It was never Roger Briggs' dream to become a conductor.
That's not something many would expect to hear from a man who has travelled internationally to present his musical compositions, conducting prestigious groups such as the Czech Radio Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra.
Earlier this year Briggs, 60, stepped down from his post as the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra's artistic director, a role he had filled for more than 16 years.
During his tenure as artistic director, Briggs set out to achieve a 15-year plan. Throughout the first five years, with intense rehearsals, he helped improve the symphony's musical prowess.
After that, he enticed international stars, such as Midori, Evelyn Glennie, and Sarah Chang, to play as guest artists with the orchestra, which helped bring in larger audiences.
When he first started to head toward a career in music, Briggs wanted to compose contemporary orchestral scores, so he went to then-Memphis State University and earned degrees in composition and piano performance. He went on to Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., and it was there he discovered a personal musical predicament.
"Composers of contemporary music have to have their music played, and conductors who can count those complicated rhythms are not all that easy to find," Briggs says. "So I conducted one of my own works. Then a lot of the composers at Eastman asked me to conduct their work, and before long I was doing a lot of conducting."
After Eastman, Briggs landed a job teaching music at Saint Mary's College in Indiana. He taught there until 1989, when he moved to Bellingham to teach composition at Western Washington University.
He was hopeful his conducting days were behind him: his new job at Western didn't involve conducting. But he discovered that there was no musical group on campus that played new music. Out of necessity, he says, he formed a contemporary chamber players group and served as its conductor.
"It's strange how things work," Briggs says. "I was asked to conduct the student orchestra once and that went over pretty well, so after that I was asked to be conductor. After that, I was asked to be the associate conductor of the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra, followed by the artistic director."
Briggs' plan for the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra included steps to give back to the community. The orchestra started an annual family concert, inviting area children to play with the musicians on stage. Musicians went out to local schools as part of an outreach program to introduce instruments to young students, and the orchestra helped loan instruments to children who couldn't afford to buy them.
Briggs has travelled all over the world as a composer and conductor. From Shanghai to London to Prague, he has conducted some of the world's most talented musicians and seen some of the world's most impressive cities.
"I was blown away with Shanghai. It's more modern architecturally than anything I've seen," Briggs says. "But then, there's nothing so charming as Prague, it's so historically preserved. It's like going back to Mozart's time."
Briggs' passion for old and new is a theme that is also visible in his life as a conductor and composer.
"In our day, in our country, we've sort of had a dilemma take place for the composer: the living composer's biggest competition is the dead composer," he says. "During their day, for instance during Mozart's time, that was not the case - the classical music community was vital."
One of Briggs' proudest accomplishments was instituting a commissioning series - each year, he commissioned a composer to write a piece for the Whatcom Symphony to premier.
The program was successful, bringing world-class music to the symphony, which was recognized by the League of American Orchestras for its programming of contemporary music, Briggs says.
"Orchestras have become increasingly more like museums, where they present the work of the past," he says. "It's my belief that if it continues that way, the orchestra will eventually just not be viewed as a vital part of the living musical world."
To prevent that, Briggs believes in commissioning pieces from modern composers for a specific purpose.
"I'd love to keep composers feeling like they can write music for orchestra and it won't just sit on the shelf and never be heard," he says.
Now that he is no longer serving as artistic director, Briggs hopes to devote more of his time to composing. He recently attended the premier of a piece he was commissioned to write for the symphony in his hometown of Florence, Ala.
He is excited to compose more, but that doesn't mean he's given up conducting yet.
"I'm not actively pursuing it, but I don't consider myself retired," he says. "I've done it so long, it's part of my blood."
The Bellingham Herald salutes Whatcom County people who help make our community a great place to live with our annual Ten Who Cared series. If you have a suggestion for someone we should salute next year, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.