John LoPiccolo first came to The Festival at Sandpoint 10 years ago as a student in the Schweitzer Institute’s conducting program. He has attended all but three of Schweitzer’s conducting seminars. For five summers, LoPiccolo has been Gunther Schuller’s right-hand man at the festival and the Schweitzer Institute.
To celebrate LoPiccolo’s 10-year connection with the Sandpoint Festival, Schuller has asked the younger conductor to share the podium with him Thursday in a program of “Schuller’s Favorites.” LoPiccolo will conduct the Spokane Symphony in Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” and Schuller will lead his own 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Of Reminiscences and Reflections,” Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 and Leopold Stokowski’s orchestration of Chopin’s Mazurka in A minor.
When LoPiccolo, then music director of the Helena Symphony, was invited to apply for the first Schweitzer Conducting Program in 1985, he was reluctant to apply.
“I had been to some conducting workshops before. Of course, I had read about Gunther Schuller in my music history books, and I knew him as a composer,” LoPiccolo says. “But everybody in the Spokane Symphony kept telling me about what a great conductor he was. My question to them was: ‘I know he’s a famous composer, but what’s so great about him as a conductor?’
“Their answer was: ‘He has great ears; he hears everything”’
“When they called me and said I had been selected for Schuller’s conducting class,” LoPiccolo says, “that made me very, very happy. But the demands of the repertoire we were studying was so great. For two months, I studied scores ‘til I dropped and then I woke up and studied some more.
“Little did I know when I got to Sandpoint, my life would change forever. Mr. Schuller had a way of approaching music that I had never had explained to me before even though I had some fine teachers. “From the minute we started to work, I knew there was no need to go anywhere else. This was it. This was the Cadillac of conducting workshops.”
Schuller assigned LoPiccolo to conduct the Spokane Symphony in two movements of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. “We began studying that piece, inspecting every single note. It was the most in-depth study and greatest flow of information from Schuller that I had ever experienced in my life.
“For the first time in my life I began to understand the concept of conducting. Before that I felt if I got up and just held it all together that was good enough.
“But I learned that it’s important to hold to the demands of the composer. Players understand that it’s a case of knowing that these are not my demands, this is what Beethoven or Brahms is asking us to do. They’re the ones who are putting this ideal in front of you and we have to try to come close to it.”
The New York-born LoPiccolo was educated at the Mannes College of Music in New York and holds music degrees from San Francisco State University and Eastern Washington University.
“My career started 20 years ago when I had a chance to conduct and work at a professional level with the Spokane Symphony and Donald Thulean at the Tamarack Festival,” LoPiccolo recalls.
“Up to that point I really didn’t know anything about the art of orchestral conducting, and I didn’t know that it was a career option. I thought I would probably become a band director.”
In 1979, LoPiccolo became music director of the Helena Symphony Orchestra, a job he held until 1988. While holding the Helena position, LoPiccolo attended two well-known summer conducting seminars in Florida and West Virginia. He was disappointed. What he found was typical of conducting seminars everywhere. “You were either turned loose on a professional orchestra with no one really sitting down and explaining what conducting was all about, or you find yourself with a teacher bent on destroying the ego of the students.”
The 44-year-old conductor is now music director of the Idaho Falls Symphony. Since 1991, he has served as Schuller’s assistant at Sandpoint’s Schweitzer Institute.
“I was really surprised when Mr. Schuller called and asked me to conduct the Respighi on the same program he was conducting his own piece and the Brahms’ Fourth,” LoPiccolo says. “At first I though he must mean just conducting the offstage trumpets in the Respighi, so I called him back and asked him, and he said, ‘No, I want you to do the whole thing.’
“It made my day.”
xxxx Spokane Symphony Orchestra in a program of “Schuller’s Favorites” Location and time: Memorial Field in Sandpoint, Thursday, 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $27.50 reserved, $17.50 general