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The Maestro

  Wednesday, October 19, 2016
  Music
Steven Brindle '10
Steven Brindle '10

When Fort Monroe was built in the 19th century, it was a key part of the coastal defenses of the young American nation.

Though its role changed over time, “Freedom’s Fortress” has always been a landmark in the region. Now a national monument, the Hampton base was decommissioned in 2011 and is currently being redeveloped. One new tenant is the Hampton Roads Philharmonic (HRP), a community orchestra that performs in the historic Fort Monroe Theatre.

The orchestra set up shop in 2013 in an old Army band rehearsal space under the direction of Richmond native Steven Brindle ’10. Brindle, himself a cellist, grew up playing in school orchestras but came to favor conducting over performance while a music major at Christopher Newport. “In addition to my course load for music education, I also worked with the composition department and found conducting opportunities,” says Brindle. “I started to take seriously that it was something I could consider doing.”

The HRP seeks to bring classical music – a genre that can be perceived as inaccessible by some – to a wider audience within the community. Many performances are free and are intended to bring in newcomers. “Our mission is to inspire and enrich and connect with the community. That’s the primary focus,” Brindle says. “We’re trying to break down walls. People should feel comfortable coming to our concerts. We’re trying to get rid of the stigma that people have to dress up in a tux. I tell people to wear whatever they want. It’s about the music!”

Another barrier Brindle faces is the fact that many people have a limited sense of the scope of “classical” music, which comprises far more than the standard canonical works. “Unfortunately a lot of people think they’re going to show up and hear 90 minutes of Mozart, and that’s just not the case. There are hundreds of years of music, and music that is still being composed that’s so interesting and fantastic.”

Brindle has an unflagging optimism and belief in music’s ability to profoundly impact people, while also being fully aware of the challenges it can pose to the listener. “With pop music, songs are about three or four minutes, and you only have to remember a melody for a limited period of time,” he says. Classical pieces are often long and complex, with many passages or movements. “It’s difficult even for me or for professional musicians, trying to keep track of all that. But I do believe that someone who doesn’t know the music can come in and listen to the sounds, and if it’s a good performance, can take a lot away from it emotionally.”

As music director, Brindle tries to keep the HRP’s performances accessible by sampling broadly not only from the canon, but also from lesser-known – even unknown or new – works. “I do try to frequently commission new things people haven’t heard before, because classical music does suffer a little bit from playing the same things over and over.” Some of those new works have been composed by one of Brindle’s Christopher Newport classmates, Chris Lamb ’11. “There’s something about being part of a new performance, something no one has heard before,” says Brindle. “If new music is done right, it can be very exciting for the audience.”

Debra Simmonds, Executive Director of HRP, was a pivotal figure in the founding of the orchestra. She conducts the daily business and generally pulls everything together to keep the group in operation. She is quick to praise Brindle’s leadership and commitment to bringing music of this kind to the public. “It is so exciting and refreshing to see such a fine community orchestra return after so many years of not having one,” she says. “Under Steven’s direction, the Philharmonic has opened its doors to contemporary American composers, showcased young, talented artists, and raised the bar in bringing professional classical repertoire to the public. It’s as if we struck gold.”

In addition to being a part of the revitalization of Fort Monroe, Brindle’s passion for bringing classical music to people where they are extends to local schools as well. He’s orchestra director for Soundscapes, a program in Newport News that teaches life-skills to disadvantaged youth through music performance. “We give students music when they might otherwise be at risk, when their parents aren’t home and they’re just sort of free to roam,” Brindle says. In Soundscapes, students begin with music basics, learn an instrument, then go on to group instruction and choir. Finally, they progress to a full orchestra, which is where Brindle comes in. “We play orchestra music, which is a really cool opportunity for kids because I didn’t start playing in a full orchestra until college. We provide the instruments, instruction, a meal and transportation, all for a very small fee.”

Dr. Mark Reimer, who recommended Brindle to Simmonds, says the key to Brindle’s success is persistence. The conducting world is fairly small, but Brindle seeks chances to keep doing what he loves. “Steven continues to conduct and build his knowledge of repertoire,” says Reimer, Director of Music at Christopher Newport and Torggler Professor of Music. “He possesses a firm foundation of string performance and pedagogy. With talent, enthusiasm, affability and an undeniable positive nature, Steven is creating his own future, and that future looks bright.”


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