Sherrie Figueroa: The Boulderista is a podcast that celebrates the Boulder, Colorado lifestyle by highlighting local influencers and the inspiring impact they have on our community and celebrating the local traditions that make this the happiest place to live in the US. I am your host, Sherrie Figueroa, and I invite you to explore what makes Boulder, Boulder.
My guest today is the highly-regarded Maestro Devin Patrick Hughes, music director and conductor of the Boulder Symphony and Arapahoe Philharmonic and Arts and Culture Commissioner for the City of Boulder. Throughout his career Hughes shared foundations that nurture the development of young performers, composers, and conductors. Serving as a guest clinician for school districts across Colorado, the Maestro’s mission is to make symphonic music more universally accessible to all walks of life. Using his platform to showcase new music created by minority demographics, he incorporates diversity by targeting people who don’t know they love symphonic music. In response to Covid-19, Hughes has created multiple programs connecting orchestras to their communities. Partnering with organizations such as Balfour Senior Assisted Living and Community Food Share to produce performances and dinners for both virtually and live. Hughes can be heard on One Symphony, a new podcast amplifying the voices of composers and other artistic entrepreneurs. Here with me now is Maestro Devin Patrick Hughes, welcome!
Devin Patrick Hughes: Thank you Sherri. It’s so great to be here. Such an honor and I love what you’re doing for Boulder and to get stories out into the world.
Thank you and yours is such a wonderful inspiring story. So, let’s start at the beginning. Tell me, where did you come from?
So, I came originally from Springfield, Illinois, the Land of Lincoln as we say. My father was a lawyer, a public defender. My mom was a nurse and did a lot of social work. I was really raised to make positive change in the world and make a positive impact in everything you want to do. I wanted to be a baseball player and a doctor and always was a musician. I always played music whether it be the trombone or the piano, sometimes singing and music just kind of took over my life little by little as I was growing up. I’ve spent some time all over the country from New York to LA learning about music, playing music and trying to get music out there into the community. I’ve been in Vienna Austria at the University there and I came to Colorado as a result of that around 2007.
What was your earliest musical experience that you can remember that was so formative for you?
So my dad, in addition to being a lawyer, he loved the orchestra. Like, he would say his favorite pieces are Dvorak Symphonies and Brahms Symphonies and strangely enough that’s what got me into the world as well. He was on the board of the Illinois Symphony in Springfield growing up. He grew up working for the Justice Department, Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department in Chicago. He would go to the Chicago Symphony, see all the great conductors that I would come to admire later: Herbert von Karajan, George Schulte, Leonard Bernstein. I remember he had a bust of a conductor on his desk growing up and I would look at that bust and say, “That’s weird. How does a conductor keep everybody together? 80 people or 100 people, like, that’s just impossible, that idea.” I remember thinking that the one of the first things I could think. I would go to Children’s concerts. Our schools would be bussed in to go see the Illinois Symphony play these children concerts and I remember the conductor “shhh!” sternly telling the kids to be quiet and listen. I remember trying to help his cause to quiet the kids around me. Later on, when I was conducting children’s concerts, I would see that that actually isn’t the way, you won’t engage the kids. You want them yelling. You want them getting out of their seat. You want them dancing. So, those kind of experiences I remember vividly. I remember watching Sesame Street and watching kind of this artistic creation of this flower being created on the television and the music behind it brought me to tears. That’s one of my earliest memories. Strangely enough, I got into the musical theater world as an 8 year old kid. I remember seeing Les Miserables the musical, Les Mis I called it obviously as a child, and coming home and re-enacting some of these scenes with Valjean and Javert with my brother and kind of building an orchestra and conducting this imaginary orchestra. but as a kid I never imagined I would be a conductor. It was only in college really when I was in organic chemistry class doing the pre-med thing and also playing music on the side and I just realized that my life had no other choice. I had to go into music and take the plunge and I got bitten by the conducting bug of course and the rest is history.
It’s interesting that you say you have no choice because it seems like on the trajectory that you were on that that was a very definitive choice.
