In front of an Orchestra instead of a camera


April 09, 1992|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Staff Writer

Actor David Ogden Stiers has cherished the thought of harnessing the "log-burning, pile-driving passion" of Beethoven ever since he heard George Szell conduct the Seventh Symphony on the basketball court of the University of Oregon. It was the 1950s, a time when teen-agers still followed groups like the Cleveland Orchestra.

"I thought my hair -- which I could grow then -- would never lie back down," the 49-year-old actor said recently during a phone interview from his coastal home in Oregon.

Sunday, Mr. Stiers -- perhaps most widely known as Maj. Charles Emerson Winchester of the TV series "M*A*S*H" -- will conduct the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra in a performance of Beethoven's Fourth Symphony at Goucher College. The program also includes Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf," which Mr. Stiers will conduct and narrate, and Mehul's "Overture to La Chasse de Jeune Henri." The concert benefits the 40-member chamber orchestra, founded in 1984 by music director Anne Harrigan.

Mr. Stiers is among a handful of actors -- including Kevin Kline, Shari Lewis and the late Danny Kaye -- who conduct benefit concerts. During the past decade, he has worked with 20 different orchestras, ranging from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to the Yaquina Chamber Orchestra. He says he plans to keep guest conducting "until I get it right."

"I've learned much more about the vocabulary of conducting -- I mean the technique of handling that little piece of wood -- and I've learned to have a lot more fun in the making of the music. I don't take myself very seriously as a conductor. I take the music very seriously. Early on, I took both way too seriously."

Although he lacks formal training, Mr. Stiers seized some golden instructional opportunities when he was an acting student of John Houseman's at the Juilliard School in New York. He recalls cutting acting classes to listen to such legendary conductors as Sir Georg Solti and Pierre Boulez lead master classes.

In preparing for a concert, he says he listens to recordings until he can hear what he's "seeing on the score."

Ms. Harrigan says Mr. Stiers is "very musically knowledgeable." She adds that actors who conduct usually have better body language than most musicians.

"Almost every actor I've ever met has an extraordinarily well-developed musical sense," says Mr. Stiers. "It has to do with their sense of rhythm. They understand breathing. They understand dynamics. The pulse for an actor is kind of like the tempo for a musician. You change the tempo, and you alter the sense of pulse at the heart of the music.

"Actors have a mimetic energy which is difficult for musicians in the main. Musicians tend to sit in sections or larger groups and have a guaranteed anonymity. When they're asked to stand, there's an apology in their bearing."

He says he responds to music physically even when he is part of the audience.

"I very rarely sit still in a concert hall. My body is working with the music all the time, my breathing changes. . . . I think there are things that actually change in your body [in response to music]. There is something that happens in your diaphragm as you approach the first cannon shot in the '1812 Overture'."

What does he consider most rewarding about conducting?

"The sense of joining a performance. When you're an actor, you wonder 'How did I do on that speech?' Or you can't wait for that scene in Act 2 where you've done such and such.

"But in music, we are all engaged in the same effort, the same movement, at the same moment. We're all on the line. It's our expertise, our concentration, the height of our spirits and the center of our souls all banging at the same time and praying that our technique is sufficient to get us through."

The actor last visited Baltimore during the filming of "The Accidental Tourist." Since then, he has appeared in such movies as "Doc Hollywood" and "Shadows & Fog" and in such television movies as a "Perry Mason" episode, "The Final Days" and "How To Murder a Millionaire."

Because of his concert schedule -- he has agreed to perform eight benefits this year -- Mr. Stiers says he hasn't taken an acting job recently. He continues to bask in his newest form of celebrity: He's the voice of Cogsworth the Clock in "Beauty and the Beast." He describes the animated film as a wonderful project.

"I loved it, are you kidding? Here I thought I was just showing up to do a little voice part for whatever Disney was working on. I had no idea what I was participating in. When I found out, my jaw just dropped."

When he's on the road to champion classical music these days, Mr. Stiers makes a point to defend public funding of the arts; he says the National Endowment for the Arts has been "infinitely more responsible with its very small allocation" than other government agencies.

And he also seizes any opportunity to deplore the widespread pollution of elevator music.

"Our choices are being eliminated, including our choices to simply think unencumbered by tonal interference," he says.

"There's a joke in L.A.: 'Would you like smoking or non-smoking, cellular or non-cellular, beeper or non-beeper?'

"Well, I ask for a section with no music. Or as far away from it as possible. . . . I don't like pinching tomatoes to 'There's No Business Like Show Business.' And I object to banking by Brahms."

David Ogden Stiers conducts concert

Actor David Ogden Stiers will conduct the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra in a benefit concert for the orchestra at 8 p.m. Sunday in Kraushaar Auditorium of Goucher College. The program is Mehul's "Overture to La Chasse de Jeune Henri," Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf" and Beethoven's "Symphony No. 4." Tickets are $29, $22 and $16. Tickets to the post-concert reception are an additional $20. Tickets and details: 410-887-2259.

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