Conversation with Joseph Hodge

I would soak it up like a sponge

By Tim Leininger
For the Journal Inquirer
April 2-3, 2016

Joseph Hodge is in his third year of conducting the Manchester Symphony Orchestra. At age 26, he was the youngest conductor to take the orchestra’s helm. He received his undergraduate degree in music from the University of Virginia and his master’s degree in conducting at the Hartt School of Music.

Originally from Fredericksburg, Virginia, and now living in Hartford, Hodge, 29, took the time to share his story of musical discovery and taking charge of the Manchester Symphony.

Joseph Hodge

Jared Ramsdell / Journal Inquirer

When did you start studying music?

I started studying music a little bit later than most people in their careers. My sister, Emily, played the flute in middle school and high school and she was my guiding force in the early years in terms of exposure to music. I decided that she played an instrument, so I wanted to play one too. So I played the oboe. I actually started on the saxophone. I played it for a year and I was in church, and I heard this amazing sound that I never heard before and I said, “Mom, what is that?” and it was the oboe. I must have been in sixth or seventh grade and the woman who was playing that oboe wanted to give it up and I ended up buying it from her. So I ended up playing the same oboe that inspired me to play it.

Oboes are not a usual instrument for junior high and high school bands. How were you able to incorporate yourself?

I went to a very small school. Since it’s a C instrument, you can also read flute lines and they were very open to the idea of me playing something different. We had an alldistrict and all-region that I really looked forward to once or twice a year, but other than that it was a really small program.

Being a conductor you need to know how all the other instruments work. What was that like?

The common misconception is that the conductor has to be able to play all the different instruments, but you just have to know how they function, what ranges they sound good in, and what are the limitations of that instrument. What I did that helped me the most was every Wednesday night I would go to the school’s orchestra rehearsal. It was a combination of professional, student, and community. It was very unique to UVA. All the faculty members played in the orchestra. I would go and watch my teacher every night and see what she had to say. They would do string sectionals and they would talk about bowings and how the bow goes up here and down here and all the different types of articulations. I would start soaking that in like a sponge.

What brought you to Hartt?

While I was at UVA I was interning at the Wintergreen Music Festival. It is in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. There is a professional orchestra there and an academy full of students and you go for a month. I got connected with that artistic director and he actually teaches at the Hartt School. His name is Larry Allen Smith. The conductor of the Hartt School had been invited by Larry to Wintergreen that year and one of my jobs as an intern was driving around all the artists. He was one of the ones. His name is Chris Zimmerman. I applied in 2009 and he remembered me. It ended up being a great opportunity. I got to work with him really closely for a year and then they brought in Edward Cumming who was the music director at Hartford Symphony and he filled in as the interim director until they could find someone permanent. I was able to get all this experience because there was no one else I had to share with. I got to meet and work with all the conductors that were applying for the position.

How did you get from the Hartt School to the Manchester Symphony?

After I graduated, I got the Connecticut Valley (Orchestra) job. I was doing that and trying to build my career, then I heard Manchester Symphony was looking for a conductor. I put my name in the hat, went through all the interviews, went through the final round and just before the very last one where they choose two people to guest conduct a concert, they responded to me and said, “We’re sorry, but there are two others that are at the top of our list.” I was number three. I got a call in October and they said they had a terrible catastrophe and one of the finalists stepped away. I had maybe two to three rehearsals. They said, “Joe can you do it?” I said, “When do you need me to start?” This is on a Saturday and they said, “Monday would be great.” I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” I went to the library, got all the scores, cancelled all my plans for the weekend, and studied constantly and showed up on Monday. It as a great fit from the start and it was a fantastic concert.

How do conducting opera and symphonies differ?

People like to classify conductors as either an orchestral conductor or an opera conductor and there have only been a few people that have tried to break out of that mold. For opera it’s a very different world. You’re dealing with neurotic singers and it’s a living breathing art form. Their bodies are their instruments.

Your next program with the Manchester Symphony is a ballet concert.

Right, but not to be mistaken, it’s ballet music but there are no dancers unfortunately. “Composers of the Ballet Russe.”

Are the numbers shorter ballets or suites?

A little bit of both. The program opens with Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun.” It opens with this gorgeous flute solo. This program was designed by Kevin Mack, our choral conductor. It’s a collaboration between the chorale and the orchestra.

So there’s actual vocals for the ballet?

Yeah, “Les Biches” (The Does), there are a couple movements that have choir in them. I think the Stravinsky “Mass” has just woodwinds and brass and chorus. The next concert that we’re planning for June, our pops concert, is “Lost in Space.” We’re doing things about space.

Are you waiting to announce what the pieces are?

Yeah, I believe so. I can give you some sneak peeks into the following season. All of this tentative, the ideas that I’m thinking of right now for what I’d like to do are Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” orchestrated by Ravel. Then in February, we are thinking of doing a program of all opera music.

What is your preparation procedure when it conies to prepare yourself and then the orchestra for a concert?

I think it starts with researching the pieces: What’s the history, what’s the context? Is this late or early in the history of the composer’s works? Were there similar pieces composed around that time? Anything that I can gain inspiration. What have I conducted that reminds me of this? What else is going on at the time? Them’ when you’re actually opening the score, there are a lot of different philosophies about that. Some people prefer to start analyzing from bar one and start looking at the harmonies and start going very in depth bar by bar until eventually you get through it. I’m very much more of a macro person. I like to flip through the score the first time like I’m traveling to a new city. Instead of memorizing every landmark and every street in the city, just kind of flip through the pages and notice some structural things and take it all in and then peel it back like an onion. What are important structural moments? Looking at the instrumentation can be very telling. The instruments the composer is using and why, because it varies from piece to piece. For preparing the orchestra, that is something I’ve been spending a lot of time crafting over the past couple of years that I’ve had this job. We have the luxury of one to two months, every week, rehearsing, where we can shape the piece. It’s very nice to spend the time to get into the conductor’s head. We have anywhere from nine to 11 rehearsals.