At first glance, Christopher Kendall might seem like a conductor whoavoids the middle.
His conducting career seems to have revolved around music at the peripheries: early and modern music. At Washington's Folger Shakespeare Library, for example, he founded the Early Music Consort, with which he performs on the lute. Concert-goers also enjoy another of his creations, the 20th Century Consort, in residence at the Smithsonian.
Even his career is bi-coastal. In addition to his work in the nation's capital, he serves as the associate conductor of the Seattle Symphony, an orchestra making artistic strides in the manner of David Zinman's Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
But appearances can be deceiving. Educated at Antioch College and the Cincinnati Conservatory in solidly Midwestern Ohio, Kendall "grew up with the stuff in the middle," as he put it. He is as close to Mozart as to Machaut, as attuned to Schubert as to Stravinsky.
"Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms are closest to my center," said Kendall, who is in town to conduct the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra at Maryland Hall this weekend. "In fact, it's my love for the mainstream repertoire that's inspired me to explorethis less familiar music. Early music and modern music are very muchalike in that they are both new because of the pioneering and exploration involved in performing them."
Kendall has been garnering impressive critical notices in recent years. He so impressed Schwartz that the Seattle conductor immediately offered him the assistant's postbefore consulting his players.
"Thankfully, the players seemed toconcur with my selection in their ratings," said Kendall, laughing. "There are some assistant conductors who have been installed over theobjections of orchestras that didn't want them. I can't tell you howhappy I am not to have been one of them."
With Seattle, he conducts a varied concert schedule, which included this season's run of "Messiah" performances, programs devoted to American music, and the orchestra's annual Mozart festival. "Conducting so many different types of music keeps things from becoming a grind," he said.
Kendall brings to Annapolis a number of deeply held artistic beliefs that he discusses with sincerity and enthusiasm.
He has definite opinions on the delicate art of programming concerts, for example. "Programming," he said, "is really the conductor's opportunity to compose. It's a way of constructing an experience for the listener by integrating the music thematically, affectively or topically. It's a delightful challenge."
This weekend's program, for example, has an Italian theme, with Ottorino Respighi's lovely impressions of "Three Botticelli Pictures," and the sunny, passionate "Italian Symphony" by Felix Mendelssohn. The third work was to have been Brahms' "Variations on a Theme byHaydn," but a concert Kendall recently conducted with the Juilliard Symphony in New York City changed all that.
When violinist Catherine Cho, a 20-year-old competition winner from Juilliard, performed the Beethoven Violin Concerto, Kendall was so taken with her playing that he sought and received permission to bring Cho to Annapolis.
"She absolutely nailed it," he exclaimed. "The playing is so exposed inthe Beethoven that many a fine violinist has shipwrecked on the intonation problems. But she was exquisitely in tune, with a beautiful sound and real passion in her playing. She knocked me out."
But evenwith the substitution, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Respighi are united in artistic conception. "I deliberately picked repertoire that didn't fly on bombast," said the conductor. "Quite simply, this music youhave to play beautifully, or it just won't work."
All three pieces are full of exposed solo writing and coloristic effects that demanda full range of interpretive nuances from the players and their conductor. In the "Botticelli Pictures," said Kendall, a conductor is a full-time decision-maker. "There are so many contradictory markings inthere," he laughed, "that it's almost impossible to figure Respighi out."
Clearly, this conductor is as non-bombastic personally as the repertoire he's selected. From his words, it would seem he brings acollegial, gentlemanly approach to the podium.
"A conductor must set a positive tone because music-making really requires a positive attitude," he said. "Intonation and ensemble don't just happen. An orchestra has to want to listen and interact,and a conductor must want to do more than just project his own presence.
"That's why we all love playing chamber music so much. Everyone's equally involved and must play beyond themselves."
It will be interesting to see how the ASO -- which has sometimes lacked initiative -- responds to such an egalitarian approach.
Kendall is optimistic. "They play with a mental agility that probably comes from having to respond to so many different conductors in such a short time. Thus far, I'm pleased with their quick response."
As Christopher Kendall comes to Annapolis pursuing new career directions, he is poised to take a major personal step as well. The son of a Quaker father and a Jewish mother, he is about to marry Susan Schilperoort, an ordained Presbyterian minister.
Now, that's mainstream!