult. Usually, soundtracks will be recorded over numerous takes, so to perform a whole soundtrack to a movie live in one shot is incredibly difficult.
How would you describe the Colorado Symphony?
The musicians of the Colorado Symphony are all extremely hard working! The Symphony performs so many concerts in a season, and — regardless of this workload — they always have a great work attitude. Everyone is always trying to achieve the highest possible level of performance.
Do you have any favorite composers or pieces you love to perform?
As a young conductor, I think it’s too early for me to have a favorite composer or piece. I enjoy conducting all types of different music and want to explore as much of it as possible. I’ve studied and conducted Brahms many times, so I feel comfortable with his works. When I was a clarinetist at university, I played quite a few pieces Brahms had written for clarinet, so even before switching to conducting his musical language was familiar and more natural to me.
This season, my Masterworks concert will feature Brahms’ Symphony No. 3, and it is a concert I’m already looking forward to!
What was it like moving from Australia to the States? What was your biggest culture shock in becoming a Coloradan?
Taking this position with the Colorado Symphony was a big moment in my life, since it‘s my first time living outside of Australia. The hardest thing specifically about moving to Colorado has been adjusting to the altitude—I have found that it can really affect my conducting in performances, stamina–wise.
What do you enjoy about living in Denver? What are you getting used to?
I really enjoy living in Denver, and moving from Perth to Denver has probably been the easiest transition for me to make here as both cities have a similar vibe. One thing I still haven’t quite gotten used to is tipping. It’s not something we have in Australia, and it always takes me a little while to work it out. I still have regular conducting engagements in Australia, so it is nice that I get to travel back a lot—but that flight never gets any easier…
What are your hobbies, outside of conducting?
Well, even though I’m not much of a cook, I love watching cooking programs. Anything with Gordon Ramsay, especially, because I think he‘s brilliant and hilarious.
Finally, how do you prepare for a concert?
Lots of studying!