Why Classical Music Rocks: Dr. Mark Shapiro, Conductor

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What can a Summa Cum Laude graduate from Yale do with a DMA in choral conducting and multiple diplomas for orchestral conducting? Well, for one thing, commanding an army of musicians from the best seat in the house with a wave of your hand is pretty nice.

Most people call it a day when they pick up a guitar and start a band in their garage. But Dr. Mark Shapiro shows that there’s a more sophisticated side of music that is both challenging and rewarding.

Sonic Eclectic: What were your first experiences with music?

Mark Shapiro: My first hands-on experience was piano lessons when I was about six. My sister, four years older, was already taking lessons. I used to love listening to her practice, especially the Turkish Rondo by Mozart.

SE: When did you realize that music was something you had to do for a living?

MS: Must have been in high school or college. I took some conducting classes in college with two terrific teachers. They particularly pointed me in that direction.

SE: What would you listen to growing up? Who were some of your influences?

MS: Folk music was a big presence in our household: Joan Baez, Pete Seeger. My parents also liked French cabaret singers: Piaf, Patachou. We went to a lot of Broadway musicals, too: two favorites were Fiddler on the Roof and West Side Story. We also listened to Pajama Game, Gigi, and a lot of other shows. Classical music and opera were omnipresent. We listened to the Met broadcasts on the radio, and my parents had lots of opera recordings, all the usual suspects: Magic Flute, Tosca, Aida, and others by Mozart, Puccini and Verdi. The tenor Giuseppe di Stefano; the pianist Alexander Brailowsky, and the guitarist Andres Segovia all took turns on the record player.

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SE: It’s relatively rare to find musicians with the drive to become composers and conductors. What drew you to take the helm of the orchestra?

MS: Because it is the best seat in the house!

SE: So tell me a little bit about the groups you work with. Do you have any favorites in particular?

MS: Cantori New York is a 36-40 voice ensemble in New York City. We perform to a very high standard, with a particular focus on new and neglected music. The Monmouth Civic Chorus [from New Jersey] has done an enormous number of oratorios, including many that have been neglected. I also work with the Opera Company of Middlebury [Vermont] and Nova Sinfonia, a chamber orchestra in Halifax.

SE: Where do you find the bulk of your work and focus goes into?

MS: Like many musicians, I maintain a balance between performance and teaching. I teach at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University, at Mannes College the New School for Music, and at the European American Musical Alliance. I especially enjoy teaching conducting and music theory, which help me deepen my own understanding of music, and how to help an ensemble to internalize and perform it.

SE: What would you say are some of your own personal accomplishments?

MS: There are always particular musical pieces, such as Beethoven Missa Solemnis and Ethel Smyth’s Mass in D with MCC, or Frank Martin’s oratorio Le Vin Herbe with Cantori New York. Les Noces with MCC was a great achievement. A successful class or productive rehearsal makes any day worthwhile.

SE: Who are some notable artists that you’ve worked with?

MS: Great singers such as Sasha Cooke and Barbara Dever; the conductor Armin Jordan with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande; the Cassatt String Quartet…and there are many orchestra players I am always glad to see, because they are so skillful and professional.

SE: What are some of the challenges and difficulties you’ve faced over the years as a working musician/composer/conductor?

MS: Everyone in the business right now has felt the economic pressure resulting from the difficulties of the past two years. The dwindling coverage in print media, the abandonment of previewing and reviewing all but the largest institutions (NY Phil, Met Opera etc.) has made it more challenging for groups to get the word out. In Monmouth, I recall that the breakup of AT & T had a major effect on the chorus, as many of the company’s employees who sang with MCC decided to leave the state.

SE: What have you witnessed in the last few years that indicates any shift in “the way things are done?”

MS: Concerning business again, changing lifestyles have made it more difficult for volunteer choruses to maintain regular activity. People seem to work very long hours and to have increasingly complex schedules and commitment.

SE: How is it different to be a working musician now as opposed to ten years ago?

MS: Many freelance classical musicians are noticing that it has become harder to make ends meet only by playing/singing, but some of my friends are still doing okay. There are fewer mid-size orchestras. More people are finding they need to “mix it up” to a greater extent by being more versatile and more aggressive at networking. The challenge is to maintain one’s commitment to the repertoire and performance quality that drew us to music in the first place.

SE: What advice would you give to anyone thinking of a career in music?

MS: Expect to work hard and to encounter frustration, but to have incredible artistic rewards when the stars align. Know that you may have to adjust your plan as circumstances evolve.

New York/New Jersey readers: Check out the Monmouth Civic Chorus’ website at http://www.monmouthcivicchorus.org/ for upcoming events in New Jersey, as well as Cantori New York’s site http://www.cantorinewyork.com/ for New York Events.

Further North readers: Visit the Opera Company of Middlebury for Vermont performances.(http://www.ocmvermont.org/)

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