A world of music and energy in Annapolis

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Leslie B. Dunner is happy to talk about his four-year tenure as music director of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, his approach to programming and educational outreach, his guest-conducting around the world. But there's something else he needs to get off his chest first, something very much related to that global travel.

"I want to be on a secure airplane, like everyone else," Dunner says. "But I have been singled out every flight on every airline, pulled aside not only at the security gate, but before getting onto the plane. And I'm talking about a full search of every item. My shoes were being searched even before the shoe-bomber incident."

A small-framed, soft-spoken man with a close-cropped beard and easy smile, Dunner, who admits only to being "comfortably nestled in my 40s," does not exactly suggest a threat. And he does not believe airport searches are random.

"I studied math; I know something about probability," he says. "It's obvious that airlines are practicing racial profiling, and it's abhorrent. People have to speak up. Passengers should challenge anything they feel is unwarranted. We're talking about constitutional rights."

The tribulations of traveling today weigh particularly heavily on a man who spends so much of his life in transit. This season, he has enjoyed maybe a week and a half at his home, richly decorated with Haitian and African art, in a comfortable Annapolis development. He thinks he might be able to enjoy a whole two weeks there sometime during the summer.

Dunner's jet-setting takes him to places like Detroit (he was on the conducting staff of the Detroit Symphony for 11 years), New York (he has served as an assistant conductor to Kurt Masur at the New York Philharmonic), Halifax (he was music director of Symphony Nova Scotia for three years) and various cities in South Africa (he's a popular figure there).

After conducting the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in 2000, one rave review ended with "Bring him back!" And they did. After his return engagement last fall, the New York-born Dunner earned more press praise there as "a skilled and eloquent musician."

Significantly, those Dallas programs ranged from such standards as Grieg's Piano Concerto to such novelties as Vasily Kalinnikov's Symphony No. 1 from 1895, William Grant Still's Afro-American Symphony from 1930 and Einojuhani Rautavaara's recent Violin Concerto.

Flair for the unusual

One of Dunner's most obvious talents is a flair for interesting repertoire. In his short time with the Annapolis Symphony, and with only five concerts a season, he has squeezed in lots of unusual items.

Complementing the expected doses of Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky have been large-scale undertakings that a typical regional orchestra with a $725,000 budget would likely shy away from -- among them Ralph Vaughan Williams' A Sea Symphony, Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 6, Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 1 and, coming up this week, Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem.

Add in works by Dmitri Shostakovich, Ernest Chausson, Igor Stravinsky and Joan Tower, and you have, on a per-concert basis, more variety in Annapolis than is offered by many a major orchestra these days, even one not too far from the state capital.

All of this creativity brought the Annapolis Symphony to the attention of the American Symphony Orchestra League and the Reader's Digest Meet the Composer program, which funded last season's residency by Stephen Paulus. The result was a world premiere, Dialogues, which incorporates themes written by student composers in the Chesapeake Youth Symphony Orchestra.

"Because the children of Annapolis contributed to the music, their spirit will live on as long as the piece lives -- hopefully, in perpetuity," Dunner says.

Such idealism drives Dunner and is reflected in the orchestra's educational activities, which involve considerable interaction with the community. One example -- the Annapolis Symphony "adopted" Germantown Elementary and Bates Middle schools. Orchestra musicians regularly visit classrooms. This month, the conductor will take part in story hour with first-graders and talk to fourth-graders about his experiences working in Kenya.

"I want kids to relate to us as people, not someone in a fancy suit on a big stage," he says, "so they won't be intimidated when they come into a concert hall."

Ticket sales changing

Dunner is just as strongly interested in his adult audience.

"I'm asking older people to get involved with the whole process of music," he says. "I'm asking them to live. Performing music by living composers is part of that. And playing traditional music doesn't mean that the program has to sound traditional to the audience. There are ways to enhance the experience without jeopardizing the musical content."

That explains how Dunner came to conduct Carlos Surinach's propulsive Ritmo Jondo in a flamenco outfit last season.

Not everyone gets so fully into the mood.

"Leslie definitely brings an energy and innovation to the orchestra, but, admittedly, there are segments among our subscribers who only want to hear warhorses," says Annapolis Symphony executive director Tonya Robles. "Subscription sales have slipped a little from last year's 70 percent, but single tickets are way ahead of last year.

"Once people are exposed to Leslie's approach to new music, many of them find that it's not what they thought it was going to be, and they enjoy it."

Symphony board president Fred H. "Bud" Billups Jr. has heard the occasional grumble, too.

"But people have learned to trust [Dunner's] judgment," he says. "Overall, I think he has done a nice job keeping a good balance of music, and he has brought the orchestra along in several ways. We feel like we get a lot of mileage out of our budget."

Composers in residence

In addition to the Verdi Requiem ("A big challenge for me and the orchestra," Dunner says), this season will also see a follow-up to the Paulus residency. Patrice Rushen, a Grammy-nominated jazz and film composer, will be on hand as the Annapolis Symphony premieres her Sinfonia in May.

"I want each composer residency to take people in a different direction," Dunner says. "Stephen Paulus is a white male from mid-America; Patrice Rushen is a West Coast, African-American female. The next one will be neither."

For Dunner, each season brings a chance to stretch himself, his musicians and his public. In the process, the Annapolis Symphony has garnered national recognition (for the Paulus residency) and grown in technical ability.

Dunner's future goals for the orchestra, currently in its 41st season, include showcasing more local talent and reaching more of the community's ethnic components.

Dunner, who will lead the New Jersey Symphony next month in the world premiere of a work about slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, has sometimes been typecast because of his own ethnic profile.

"It can be hard for African-America conductors to be engaged outside of January [Martin Luther King Jr. Day] or February [Black History Month]," says Dunner, whose guest stints with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra illustrate that. "But most of us are getting more work the rest of the year.

"And the number of conductors of color is growing. We are establishing ourselves in our own right. I am no longer automatically referred to as an African-American conductor, but just a conductor."

Although Dunner still sees some drawbacks in his profession due to race -- "There does seem to be a ceiling that is difficult, if not impossible, to break through" -- he exudes confidence and contentment, as much in conversation as in the concert hall.

"Life is good," he says, and it's clear he means it.

In concert

What: Annapolis Symphony Orchestra and Heritage Signature Chorale perform Verdi's Requiem

Where: Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, 801 Chase St., Annapolis

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Tickets: $7 (for students) to $32

Call: 410-263-0907

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