Charles Latshaw: Maestro in the middle
Charles Latshaw could have made a living as a trumpet player.
Even now he might be able to turn a buck on his prowess with unmanned aerial vehicles.
What he’s chosen to do, however, is to be the man in the middle, the person whose job is to guide musicians through orchestra music — no, it’s not all ancient symphonies and opera — for the benefit of the audience, which, he hopes, has his back, literally and figuratively.
“So, just what is it I do?” he asks in such a way as to indicate that he recognizes it’s far from a rhetorical question.
It’s true that as the conductor of the Grand Junction Symphony Orchestra, “I have the best seat in the house,” Latshaw said.
It’s true, also, that his perch comes with a price, basically one best understood as requiring him to look out for everyone — the audience behind him, the musicians whose attention is generally on the music in front of them, keeping in mind the acoustics of the concert hall, and so on. Somewhere in the mix is the idea that the composer had in mind originally.
Sure, musicians have the notes in front of them, but with a look or a flick of the baton, the conductor controls pace and volume.
“There is a constant listening to what’s going on right now,” he said.
He also has to be a measure or two ahead of the music.
For instance, a conductor can summon the violins to attention in a beat. Maybe a heartbeat. Depends.
Brass not so much.
French horn players have to heft their instruments, check the music, take a breath, you get the idea. It takes them longer to get ready, so the conductor gives them, perhaps, a measure’s notice that their moment is approaching.
That might be a flick of the baton, perhaps a slight gesture with the free hand, maybe a just a glance.
“Most gestures are ahead of what I want to happen,” Latshaw said.
And there are pace and volume to consider.
Take, for instance, the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
Dum, dum dum DUUUUM, Dum, dum dum DUUUUM.
Or is it DUMdum dum DUM, DUMdum dum DUM?
“There are infinite different ways you can do the first eight notes of Beethoven’s Fifth and they’re all correct,” Latshaw said.
Go ahead, run some through your head. Or just Google “Beethoven Fifth” on that smartphone by your elbow. This can wait.
... INSERT BEETHOVEN’S NOTES
OK then? What, you want to try with a baton? Fine.
Now, remember, the composer has left some hints beyond the notes. It might be that he (or she) wants the melody played “allegro majestoso,” or upbeat and majestically.
What does that mean exactly?
That’s where the conductor’s sense of the composer’s plan comes in.
And the conductor is pretty much on his own at that point.
“There are very few hard and fast rules for conducting,” Latshaw said.
That includes getting to be the guy who takes up the baton.
Growing up in Ohio, Latshaw took up the trumpet in fifth grade. He also sang and acted in high school and he parlayed those skills into positions of principal trumpet in orchestras in Ohio, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts while appearing in acting and singing roles with the Palace Professional Theater of Manchester and the New Hampshire State Opera. He has performed in Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic and across the United States. He also holds a master’s degree and doctorate in instrumental conducting from the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.
Promising as his career on the trumpet might have been, Latshaw decided he had greater promise on the podium, in between the audience and the orchestra, with a baton rather than in the back with the brass.
It didn’t hurt that one of his teachers urged him to seek out conducting because “You’re too smart to play trumpet,” he recalled.
Latshaw is “very smart and he knows his stuff,” said Troy Raper, bass section leader in the orchestra and the orchestra teacher at Palisade High School. The orchestra’s musicians “are starting to warm up to his sarcasm and his way of things.”
Building rapport with the orchestra is one thing, the audience another.
So it was that he conducted with a red light saber (actually a “Star Wars” chopstick, it turns out) during this winter’s production of John Williams movie themes.
And he joked during the Christmas show with the audience about the meeting of Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Duke Ellington at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas regarding Ellington’s jazz interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite.”
Tchaikovsky’s take on Ellington? “That cat was it,” Latshaw told the audience.
Didn’t happen, though Tchaikovsky and Ellington were closer in history than some might think.
Tchaikovsky died in 1893, six years before Ellington was born, and Las Vegas wasn’t yet a bump in the road.
And the joke? Not Latshaw’s actually. It was on the cover of Ellington’s 1960 “Nutcracker Suite” album under the Columbia label.
But in Latshaw’s earnest telling from the podium, hey, it coulda happened.
Latshaw ultimately is still the middleman and the show is not about him.
“My primary goal is to make sure the orchestra is the star of the show,” he said.
Latshaw was appointed to conduct the symphony last April, replacing Kirk Gustafson, who was music director for 28 years.
Since then, Latshaw has worked to transition from Midwesterner to Westerner.
That process has included watching the 100 greatest Westerns, and while he might not yet know who shot Liberty Valance, he does know the theme music, which, interestingly, is not sung by John Wayne.
He also has gained a unique perspective after flying his camera-equipped unmanned aerial vehicle through the canyon country. In his spare time, he makes UAVs, or perhaps more accurately, he has rebuilt his UAV several times, Latshaw said.
Latshaw and his wife, Kelley, an accountant and a flutist, are fond enough of UAVs — can we agree to not call them “drones” in a piece about music? — that they appeared as extras in a UAV movie, “Rotor DR1.”
His passion, though, remains in that middle ground, on the podium, audience to his back, brass in the front.
Conducting, he said, is “the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. It challenges me physically, it challenges me mentally, it challenges me socially.”
And he wants it to go on until he masters it.
“As a conductor, I don’t feel I’ll be any good until I’m 65, 70.”