It's a Wonderful Life

By staff January 1, 2004

The first time I meet Leif Bjorn Bjaland (Be-ya-land), he's not at all what I expect. His photos make him seem cool, sophisticated, and a little unapproachable. As I'm led up the back stairs to his office on top of the Beatrice Friedman Symphony Center, I feel slightly nervous.

I've interviewed many great conductors and composers in my years as a journalist. More often than not, they address you with that "fly on my musical score" kind of air. They are, after all, known as maestro. The word means master, not regular Joe.

But as I reach the top of the stairs, this maestro

nearly runs me down. Oddly enough, he's carrying

toothpaste and a toothbrush. It's an intimate moment, catching a man on his way to a date with personal hygiene, and I feel myself blush a little. Up close, Bjaland, Crest in hand, is tall and handsome in a boy-next door kind of way, with a loopy smile that makes him seem gangly.

"Lunch," he says, shaking the toothbrush as if to

answer the unspoken question. Then he grins, sheepish, and like a good boy, exits to brush his teeth. Probably to floss, too. It's an endearing introduction that sets the tone for our meeting-and the man.

A few minutes later, with teeth brushed and hair

combed, Bjaland exudes an old-fashioned Jimmy

Stewart kind of grace, a Midwestern elegance that

bespeaks intelligence and good humor. At 47,

Bjaland begins another year as artistic director with the Florida West Coast Symphony, his seventh season, with undeniable anticipation. Like Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey, he's come to believe that his is a wonderful life. And it is. That much quickly becomes clear.

Born in Flint, Mich., of a Norwegian-American father and a second-generation Scotch-Irish mother, Bjaland was a protégé of Leonard Bernstein and Michael Tilson Thomas and has conducted with symphonies and opera companies around the world. Once hailed by famed conductor Sir Georg Solti as "a most musical young conductor with a great future potential," Bjaland began his professional career as professor of music at Yale University. In 1988, he was selected by Leonard Bernstein to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as part of the American Conductors Program. Before he came to Sarasota, Bjaland held several posts, including as assistant conductor of the San Francisco Symphony; and in addition to his post here, he currently serves as conductor for the Waterbury (Conn.) Symphony and cover conductor for the New York Philharmonic.

And although over the course of our conversation, I learn he loves the Sarasota's Hob Nob and hot fudge sundaes, what outshines everything is his passion for music.

"My earliest memory of music was in 1958," says Bjaland. "I was just two or three. I can remember lying on the floor and looking up in my parents' kitchen at their white ebonite radio and hearing Volare (Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu) with Domenico Modugno singing. I could feel the music run through me. It was a really vivid memory, all color, light and sound.

I still love it and think it's great. I have a 45 single of it and a player to play it on."

Besides his love for a certain swinging Sicilian song, music was not something Bjaland gave much thought to or showed much interest in at that early age. His family was not musical. He says his mother had a lovely singing voice, and as a child she had won a Ted Mack-styled amateur talent contest on the radio. But that was the extent of musical talent in his family.

And Bjaland lived in a company town. His relatives either worked for, or with, General Motors-as did everyone else. In the late 1950s, the auto industry was Flint. The auto makers provided the schools, the housing. In exchange, the town provided grateful workers. If you were born in Flint, you worked for the company. That was a given. At least, for most.

But not, it would turn out, for Bjaland. When he reached fifth grade, music took hold again. Or, at least, peer pressure did. Bjaland's best friend decided to join the school band to play clarinet. So Bjaland, who wanted to fit in, decided that he would do the same.

"However," he now says with a laugh, "I can safely say that I did not distinguish myself on the instrument." Still, despite his lack of talent for the clarinet, he stuck with it; and that decision proved to be a turning point in his young life.

"One day the band director, Harry Henderson, whom I worshipped, asked for volunteers to conduct," Bjaland recalls. "It looked interesting, so I volunteered. That was it for me. It was just like magic. I was struck by the feeling and, certainly, at that time, by the sense of power. There was just something so vital and thrilling about it. It was a feeling I had never experienced up until that moment of my life. From that point to this, it's been a single-minded passion."

And quite a passion it is. Bjaland's entire world revolves around music. Months before he performs a score he studies it closely, trying to decipher the intent behind the notes. He'll often research biographies about the composer or wade through collected letters, hoping to uncover the emotional pitch that the composer was looking for. And then, when all the homework is done, Bjaland imagines the actual performance, runs it over and over in his head until he knows it so well he can feel it in his bones.

