Artist Profile: WWU grad Ryan Dudenbostel conducts Western’s University Orchestra

Ryan Dudenbostel, 32, an Aberdeen native and a Western Washington University graduate, returned to Bellingham as an assistant professor in Western’s music department. He conducts the WWU Orchestra in a free concert at 8 p.m. Monday, November 17, in WWU’s Performing Arts Center.

No stranger to Bellingham, Dudenbostel has conducted for the Marrowstone Music Festival, Western’s Summer Stock Theatre and the North Sound Youth Symphony.

Question: Why did you return to Bellingham?

Answer: Bellingham has long been a very special place for me. It’s the city where I met my wife, Heather, and where I started to come into my own as an artist (a never-ending process!).

It’s been absolutely wonderful to be able to come back to this beautiful place year after year for various projects, and now that I’ve had the honor of joining the faculty at Western, it feels like a very special homecoming. There is tremendous opportunity for growth and building at WWU, and I have bright visions of this university being the go-to destination for students hoping to pursue music in Washington.

Q: Do you plan to perform too?

A: Yes, I continue to keep up my clarinet playing, and hope very much to do some performing in the near future. My playing informs my conducting, and vice versa, so keeping both ends of my music-making healthy is really important to me.

Q: When did you because seriously interested in pursuing music professionally?

A: As a kid I was much more interested in the visual arts, and very seriously considered studying architecture. I took up the clarinet in the fifth grade, but didn’t really get serious about it until high school, with the support of my band director and two wonderful private teachers.

I also had my first conducting experiences leading school musicals beginning when I was 16. I don’t know what anyone was thinking giving me that kind of responsibility at that age, but I’m so grateful they did! I was able to learn many lessons about conducting — and leadership generally — very early, which put me ahead of the game, I think.

Q: How do you encourage and combine student participation in performances of classical music, musical theater, opera and original work?

A: In terms of encouraging student involvement in a broad range of music-making, that kind of versatility has basically become a requirement for any modern working musician. In order to make a living, one needs to be able to play a Mahler symphony one night, then be able to play the matinee of “Carousel” the next day, then turn around and perform a concert of new works that same evening. Certainly there are specialists out there, but they are much more the exception than the rule.

I also think that seemingly disconnected areas of music often relate to each other in surprising ways. So, for example, you may learn something from that Mahler “ländler” that allows you to play that famous waltz in “Carousel” with just the right amount of lilt.

Also, I emphasize to my students that as musicians it is our responsibility — especially in academia — not only to curate the vast repertoire of the past 250 years, but also to further the discussion about where music is heading in the present day. Presenting new works is a critical part of that.

Q: And you’ve combined these genres in your own career, right?

A: I’ve continued to stay very active in conducting dramatic music; more often opera, but also musical theater from time to time — most significantly at Mount Baker Theatre during the first three years of their fall repertory productions. Conducting for the stage is a thrilling enterprise, since there are so many elements at play at any given time. I also love the collaborative aspect of it: so many people bringing their unique skills together to make one beautiful thing.

Q: What’s on the bill for Monday’s concert?

A: The orchestra will be performing a new work by Mason Bates for orchestra and live electronics called “Music from Underground Spaces.” Bates is equal parts DJ and classical composer, and has found a unique and sincere way of combining these two elements to create a voice that is entirely his own. This will be the first time this particular work has been performed without the composer himself performing the live electronics component, and he has crafted a special laptop part specifically for us to use.

WWU faculty cellist John Friesen will be joining the orchestra to play the Saint-Saëns First Cello Concerto. The Saint-Saëns is a work he knows deeply, and this should be a treat for all of us.

The concert will conclude with Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, a monumental work from the mid-1930s, following his public denunciation by the official Soviet Party newspaper. And due to its dramatic history, it’s also a piece that has long-suffered from attempts to “decode” its meaning by analysts on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

To discuss these issues of interpretation in Shostakovich, I will be hosting a panel discussion with faculty from the music, history, and language departments one hour before the concert in the PAC Concert Hall.

Q: What’s on your horizon?

A: I’m excited about the work I did with Peter Sellars on my new edition of “The Indian Queen,” which will be performed by the English National Opera in February, and about my upcoming performance of Peter Maxwell Davies’ “Vesalii Icones” with the Jacaranda new music series this January in Los Angeles.

Q: How is Bellingham different in its musical community from Los Angeles and New York?

A: Bellingham boasts an remarkably active and enthusiastic arts community for a city of its size. Obviously the chief difference between Bellingham and places like Los Angeles and New York City is just a matter of scale. Because of their size, those cities — New York more so — boast more world-class events in a single evening than we might get in a year here. And the niches are much deeper: if you host a French Baroque concert series, you might be able to attract a healthy following of 1,000 French Baroque enthusiasts in New York.

The downside of this is that this sort of depth often comes at the expense of breadth. Additionally, no matter how much you try to see, you will invariably miss at least 90 percent of it, simply because you can only be in one place at a time.

It’s also incredibly expensive. While Bellingham might present a more modest offering of options, the active concertgoer can still attend something different almost every evening, and often hear some very fine performances for little or no cost. I also think that because our local offerings tend to be quite eclectic from one night to the next, Bellingham audiences generally have broad musical appetites, and are willing to be adventurous in terms of exploring music that is unfamiliar to them. This is wonderfully freeing from the standpoint of a performer.

Q: What do you miss about New York?

A: I would be lying if I said that I didn’t miss leaving the Vivian Beaumont Theatre after playing a performance of “South Pacific,” and pausing to sit for a moment at the edge of the Lincoln Center fountain to take in the view of The Metropolitan Opera, Avery Fisher Hall and the New York City Ballet. Those were very special moments, to be sure.