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Conductor Flattered By International Honor
David Daniels was certainly gratified to receive a Distinguished Service Award from the nearly 1,900-member international Conductors Guild last month at its annual convention in New York City.
“It’s a recognition from one’s peers,” Daniels notes. “That’s always nice.”
But while the honor was for his bibliographical “Orchestral Music” book, now in its fourth edition, the truth is that the Rochester Hills resident has enjoyed a career far more accomplished than that one achievement.
Daniels, 75, came to the Detroit metro area in 1969 to teach at Oakland University, where he was chairman of the music department from 1982-88 and remains a professor emeritus after retiring in 1997. During that time, he helmed the creation of the Pontiac-Oakland Symphony, a merging of university and city orchestras, which he conducted for 20 years. Daniels also is the outgoing music director of the Warren Symphony Orchestra, which he’s conducted since its formation in 1974.
All of that has allowed him to realize a dream that began when he was very young. “Since I was just a little kid, I always wanted to be a conductor,” notes Daniels, who has three grown children with Jimmie Sue, his wife of 52 years, and six grandchildren.
“I think it’s a combination of wanting to have things just so. It’s sort of a micro-manager approach to life — you get to do things just the way you want them.”
Douglas Bianchi, who received his master’s degree in orchestral conducting at Oakland University and is now director of bands at Wayne State University, says Daniels — who he characterizes as “easygoing” — was adept at sharing that philosophy with his students.
“He taught me that being a conductor was about more than knowing your music,” explains Bianchi, who also played under Daniels in the Warren Symphony.
“It’s how you lead, how you carry yourself, how you act around other musicians — that kind of stuff. He taught me how the profession works.”
Bianchi recalls even being tutored on the proper way to bow at Daniels’ house one night after a rehearsal.
“His kids were all lying around on the couch watching the 11 o’clock news, and I had to practice in front of them,” he remembers. “And it wasn’t that I bowed once or twice. No, no, no — this went on for 15 minutes; ‘Not quite. I think the head needs to be pointed a bit more to the side...’ And his wife was giving me pointers.
“It was that extra effort and insight that made him an excellent teacher.”
A native of Penn Yan in New York state’s Finger Lakes region, Daniels was the youngest of four children and began playing piano before he began attending grade school. “It was just part of my life,” he says. “I didn’t think much about it one way or another. I just did it.”
He also credits an older brother, who he calls a “techno geek,” with introducing him to albums and stereo gear, enhancing his musical appetite. “I learned a lot from his interest,” Daniels acknowledges.
In addition to the classics, he began playing jazz in high school and continued at Oberlin College in Ohio, where he majored in music though he eschewed the school’s conservatory in order to get a more broad-based Liberal Arts education in the general studies department. He received a Masters of Arts in musicology from Boston University, then moved to the University of Iowa, where he earned a both a doctorate in orchestral literature and conducting along with a master of fine arts degree in organ.
“I made the mistake of thinking that I should learn every instrument in order to be a conductor,” Daniels explains. “So every couple of years I would change to a new instrument. Over the long haul I guess I played all of them, but never got good at any — I’m pretty bad at most.”
He even contends that with organ, his “major instrument,” he’s “not worth a damn if I don’t practice two hours a day. And I haven’t done that in 30 years.”
None of that stopped him from making his mark once he arrived at Oakland University. Teaching music history, theory, conducting and orchestration, he also built a thorough resume, starting with the school’s orchestra and the eventual merger with the Pontiac Symphony.
“That was a good move, a win-win,” Daniels recalls. “It gave the community orchestra the benefit of not having to pay a conductor, and we were able to give the students a greater opportunity to play.”
Daniels, meanwhile, had ample opportunity to mount the podium away from the university, including a season as principal conductor for the Detroit Symphony Civic Orchestra, three seasons with The Opera Organization (now the Michigan Lyric Orchestra), two seasons with the Detroit Symphony Summer Youth Orchestra and tenures with companies in Illinois — all in addition to his work with the Warren Symphony.
His guest appearance list includes the Meadow Brook Festival Orchestra, the Michigan Opera Theatre, the Ann Arbor Ballet Theatre, the Fort Street Chorale and Chamber Orchestra in Detroit and Orquesta Sinfonica de Maracaibo in Venezuela. He also conducted 13 productions for the Boston Academy of Music (now Boston Opera), five of which were named Best Opera of the Year by the Boston Globe, which praised his “confident and knowledgeable direction.”
“It’s the best job in music to me,” Daniels says of conducting. “You get to study the greatest music ever written. You get to work with highly qualified musicians — they wouldn’t be able to play in an orchestra if they weren’t pretty darn good. It’s very rewarding.”
Despite his ample experience, however, Daniels refuses to name favorite composers, pieces or orchestras. “I like it all, really,” he says. “You’re caught up in whatever you’re working on at the moment, so it’s hard to identify any one thing as being particularly special.”
Reducing his conducting and teaching responsibilities has given Daniels more time to dedicate to “Orchestral Music,” which he started in 1968 as a resource for orchestral professionals, from conductors to librarians. The fourth edition came out in 2005, with another slated for 2010, and it’s also updated monthly online.
Daniels also is starting work on a similar publication focusing on opera arias.
“It’s invaluable,” Wayne State’s Bianchi says of Daniels’ work. “It’s the standard text. Every orchestral director or manager has that book. The beauty of it is it’s a book you couldn’t believe wasn’t around forever. How did no one think this was necessary before (Daniels) did it. It will be an important part of his legacy.”
David Daniels next conducts the Warren Symphony Orchestra at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 15, when it presents “Laugh and Cry” with mezzo-soprano Liza Agazzi at the Macomb Center for Performing Arts, 44575 Garfi eld Road, Clinton Township. Call (586) 754-2950 or visit www. warrensymphony.org.
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