Being a conductor is a lot like being an athlete. You have to have focus. Before a performance, Bjaland will often sit in a dark room and try to get inside of the emotion of the music itself. Which, given some composers, can be a dark journey.

Conductors also have to be in great physical condition, because, like dancers, they use their bodies as an instrument. They dive and swoop and hold themselves so still they barely seem to breathe. Every move a conductor makes, every gesture, every look, directs the orchestra. There's no room for missteps. So, like an athlete, Bjaland trains; and that isn't easy for a man who describes himself as a "Hob Nob kind of guy" and loves meatloaf and apple pie and lutefisk in butter. Still, he has to watch his weight, get his exercise, even do a little yoga before each performance.

And, like most athletes, Bjaland says he spends a lot of his time living in his head. It's not unusual for him to have performance nightmares.

"I'm always dreaming that I forget part of my tux," he says. "It's like I get into the taxi and the driver doesn't know where to go and I finally get to the hall and I don't have my pants and I'm performing the wrong score."

It's no wonder that, by March, Bjaland feels spent. He works hard, saying he wants to justify himself to the community and to the musicians. He explains that he wasn't the first choice for artistic director-the competition was fierce, and two others turned the job down before him. He never lets himself forget that, not wanting anyone to regret that he's here. It seems an unfounded worry.

"He's one of the most truly gifted young conductors working anywhere today," says Richard Storm, who reviews classical music performances for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Of one 2003 season performance Storm wrote, "Bjaland and the orchestra wrung every last drop of energy to deliver an overwhelming dose of heart-pounding reality to the breathless audience."

"Leif understands music in a profound way," Storm tells me. "It's quite extraordinary."

Besides Storm's role as critic, he's also a member of Key Chorale, which is associated with the symphony, and he's performed under Bjaland's direction. It's clear from the way he speaks of Bjaland that Storm's not only amazed at his professional skill, he likes him.

He's not alone. Nearly everyone interviewed for this piece professes some level of affection for the man. Storm says that when members of the orchestra go to dinner after a performance, as they often do, all the waiters and waitresses fawn over Bjaland.

"They bring him special little treats from the kitchen," he says. "Treat him like a long-lost son. He just has that way with people."

Bjaland, Storm says, is charming in an earnest way, and often does things that are both endearing and surprising.

"Once, during a rehearsal," Storm recalls, "Leif was trying to explain a difficult passage. We kept getting it wrong, and it was frustrating. Then, all of a sudden, he fell into this impersonation of the Supremes-all of them-vamping away like a back-up singer. And as funny as it was, and it was funny, we understood what he was getting at. He's disarming that way."

There's a lot of Bjaland that's disarming. A man who's worked with many great conductors and held many prime appointments, he chuckles when asked to name his most important accomplishments to date. "I guess I'd have to say it's that my mother likes me," he says. "Out of everything I do, I'm the most proud that my mother not only loves me, but likes me, too."

His personal idol, he says, is Julia Child, not so much for her cooking skills but for the way she re-created herself and became an icon of the culinary arts in her 40s. And don't get him started on hot fudge. The maestro can rhapsodize about hot fudge sundaes in a way that makes a grown woman blush-or, at the very least, run out to Ben and Jerry's.

But what seems most disarming about a man of exceptional talent is that he's not interested in being a prima donna.

"Leif always looks to have a collaboration with the orchestra," says concertmaster Daniel Jordan, who has worked with Bjaland since 1998. "He isn't interested in a dictatorship. It's a real collaborative relationship, which is quite unusual."

Bjaland is clearly a team player. His office is not much of an office. It's just an old desk shoved into the corner of a cavernous storage area on top of the Symphony Center. The carpet and ceiling have seen better days. Overheard, fluorescent lights hum. The walls are so thin that when the orchestra is practicing in the auditorium it's difficult to take a phone call, or talk to an interviewer.

But he doesn't seem to care about any of this. He'd like a floor lamp, but if he doesn't get one, you can tell it won't be a problem. To Bjaland, it really isn't about the trappings of being a conductor, that great mysterious figure in white tie and tails. All that matters is the music.

"Music gives my life a greater meaning," he says simply. "It's rejuvenating and sustaining-a reinvigorating process. And nurturing, too."

