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Q&A With Evan Rogister

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Communicating the Intangible With a Baton

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Editor's note: Due to a last-minute scheduling conflict, Kristina Canellakis (M.M. '13, orchestral conducting) will conduct the Commencement concert.

Evan Rogister

Evan Rogister

(Photo by Dario Acosta)

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A case of mistaken identity led to Evan Rogister (M.M. ’05, voice) becoming a professional conductor sooner than he planned. After Juilliard he studied conducting at Peabody, and while he was there he was permitted to sit in a corner and observe rehearsals of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking at the Baltimore Opera. The conductor, Patrick Summers of the Houston Grand Opera, himself a last-minute replacement, came in for the first rehearsal, assumed Rogister was his assistant, told him that he was going away for a week and that he was in charge. A week and many good reports later, Rogister found himself as an assistant conductor with the Houston Grand Opera.

Rogister hasn’t looked back since. Next season he’ll conduct Eugene Onegin with the Luxembourg Philharmonic and an all-Russian cast, Salome at the Dallas Opera, and a double bill of Bluebeard’s Castle and Erwartung at the Göteborg Opera of Stockholm. But before that, he’ll conduct the Juilliard Orchestra in the program for this year’s gala (April 29) and the annual commencement concert (May 22). The gala program includes works by Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Mozart, Lerner and Loewe, and others. The commencement concert features Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture, Sibelius’s Concerto for Violin in D Minor, and Debussy’s La Mer

Rogister, 34, told The Journal that he was particularly excited about working at the gala with mezzo Isabel Leonard (B.M. ’04, M.M. ’06) and soprano Susanna Phillips (B.M. ’03, M.M. ’04), who were both Vocal Arts classmates of his. “We all went through so much together at Juilliard, and it’s a wonderful thing to be able to continue working with them as all our careers progress,” he said. “It’s a bond that will never go away.”

Rogister has recently moved back to New York after a few years of guest conducting, including stints in Chicago, Stockholm, Santa Fe, and Washington, D.C., where last season he led a performance of Heggie’s operatic version of Moby Dick at the Kennedy Center. Before moving to Washington, he spent nearly three years as the Kapellmeister the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, a rather rarefied-sounding post for a young man who grew up in Raleigh, N.C. His grandmother, a voice and music teacher, had been born in Berlin, however, so in a sense he was coming full circle. His German grandparents frequently took him to concerts and encouraged his burgeoning musicality. They were also responsible for another important legacy: joint U.S. and German citizenship—a boon for any international conductor.

As a child, Rogister sang, and then, when his voice broke, switched to trombone. At Indiana University, trombone, voice, and political science all swirled in competition for his attention. He applied to Juilliard to pursue a master’s in voice and told himself that if he didn’t get in, that would be the end of his musical aspirations. Throughout his studies at Juilliard, however, conducting, which he had loved to imitate as a child in his grandparents’ living room, remained a persistent interest. “In my last year at Juilliard, I gathered a group of friends and offered them pizza to read Beethoven’s First Symphony in Room 305,” he said. “The video we made during that performance got me into Peabody’s conducting program. I remember that even in that session, conducting felt really joyful—something I was meant to do. I realized that I had a gift for communication and even though I had a lot of learning to do regarding technique, it just felt right.”

Rogister says that Juilliard was—and remains—the most intense artistic atmosphere he has ever been in. “All of a sudden you’re in a room with all of these other people who do what you do and do it really, really well. That’s a big challenge for everyone at Juilliard, not only in terms of acquiring the skills you need, but also in terms of finding your identity and being secure in your talent,” he said. “Juilliard is where I first started to understand who I was and what it was about my particular set of skills that I could really believe in.” In addition to music instruction from two remarkable teachers, Mary Anthony Cox (B.M. ’64, M.S. ’67, piano; faculty 1964-2013) and Alan Gilbert (Pre-College ’85, M.M. ’94, orchestral conducting; faculty 2009-present), the training that Juilliard vocalists got from the Drama Division helped Rogister understand “there’s an element of conducting that’s very similar to acting technique,” he said. “You have to be able to project honest emotions at specific times without allowing your own experience of the emotion to compromise technique. It’s a very fine line, and the pursuit of that balance is endlessly fascinating.”

Outside of the opera house, Rogister jogs to keep in shape (“Conducting is hard work!”) and enjoys traveling. While traveling, he sometimes conducts a special kind of research. “I’ve become a bit of a geek—whenever possible, I try to go to the place where the work was composed. Last year, for example, I did some Verdi performances, so I went to his home in Busseto. Aside from being in a stunningly beautiful place, I got to see evidence of Verdi’s exhaustive commitment to his work—in his room he had a bed, a writing desk, a piano, and nothing else. His wife had her own room elsewhere so that he could work through the night if he wanted.” He also noted that Verdi, in addition to being a composer, was something of a botanist. “He was extremely finicky about the layout of his gardens, which are still preserved today, as per his will. And I came to realize that he was as obsessive about how many times he wrote ppp versus pppp in his scores as he was about how many rhododendrons he planted in a row. Something about seeing the landscape that the composer saw when he was working helps give me a kind of spiritual affinity to the work that, though intangible, I hope I am able to communicate to audiences.”

 

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