Yeah. I guess I was like one of these, almost like a Renaissance person, I did everything kind of okay. Or, things came easy to me. Like as a trombonist, when I started playing the trombone I was always first chair and I never really practiced but then of course when I decided I was going to do music for a profession and be competing with people who practice 10 hours a day, that doesn’t apply anymore. You have to just devote your whole life to something and with music it really brought. I ended up going to Grinnell College in Iowa and and they really churn out social activist and people who are for going out into the world and making a positive impact or change or in an entrepreneurial way taking some industry to the next level but there weren’t that many music majors, I was one of the few. As my senior project, I had to put my own Orchestra together. I had to go from dorm to dorm, get all my friends together, put this orchestra together to play Beethoven’s 7th, and learned a lot of great lessons that way. So, that was a time in my life when I really realized that you have to follow your heart, you have to follow your instincts and even if it doesn’t make sense, like financially or from a career perspective, you have no choice. If the universe is telling you to do something, you have to comply.
It does make sense now, when you consider your entrepreneurial spirit and your heart of activism, how you tied all of that together with music, it actually makes complete sense now. So, how did you come to be in Boulder?
I moved to Denver in 2007. We were in LA and my brother and I borrowed my ex-girlfriend’s car and drove it over here with just the trunk filled, looking for an apartment, because I was going to University of Denver, Lamont School of Music, to keep learning. In music you just keep going to school, you keep accumulating degrees until you get a job and so I was very fortunate at University of Denver to be connected with local musicians and some local conductors that offered me some nice opportunities as assistant conductor, resident conductor. Then, I started with my first orchestra in 2008. It was the Niwot Timberline Symphony. So, it was this really small orchestra that met in Niwot High School, board meetings were held in the Niwot Sanitation building, a very small organization, very small budget. I recruited some community members because for a successful orchestra, you really want great musicians but you also want community leaders who may know nothing about classical music but see the value that an orchestra can bring to the community. We just essentially built that from there and it was just a part-time thing that we grew into something that became more than we ever imagined it possibly could be. That would eventually morph into the Boulder Symphony and when I originally moved I was actually living in Niwot for a while and then I got a job in Santa Fe, New Mexico. So, I was back and forth and we actually moved and lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico for a while but luckily I kept coming back to Boulder. I was on I-25 two or three times a month, making the trip, just to grow both of these organizations and to keep developing them. Luckily, another orchestra opened up in Denver, the Arapahoe Philharmonic, which I was very fortunate to work with them and be in their conductor search and get the position. It’s kind of that you couldn’t ask for anything more because in the field of conducting it can be very common for conductors to work with one orchestration in the United States, one of Europe, maybe one in South America and basically live on the road. I luckily can just drive on I-36 between Denver and Boulder and be able to do everything I want to do so it’s a pretty amazing existence.
Conducting is such an interesting profession, just how you have to track everything that’s going on.
So, sometimes people will ask like they’ll go to a performance and say well those are the musicians and the conductor like Friday night they’re working but the rest of the time what they do and that’s a really great question. A conductor’s life, it morphs as you get older, as you mature. Hopefully we’re maturing over the years. You’re immersed in the score. You’re becoming another person, who in many cases, could be the composer but in many times the composer has a creation that they don’t even know. like Brahm’s or Beethoven that they would talk about their composition experiences or even Leonard Bernstein when he was performing, he would not remember. That would be lost time when they created those creations. You’re embodying the spirit of something that could have been written two hundred years ago where you can’t talk to the composer or something that has just been written hot off the press. We’re doing a piece in Denver that the composer just wrote the notes so she’s not finished yet but I can give it to you anyway. So, you’re able to communicate with the composer and see what the intentions are behind it. That’s an ideal world when you’re really. It’s like any musician, where we make music with people, sometimes 10s or 100s of people, but in the end of the day most of our time is spent in our practice room, in our study, at our piano in our mind’s face just trying to figure out how we can best serve this piece of art. Even Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, when we perform it, it’s the first time it’s being played. That’s how we feel and that’s why a lot of it is so novel. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring written in 1913, when it was written it provoked riots in the concert hall and the people were literally shouting so loud that the dancers couldn’t hear the musicians and there was no coordination there. Today that music still sounds like it was written today as opposed to a hundred or two hundred years from now and that’s kind of our goal. It’s musically to bring this music to life and to play it like we’re trying to convince somebody. We’re playing it like somebody is coming into a concert hall for the first time. Maybe their friend dragged them in or maybe they got a coupon on Groupon or something like that but we want them to just fall head over heels in love with this music and see that this music, whether it’s written today or two hundred years ago or four hundred years ago, has something that connects the human experience and connects us all because at the end of the day, music whether it be orchestral or pop or rock or hip-hop, it’s built to bring people together and that’s something that today our world needs more than ever, the art of connection.