Bjaland keeps a "vacation" home in San Francisco, a city he loves and still has close ties to. Twelve weeks of the year, he lives there in a lovely old Edwardian, with lots of English Craftsman detail, where he can cook meatloaf to his heart's content.

Here in Sarasota, he lives in a condo on Siesta Key, a place he says he fell in love with because the profusion of vegetation and the low-key lifestyle reminded him of the shores of Lake Huron, where his family had a cottage when he was growing up. He describes himself a lonely kid.

"Growing up," Bjaland says, "I had a vivid inner world. I came from a very Garrison Keillor background, where you didn't talk a lot. I often felt different from my friends. Then I discovered Brahms.

"Throughout his music the elegant surface belies a turmoil underneath--and you can feel it. Nothing in Brahms is ever resolved. There's always something left unspoken, some regret. Some wistful unfilled wish, and that really speaks to me."

When he says this Bjaland looks a little choked up, a little wistful. It's easy to imagine him all those yeas ago with his ill-fated clarinet, playing badly, maybe even embarrassed, but still playing and dreaming of a life where music is everything. And not caring what the other kids say. It makes you wonder what they'd say now that the quiet kid has grown into "a conductor's conductor," as critics have written.

But perhaps they're not surprised. As we all know, it's the quiet ones that almost always make good. And Bjaland has made very good, indeed.

In December 2002, Bjaland extended his contract with the Florida West Coast Symphony through the 2005-06 season. Under his leadership, the Masterworks concerts, featuring the entire orchestra, are a consistent sellout. This season, the 55th for the symphony, features works from Ravel, Mendelssohn, Handel and some other names perhaps less familiar, such as Saint-Saëns and Korngold.

In addition, Bjaland has created several other complementary series to round out the season. There's a four-evening "Heroic Beethoven," performed at the Sarasota Opera House. And there's also the "Great Escapes" series that features high-spirited themes such as "Under the Big Top," a tribute to Sarasota's circus roots with the Baby Elephant Walk paired, interestingly enough, with the Bear Symphony by circus fan Joseph Haydn.

"Leif is a great programmer," concertmaster Jordan says. "He mixes the standard repertoire with cutting-edge. He pushes the envelope." Jordan goes on to explain that introducing "difficult" music into a season is not the greatest challenge for a conductor. The challenge often lies with the familiar.

"You really have to present an interpretation that 100 percent of the people agree on," he says. "You have to hit that mark. Convince the musicians, and the audience, that this is the way the piece is supposed to be played. If not, it's a real problem."

When Bjaland creates a season, he takes into consideration a "wide swath" of historical perspectives, in addition to the fine art of mixing the familiar works and the new.

"It's like a gastronomic feast," he says. (For a thin man, he talks a lot about food.) "It's just like one of these wonderful French meals with a zillion courses. The first course is delicious in and of itself, but it also has some quality that prepares you for the second course. And on and on. So there's a kind of progression. Each course enhances the next. Each builds.

"At the beginning of the season, I want to set up a certain feeling-maybe dwell on certain kinds of music or set up kinds of emotional states or certain coloristic aspects of the music. This would be the appetizer. Then as you go through the season you come to the savory part, then you come to the palate cleanser, and then you get something really rich, then something acerbic."

In the end, the key is to touch the audience in a way that words cannot. Bjaland says that the largest problem with presenting music to a community-no matter if the score is well known or new-is what Freud terms "The Cult of Memory."

"As we age," Bjaland explains, "we become prisoners of our experiences. We go to the same restaurants. We eat the same things. It's comforting. People who feel strongly that way don't always like what I do."

Nonetheless, Bjaland is committed to bringing forth a dynamic season, a season in which there is a place for the familiar, the well loved, and the difficult. It all has a place at his symphonic table, even if the work is born in madness and unflinchingly raw. To Bjaland, it's all a part of life and it's his job to illuminate the joy-and the darkness-of the human condition.

"Music has to reflect past, present, and future," he says, "and has to do so in a way that we can relish the newness of the future, be in the present, and look back at the past with kindness."

And maestro Leif Born Bjaland looks clearly into that continuum, mines its passion, and shares his vision of it all with audiences who hang on every note. So the quiet kid grows up to be an earnest, charming man whom his mother likes, who brushes his teeth after meals, and makes good. If that isn't a wonderful life, what is?

N.M. Kelby is the author of two novels, In the Company of Angels and Theater of the Stars. She has been a print and TV journalist for more than 20 years.

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