The Colorado Symphony’s Resident Conductor Christopher Dragon has navigated a busy schedule this summer, conducting nearly 20 performances at Red Rocks as part of the Acoustic on the Rocks series. We talked to him about the challenges of quarantining, newfound cooking recipes, his percussion debut at Red Rocks, and much more.
The abrupt onset of COVID-19 and subsequent cancellation of the remainder of the 2019/20 Colorado Symphony Season was difficult for everyone involved. What were your thoughts and emotions during those first few months as we were stuck in our homes and unable to perform publicly?
Christopher Dragon: It was very disappointing to have to cancel the rest of our 2019/20 Season but it was 100% the right decision for the safety of our audience and musicians. Our performance schedule is so busy that at first it was nice to have a bit of time to breathe but that wore off very quickly and soon I was missing the weekly structure of rehearsals and performances. The Colorado Symphony is such a major part of my life and the whole reason I moved to the United States, so those months felt very empty not being able to make music with my colleagues. It was worrying to witness other orchestras around the country cancel their upcoming seasons as well, but I am so grateful that our administration is determined to move forward with performing in any way possible and because of that I have great hope that we will come out of this difficult time.
What did you do during the “Stay at Home” period to stay occupied?
CD: At the beginning of the “Stay at Home” period I was working hard to get ahead of upcoming concerts and was revisiting all of the Beethoven symphonies due to the Beethoven 250 anniversary. But after numerous upcoming concerts were cancelled or postponed, I became very unmotivated and took a break from scores.
I have really enjoyed getting into cooking during this time as it was a life skill I didn’t really have. It was fun researching recipes during the day, ordering all the ingredients then trying it out at night – most of the time it was edible so I count that as a win! A recipe which has now become a regular is Crispy Roasted Broccoli with Tahini Sauce from Bon Appetit and I’m currently enjoying Not Another Cooking Show channel on YouTube. Cooking in the evening with some tunes has become my way of unwinding.
I definitely binge watched way too many shows and apart from the quarantine standards that everyone watched such as Tiger King, I finally got around to watching some classics such as Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones — I now understand why everyone was so disappointed with the last season.
I also have a Nintendo Switch which before this I never really had time to play so it was fun being able to get into it. Super Smash Bros Ultimate online was one of the most rage inducing things but I am still hooked and playing Ring Fit kept me sane whilst being stuck in my apartment.
During that early period, the Colorado Symphony quickly sprang into action, creating the #PlayOn campaign of musicians videos and Virtual Music Hour streaming replays, in addition to the Instrument Interview Series, and From Our Home To Yours recitals. All in all, over 70 videos were created featuring you and your colleagues performing in a socially distanced fashion from home. What was it like participate in some of those projects?
CD: It was great to be able to relive some of our live performances during our Virtual Music Hour series and I was especially thrilled that the performance of Schubert Symphony No. 9 that I conducted back in 2019 was featured. That performance was one of my personal highlights with the orchestra as there was such pure and committed music making happening onstage.
Being part of our #PlayOn series for our “Virtual Valse” from Tchaikovsky’s Serenade was a lot of fun. Our Assistant Concertmaster, Yi Zhao, came up with the idea and asked me to conduct it. The waltz from Tchaikovsky’s String Serenade was a tricky piece to do virtually as there are a lot of rubato and tempo changes in the piece but I think it turned out very well!
It was a very odd experience having to conduct through the movement with no sound or orchestra and was especially important for me to be clear and rhythmically stable for our musicians to follow from the video.
Over the last few months, restrictions have been lifted to the point where the orchestra can perform outdoors, in small ensembles, and for limited capacity crowds. That included 20 scheduled performances at Red Rocks for the Acoustic on the Rocks series, all of which were conducted by you. What has it been like to be back on the podium, back at Red Rocks, and what has it been like to conduct these completely unique performances?
CD: I don’t think I can put into words how much I needed these concerts at Red Rocks as it had been over 5 months since my last time on the podium, which was our unforgettable concert with Cynthia Erivo in February.
I was quite nervous leading up to our first Red Rocks rehearsal as it had been so long since my last time conducting; so much so, I was concerned that I had forgotten how to conduct and rehearse! For all of our programs, it was a little bit shaky at the start of rehearsals but by the concerts we had shaken off the cobwebs and were back in the swing of things.
What have been some of your best memories from these performances? Some lucky concert goers even got to see you play the drums, during our recent Brass and Percussion concerts. What was that like?
CD: Each performance was special to me as I was just so thankful to be back making music with my colleagues. It was definitely a highlight being asked to play percussion during our Brass and Percussion concert for the percussion-only piece – Chonlima. I’ve never played percussion before, so it was a really nerve-racking experience, but our percussion section was so supportive and helped me through it. So in addition to conducting, I’ve now played clarinet, bass drum, and the typewriter with our orchestra!
With these recent podium appearances appearances, in addition to last year’s unforgettable performance with the late John Prine, you’ve now conducted 25 performances at Red Rocks, the most in the illustrious history of this iconic venue. What does that accomplishment mean for you?
CD: I’ve now conducted 25 shows at Red Rocks including The Planets, DeVotchKa, Rufus Wainwright and Pink Martini, Sarah McLachlan, and John Prine. The second concert I ever conducted with the Colorado Symphony was with Pink Martini at Red Rocks, so the venue is extra special for me and I couldn’t be more grateful to be part of our historic run of concerts at one of America’s most iconic venues.