Absolutely. It almost feels as if you’re channeling the energy of that music piece.
That’s really spot on that you say that. The conducting profession emerged from 200 years ago when one composer, Ludwig van Beethoven, wrote music that was too complicated because it used to just be somebody on the first violin or the keyboard would lead the ensemble and then Beethoven wrote music to the extent where you needed somebody showing time beating, a visual cue for the orchestra to stay together. The conductor is the one person on that stage that is not making any sound. So we’re up there doing this thing and it’s the greatest illusion of power probably that ever has been fathomed because people think that well what about the power that you have. You have no power. It’s the musicians who have the power. So, we’re working, creating the channels as you said for the music to be interpreted and performed and created.
So you’re here in Boulder and you begin to root into the community by creating a community essentially around orchestral music. Tell me how you use your platform to bring diversity into this very traditional genre of music.
One of the most amazing things about Boulder is that we have so many arts groups, nonprofits, artists and musicians. I think per capita it’s probably one of the highest number of arts groups in the country. There’s all these different acts of creation. There’s all these collaborations going on. From the beginning, the Boulder Symphony has always been about programming, which is what pieces we’re going to play but programming also extends to the audiences we’re going to serve, the other groups we’re going to work with, so anytime I think of an event or a concert I’m thinking about okay so let’s have something old and new. Something that can showcase how some things have never changed and how experiences of artists 200 years ago can speak to us today. So there’s that combination and then there’s that diverse piece to this idea that, and we joke about this in classical music, it’s dead white guys right that way that orchestras have most of. Then we wonder why we can’t build new audiences because we have to speak to the people. People have to look like the people who we want to serve on the stage and in the orchestra and in the audience. One of the things that we’ve been really fortunate and excited to do is really showcase female composers, showcase black composers, working with with local groups like Boulder Muse for instance which is an el sistema group which essentially is getting musical instruction and instruments and sometimes could be singing, into the hands of kids who can’t afford music programs or who are going to school where that program may have been cut and in the times of Covid it’s even more challenging. The school programs that are in place are unable to bring ensembles together. They aren’t able to put aerosols in the air. Even for string players who could conceivably wear masks, there are restrictions as to how many kids can be in the same classroom. Now more than ever, going back to my programming philosophy, it’s really about every program that is serving those different voices, is a balance of old and new and it’s also collaborating with groups and it’s also having an educational aspect or component to every single performance. Now more than ever, it’s crucial that all symphony orchestras or ballet companies or opera companies, we’re not just performance organizations. We’re not just putting on a show for people to come and have dinner. That’s all well and good. Incorporated into everything we do has to be, what is the community benefit? Who can we raise money for? What kind of groups can be exposed to this art form who have not seen or heard this before? This is a full threaded strategy that as a music director I take but also as an Arts Commission, which I have served the city of Boulder in that capacity for a few years now, we’re really making recommendations to City Council on you know look this is what art can bring to society. For instance, now you know the City of Boulder is looking at budget cuts. Most recently what has been proposed as a much higher percent cut for art than was across the board and so what is very important for me and other artists to do is to say, look of these nonprofits in the artist we’re not just like feeding your ego here, these are people with families whose roof and whose food on the table depends on taxpayer-funded money that goes to organizations and not only that but arts organizations events and many of us we’re getting creative. We’re putting on socially distant outside or sometimes inside performances. There’s a whole economy that revolves around that. From restaurants to coffee shops to venues, which all employee people which are centered around arts and entertainment. So, one of my roles is to keep the city councilors apprised of these are all the things that Arts organizations do in addition to partnering with schools, filling in those gaps where many of our school systems in America have kind of left the arts behind but also partnering with the things like you mentioned like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund or the Community Food share and using our platform in our events to act as fundraisers for organizations that we truly resonate with and care about.
