You might say it all began when he presented oral program notes to the audience before he conducted a piece at a live BBSO performance.
“It breaks down the barrier between the stage and the audience,” said Charles Greenwell, 25-year veteran conductor of the Birmingham Bloomfield Symphony Orchestra (BBSO). “It brings them into the experience.”
His wife and best advisor, Cleopatra, suggested he continue with the practice when she recognized how favorably the audience responded to Greenwell’s impromptu commentaries. It was as though he were satisfying their hunger for background on the various pieces the orchestra was playing.
Such sensitivity and responsiveness to the audience has contributed to Greenwell’s tenure as the BBSO’s pops conductor for 14 years and then as its music director.
“I love sharing things with people, especially the funny and serious stories of the music and the musicians,” said Greenwell. “I like the audience to feel a part of what’s going on on stage.”
But the highly successful and much respected Greenwell has decided to pass on the baton. He will conduct his last concert with the BBSO on Sunday October 20 at 7 p.m. at the Birmingham Seaholm High School Auditorium.
Greenwell’s passion for music began when he was a small child living in Manhattan with his parents who were both concert and opera singers. His father sang with the New York City Opera and Beverly Sills. When Greenwell was in his teens the family moved to East Lansing where his father was a voice professor at Michigan State University.
“I love music and what it does to the human spirit,” he said. “It creates an extraordinary range of emotions. For me, this is truly wonderful and I can’t think of anything else that gives me this kind of satisfaction and deep-seated reward.”
Greenwell earned his undergraduate degree at MSU in 1961 and later his master’s degree in voice. He also spent two years as Entertainment Officer of the 3rd U.S. Army in Atlanta. After college he went to London and studied under Sir Adrian Boult at the Royal College of Music for two and a half years. He subsequently toured Europe, Canada and the United States.
At the time of Greenwell’s emergence as a conductor there was really no training in the craft as there is today.
“To lead an orchestra, you either have it naturally or you don’t,” said Greenwell. “I think I do, but it’s not something I think about. Rather, conducting is about the way you deal with people. If you don’t have that, you come off as mechanical or phony.”
Leading an orchestra requires inspiring the musicians, he said. It is the “intangible in the art,” and if it’s not there, it can’t be created.
Greenwell’s success has also been about treating the musicians properly.
“I always made it a point to treat the musicians with great respect, love and dignity. And, the musicians have responded to that.”
Primus inter pares (Latin for first among equals) is Greenwell’s watchword in conducting.
“You are like a traffic cop with regard to tempos and dynamics, but it is not imposed.”
Instead, Greenwell believes the conductor and the musicians should share in the interpretation of the piece with the goal of making the performance what it ought to be.
Actually, it is commonly assumed that professional orchestra musicians know the technical aspects of making music. In community orchestras, however, the conductor must take into account the spirit of the music as well as its technical aspects.
“I tend to go more for the spirit,” said Greenwell. “It doesn’t matter that it’s not perfect technically as long as there is joy in making the music, connecting with the audience and making the experience memorable and satisfying.”
Greenwell also believes that the music isn’t just for the audience, but for the musicians as well.
“I hope the love I’m feeling for the music translates to the orchestra,” he said. “I’m also concerned about the high-level of fun we have together. I hope the overall product is that we provide a musical experience of great happiness where we strive for a common goal.”
One of Greenwell’s prime accomplishments with the BBSO was discovering and encouraging violinist Gabriel Bolkosky, the guest soloist for Greenwell’s farewell concert.
Twenty-four years ago this month Bolkosky auditioned with the BBSO as a young artist and he has gone on to make a considerable career for himself, said Greenwell. It was, therefore, a no-brainer to decide who should play as guest soloist at Greenwell’s final concert.
The concert will feature Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 7”; Mendelssohn’s “Violin Concerto in E Minor” as well as his “The Beautiful Melusine.”
“I always had it in mind to do the Beethoven 7th at my last concert with BBSO,” said Greenwell. “And, once Gabriel Bolkosky selected the famous Mendelssohn E-minor Violin Concerto, it was a natural to add the lovely but infrequently-performed concert overture.”
“The Mendelssohn is a very popular and flashy concerto that is always an audience pleaser and Beethoven's Seventh Symphony is not only amazing as it is Beethoven, it's one of Beethoven's best,” said Brandon Faber, BBSO executive director. “It commands a great balance of strength and subtlety, fierceness and refinement. The Allegretto movement is one of his most famous musical passages and it stands alone as the second half of the program very, very well. I'm sure Charles has a particular fondness for this Symphony.”
Another of Greenwell’s contributions to the BBSO is to provide the audience with an “astonishing wide repertoire.” It interests them, gets them to the concerts—and encourages them to come back for more—as they have all these years.
Greenwell is also known for his work as a program host and music director for 20 years at WQRS-FM, a classical music station that folded in 1997. He truly loved broadcasting, an endeavor he started during his college years at MSU some 40 years ago.
Although he loved working at WQRS, he saw its end as a blessing in disguise: he was able to pursue full-time conducting as music director of the BBSO and as conductor of the Southern Great Lakes Symphony (formerly the Allen Park Symphony Orchestra).
Since the early 1990s until last year Greenwell has been assistant conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO), which included writing the program notes and providing webcasts. He has also directed the Tulsa Philharmonic, the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra, the Windsor Symphony Orchestra, and the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra, among others, and served as a producer for the recordings of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra for Chandos Records of England.
“There have been some wonderful twists and turns throughout my life,” he said.
Perhaps those same twists and turns will emerge in his retirement, but Greenwell blithely says he will deal with life as it comes—just as he always has.
A great advocate of community symphony orchestras, Greenwell worries about sustaining them due to the financial difficulties they must face. There were far more of them ten to fifteen years ago when grants and fundraising campaigns supported them, he said.
The BBSO has survived well over these difficult years, but it still has to pinch pennies, said Greenwell.
Getting into music in general was a lot easier when he was younger, said Greenwell. A musician could go to New York and earn enough between gigs and part-time jobs to keep going comfortably. Now it is much more difficult.
“New York’s streets are littered with artists,” he said. “So unless music is a passion that you can’t do without, your chances for success in it are not good.”
Nevertheless, and despite the grim prospects for a musical career, Greenwell encourages musicians—and all artists—to give it a try because it’s better to go to New York and fail than to not try at all—and spend a lifetime wondering if you could have made it.
As to the future of the arts, Greenwell remains “guardedly optimistic” or “rose-colored pessimistic.” He predicts that the whole music scene will be vastly different from what it is now in just the next ten years.
“Audiences have been graying for a long time and it’s rare to see young people at a concert,” he said. “I hope we can keep things going because there’s always a place for orchestra, opera and ballet companies.”
It is critical that the young become more involved in the artistic experience, he said. This is very difficult these days since music education has taken a back seat in the school curriculum and in some cases, it has been eliminated.
He also emphasized that if music is not a part of a child’s life at an early age, it will not be there at all. That’s where future audiences will come from.
“Music has been my great love and passion since I was a child,” said Greenwell. “I love music. For me, it is truly wonderful. What it gives us in rewards and satisfaction is almost like going to another plane. There is nothing quite like it for the emotions it can bring out in us—as well as the memories associated with them.”
Greenwell expects the last concert to be bittersweet.
“Twenty-five years is quite a stretch,” he said. “But it’s time to get fresh blood and new ideas. What the orchestra and I have shared is quite extraordinary. We enjoyed working with one another and giving concerts. There will undoubtedly be some emotion welling up on the last notes of the Beethoven.”