Ransom Wilson conducts rehearsal

New Endowed Chair Brings ‘Elevated Experience’ to Huxford Symphony

Franz Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. Grieg Peer Gynt Suite No. 1. Twentieth century brass. These compositions can range across two centuries and contain depths of details that are challenging to learn and play.

Teaching all three can be especially difficult but also “exciting,” says Anthony DiMauro, a doctoral student in orchestral conducting at The University of Alabama. DiMauro conducts the UA Campus Orchestra, Bama Brass and the campus ensemble and assists in conducting the Huxford Symphony, UA’s top orchestral ensemble.

Most significant of the challenges DiMauro faces each week is preparing a wide variety of repertoire for the three ensembles.

“One thing like an accent in Schubert might be totally different in Tomasi Fanfares Liturgiques, a piece in the brass ensemble,” DiMauro explains. “Those different accents aren’t just something you need to explain to the players but also show with your hands. So, your repertoire with your gesture must be wide and varied.”

Accents and gestures are just a few of the many nuances and precision points DiMauro must recognize and embrace as a conductor. And to be a great conductor, DiMauro must be efficient in everything he does, from selecting repertoire to his rehearsal techniques.

For DiMauro, a guide for how to be “great” is just a short walk down the hall. Ransom Wilson, the Camilla Huxford Endowed Chair in Orchestral Studies, conducts the Huxford Symphony at UA and is both a teacher and mentor to DiMauro.

A mentor and advocate: Wilson instructs Anthony DiMauro, a first-year doctoral student in orchestral conducting, during a piano rehearsal.

Wilson began his tenure at UA in August after more than 30 years at Yale University, where he was a professor of flute. An accomplished flutist, Wilson has performed with top-flight ensembles across the globe, including the London Symphony Orchestra and Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Wilson is also an accomplished conductor and recording artist, having released 35 commercial recordings and earned three Grammy nominations.

“It’s pretty exciting to learn from someone so well known as a well-rounded player and an internationally acclaimed soloist, and with an incredibly packed conducting resume,” DiMauro said. “Musically, I think it speaks for itself on what I can gain from working with him.”

Welcome back

Wilson, a Tuscaloosa native and member of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, says he was called home by a feeling to “give back” to the community that provided his formative music education. He says the developments of both the University and the city further convinced him to return and “be part of the growth cycle.”

Wilson aims to achieve at UA the sense of community and fulfillment that he’s experienced in other conducting appointments, such as the Idyllwild Arts Academy in Southern California, where some of his high school players would later become his colleagues at Yale and in New York.

“I felt like I was a part of something important there,” Wilson says of Idyllwild. “I had students 20 years later who said, ‘You took me aside and talked about my dedication and focus, and it changed my life.’ For a teacher, there’s no better thing to hear.”

Camilla Huxford sits on a piano bench with Ransom standing next to her
A ‘wonderful’ addition: Camilla Huxford’s long-running support of the School of Music and the Huxford Symphony increased significantly with the creation of the Camilla Huxford Endowed Chair in Orchestral Studies, held by Ransom Wilson.

Wilson conducting the Huxford Symphony Orchestra is providing needed continuity in the conductor’s chair, which oversees between 55 and 60 players and works with the instructor for each instrument to improve player performance. In this role, Wilson deploys a deeply thoughtful approach to teaching and managing.

“Orchestras are famously non-democratic,” Wilson says. “You have a choice as a conductor to be the leader you want to be while maintaining some control over sound and quality of ensembles. It’s a delicate balance — it can be easy to be a cruel dictator, and some conductors feel that’s the best way to be — players are united against you, but they’re united. I hate that idea.

“So, I’m constantly questioning, ‘Is this a good or selfish decision?’ But what’s nice about getting to my age is you have nothing to prove, so you can do things the way they should be done and take your ego out of it.”

His methods for growing the Huxford Symphony have produced favorable early returns, evidenced by their first concert under his direction in September. Wilson said he “took a gamble” in programming Mozart and early Beethoven for the concert because mistakes by players are easily “heard.”

“I don’t think they had played anything like that in years,” he said. “It immediately made them sit up and take notice of their rhythm and their intonation and ensemble skills.”

The concert would be a success, with the players “stepping up to the plate” and delivering a great performance, just as Camilla Huxford, whose gifts have funded both the symphony and Wilson’s faculty position, envisioned when she began giving to the School of Music.

“I wanted to do something significant to provide the students in the [Huxford] Symphony an elevated experience,” Huxford said. “And by bringing in a world-renowned musician and teacher in Ransom Wilson, we’re already seeing his acumen, passion, and mentorship influence both students and faculty.

“It’s wonderful to see.”

A blueprint for success

Ransom Wilson conducts rehearsal
Nothing to prove: Wilson says he teaches and conducts without “ego” to build rapport with players and faculty and achieve results.

DiMauro says that while he can sometimes be hyper-focused on details, Wilson is teaching him the importance of macro management and how to make difficult decisions in real time. DiMauro also hopes to emulate Wilson’s warm and honest personality traits, which, so far, have made for an efficient rehearsal process that the players have responded to.

“At the professional level, time is money,” DiMauro said. “People who end up getting the jobs that I’m in the market for, they have great conducting technique in addition to being efficient rehearsers. Ransom, of course, is that.”

With the weight of conducting and continuing to sharpen his soft skills, it’s imperative that DiMauro improve each week. He’s done just that, which is rare, given the varying degrees of dedication and distractions young people face, Wilson said.  DiMauro’s progression allows him and Wilson to explore more of the nuances of teaching and conducting, such as being able to “read the room” and know when it’s time to leave a topic or continue emphasizing it to the players.

“As one of Ransom’s first students in a new program, I didn’t necessarily know for sure how this experience would go,” DiMauro said. “I knew that he was a great conductor and musician, but I’d never worked with him. But as time goes on, I have a really good feeling about Ransom as my mentor and my advocate. He’s there as a guide. His door is always open.”