It’s so important now during this global pandemic when communities like African Americans, seniors, children, are being mostly affected and being able to find a way to enrich their lives with art and also support the other communities at the same time is such a great pivot on your part.
We essentially saw that we need to keep our audiences engaged, patrons engaged that are already with us but also that in these challenging times, and they’ve been incredibly challenging for so many people, we need music to be able to connect in that way. We need to be inspired in that way. We need to know that there’s a future and in some of the most difficult moments in my life, to have music, to be able to sit with a slow moment of a Bruckner Symphony in a trying time in your life. A lot of this music, and Beethoven does it wonderfully, it’s this idea that you’re not alone. No matter what you’re going through, no matter who you are, somebody has been there. People have been there. This feeling of oneness, it’s like meditation, Transcendental Meditation. It’s like so many religions combined into one and it’s just such an incredible art form to be able to go to and sometimes doing it as a profession, you forget that. Sometimes interviews like this remind you of the unabashed spirituality, the constant haven that art and music creates for all of us.
So true. So what are some of the programs that you have, the virtual programs?
Initially one of our partners was Balfour Assisted Living Facilities and they have homes in Colorado and Michigan. The senior residential facilities were one of the hardest hit at the beginning of the pandemic. Mainly because the elderly are such an at risk population but also because they closed down to protect their residences. Family members and friends could not go in. Balfour has been one of our incredible partners that we’ve worked with at Boulder Symphony and what we did right away was we said okay we got Mother’s Day coming up. So, how can we put this program together? We got musicians in the orchestra to broadcast from their home to get their family members involved. Me and my wife performed a Spanish piece and we put a nice video together. It was all music the composers had created in honor or in remembrance of their mom. We put that video together and they shared it to all the residents across the country. They also had a performance in the theater where people could come and socially distant and watch it on the big screen. Then for July 4th, we sent musicians to all these different homes around the community and gave like mini 10-15 minutes 4th of July concerts. A couple other things that we’ve been doing have been the Virtual Virtuoso Series, The Music Connect Series which is featuring not only musicians from our orchestra but also solo performers that may have performed with our orchestra in the past or the future and doing little interviews, like getting you behind the scenes talking about the music, talking about their life, what new skills they’ve picked up during Covid and what their favorite bread to bake is now. Featuring these and highlighting these and learning a lot about technology along the way. It’s interesting you mention a podcast I had started, when I partnered with a new manager a year ago, a podcast. And it was a lot more doing a blog post. So interviews that we would record but then we would transcribe it so I kind of had this podcast going you know a long time ago. Now, with the pandemic it’s like okay you’ve got no excuse. You’ve got to really get it going. That’s why I’ve been excited to get that going and also I know you know, just seeing all the work that goes into it and see all the editing and just learning and becoming a GarageBand Guru now. It’s a big job. It’s almost a full time job just to do that but nonetheless I have been excited and incredibly stimulated at these conversations I’ve been having. The editing process is crafting a composition of a podcast. I don’t know what platform you use.
We use GarageBand as well.
You’re a composer. Yeah the channel comes and the conversation comes but it’s up to you to make all the corners work together, all the cuts and all the flow of it, it’s storytelling which is amazing.
What are some pieces that you recommend to someone maybe just just learning about symphonic music?
So that’s a great question. There’s a great composer, Mason Bates, who was a DJ in Detroit and now he’s in San Francisco and he integrates electronic music with the orchestra. There’s a fun piece called Warehouse Medicine if you’re really into that. Another piece that I would highly recommend is the William Grant Still Afro-American Symphony. This was written in 1930. William Grant Still, I actually interviewed his daughter on one of my podcast episodes. William Grant Still grew up in a segregated country he went into an even more segregated profession, the classical music profession. His music, sometimes before the actual performance, the reviewers and the critics would get together and decide that they were going to pan music because this black guy has gone far enough mentality. Despite all of those odds, he created one of the greatest symphonic pieces of the twentieth century, the Afro-American Symphony. In it you hear this excerpt that many people will recognize, George Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm. In fact and historical fact, George Gershwin stole this from William Grant Still. George Gershwin in the 1920s was traveling around Tin Pan Alley and listening in on rehearsals, practice sessions and in some way I look at that as what some people would call cultural appropriation. That’s how music has been created for hundreds of years, people steal other’s ideas. Good artists borrow, great artists steal. Picasso said it. Steve Jobs said it. Stravinsky said it. In many ways that’s how great art gets created. At the end of the day, I think it’s as relevant who stole from whom, it’s what you do with the materials.
Adding historical context to music always just takes it to that deeper level, especially for me. My kids and my husband and I, we’ve been really into Hamilton lately.
Oh nice, I love Hamilton.
It’s so great because it really ties in together, it brings the history to life and then introduces, just as you do, this art form of theater into a population that may be drawn to the more modern music and it just creates this amazing masterpiece that really does come to convey that energy that was Hamilton.
With music and art, it’s all about context. It’s hard to understand the full picture until you get there, till you learn about the life of the creator.
And then it takes on a life of its own because it’s being interpreted through our historical lense now. So each layer is added on as we perform it every time.
I think that’s my number one goal. We talk about symphonic music for the rest of us, like those who don’t know they love symphonic music, like which is 99% of the people supposedly. We just made up that number but I think that’s the channel. That’s the pathway in. Somebody just needs to turn around in time and open a conduit between the musicians and the audience. I think that’s so crucial for performers and artists in all art forms to break the barriers and I think if anything Covid has accelerated that desire, that thirst, to be a part of the artistic process for everyone.
So, Nat Geo in 2017 named Boulder the happiest city in America and so why is Boulder your happy place?
It’s just amazing to come home to, especially when I had that other job. I was with a Florida orchestra in the past couple years, and always to come home 36 over the hill and the flat irons and it’s just the most incredible place on Earth to come home to and the sunshine! Molly and I are very health oriented so it used to be five or ten years ago, if you go somewhere it’s hard to eat. Now, I think the world has caught up with us and there’s many options no matter where you go. I’ve been in Budapest, Hungary for a couple years in a row and we found these three great restaurants that are like paleo gluten-free kind of thing but in Boulder it’s just kind of ubiquitous. There are so many great little restaurants, many great grocery stores. The culture here, I wouldn’t trade anything in the world for it.
Devin, tell the listeners where they can find more info about Boulder Symphony. Where they can find you and where they can learn more about all of these programs that you have to offer.
Boulder Symphony can be found online on all the social media platforms just @bouldersymphony and bouldersymphony.org. Arapahoe Philharmonic as well, just Google or Arapahoe Philharmonic and it comes up on all the various search engines and social media handles. You can find me at devinpatrickhughes.com. I do have a newsletter that I release every 1 or 2 months which fills people in about local happenings, events, interviews, sometimes some coupons, just everything that I’m working on and in the community. Then One Symphony is my podcast and you can just find that on any podcast platform, One Symphony.
I encourage the listeners to check out Boulder Symphony and devinpatrickhughes.com to learn more about how you can get involved in the arts. Thank you for joining us today. It’s been a really inspiring conversation. I really appreciate how much you bring art to our community in so many diverse ways and how you are changing the way that folks actually relate to this art form.
Thank you Sherri. It has been such a pleasure and honor to talk with you and thank you for digging so deep into my soul for some of these questions and answers. I really appreciate it!
Sure. Thanks for being willing to share. Thank you for listening to this episode of The Boulderista Podcast. For more info on today’s episode please visit us at www.theboulderista.com and on Facebook and Instagram @theboulderista. While you’re there, don’t forget to like, comment, share and subscribe.
This interview originally appeared on the Boulderista podcast.
Sherrie Figueroa, Host and Executive Producer of the Boulderista Podcast is originally from Miami Beach. Not a day passes where she doesn’t feel gratitude for the experiences and connections she’s made in Boulder. Her affinity for local traditions and her desire to shine a spotlight on the individuals who are part of Boulder’s electricity and vibe is the foundation of The Boulderista. When she’s not interviewing local influencers or working with real estate clients, Sherrie’s avid interests include dance, travel and spending time with her obnoxiously cute kids and husband, Eric.
The mission of conductor and music director Devin Patrick Hughes is to uplift the human spirit through the orchestra, and share the relevance of symphonic music in our modern lives. Devin resides in Colorado, where he conducts the Boulder Symphony and Arapahoe Philharmonic, is an Arts Commissioner for the City of Boulder, and hosts the podcast One Symphony.
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