Gary Wedow: hometown pride

 

WNLP editor’s note: This story is reproduced with permission from The Beacher weekly newspaper. For more information on the La Porte County Symphony Orchestra’s April 17 concert celebrating Gary Wedow’s return to his hometown and to purchase tickets, click on this WNLP link: La Porte County Symphony will welcome home Gary Thor Wedow at April 17 in-person concert | What’s New LaPorte? 

By Connie Kuzydym, The Beacher

Their names as La Porte-area musicians may sound familiar.

Florence Andrew.

Eddie Burke.

Guy Foreman.

Each shaped one of La Porte’s greatest conductors: Gary Wedow.

Their influence reaches back generations, but right now, the Zoom call is filled with Gary’s hearty laughter. He’s wearing a La Porte Slicers baseball cap, an enormous smile and a mischievous glint in his eyes. Our conversation was that of an old friend, not someone I had just met, as we traded laughs over our alma mater’s mascot.

Gary enthusiastically accepted the invitation to guest conduct the La Porte County Symphony Orchestra during its season finale April 17 at the La Porte Civic Auditorium. The concert, “Welcome Home, Gary Thor Wedow,” features music from the opera and vocal worlds he has been part of for years. It begins with two pieces that are pre-French Revolution in style: Mozart’s “Symphony No. 36 in C Major, ‘Linz’ KV 425,” Handel’s “Water Music” excerpts, and two English oratorio arias featuring soprano Kellie Motter, tenor Edward Graves and LCSO’s Chuck Steck on the trumpet. The program moves to Romantic opera repertoire from Donizetti, “Lucia di Lammermoor.” The mood changes to Americana pieces by Aaron Copland, “Old American Songs,” and ends with “Wheels of a Dream” from the Tony-winning musical “Ragtime.”

A La Porte native, Gary has never forgotten the starting notes of his career, nor the individuals or experiences that shaped his illustrious career as a conductor. In an emotional response, he explains why years after leaving La Porte, articles written about him still mention his hometown.

“La Porte made me. I was thinking today, I live in New York. So many of my colleagues went to Julliard, studied with famous virtuosi when they were young and they were child prodigies,” he said. “I’m totally a product of a small Midwestern town that gave me an incredible education … in the public schools. I felt very beautifully educated when I got to Indiana University. I could compete with everybody in my classes … so proud of La Porte. I wouldn’t be able to do it if it hadn’t been for the training, the support, the guidance that I got in La Porte.”

While this journey is rooted in La Porte, it travels throughout the United States, Canada and even overseas, where he’s spent sometime six months of the year on the road as a conductor.

He understands the importance of music being local. He feels orchestras such as the LCSO are more important than the New York Philharmonic. That is where young people are nurtured, where they form a community of supporters. He loves going to places like Utah, Seattle and Philadelphia, where student musicians are homegrown, have their own special personalities and are passionately supported by the community.

That is what it was like for him growing up.

“When I went to (college), I was very naive,” Gary said. “We had high school band, high school orchestra, swing choir, concert choir. We had all of those opportunities. And when I got out there in the world, I discovered there are tons of people who had no connection with any of this, and we had everything in La Porte.

“I really do feel La Porte is a special place. They really support the arts.”

Gary’s support system started with his family. Becoming an accompanist started as a youngster. His grandfather played the trumpet, his father the clarinet, his mother the piano. They all sang. There were huge stacks of popular music from the ’30s and ’40s in their home. His mother would pull out a piece, place it on the piano and he was expected to play. This taught him how to sight-read, a skill that would serve him well. None were sophisticated musicians, but they appreciated music and, most importantly, they supported Gary.

During high school, he was always doing something musically. He played the French horn in band and orchestra, was in the marching band’s color guard and played the piano in swing choir. Foreman, La Porte High School’s band director, and choir director Eddie Burke offered numerous opportunities for him to play the piano in high school music programs and plays. In the community, he played the church organ at St. Paul’s as well as for adult singers or instrumentalists who needed an accompanist.

It was Florence Andrew, his high school piano teacher, who influenced him the most. She studied in Boston at the New England Conservatory of Music, at Chicago’s Northwestern University and with talented pianists such as Hazel Harrison, a black woman born in La Porte who had a successful career in Europe.

Miss Andrew, as Gary warmly calls her, was more than a piano teacher. She was a nurturer who saw in him what others would eventually see. Her gift to him was a love of music. She nurtured his ability when she felt he needed bigger musical experiences. They traveled to Chicago, taking organ lessons while watching and learning from each other. Before coming home, they would take in a performance with the symphony, the ballet or a Broadway show. Through these opportunities he experienced firsthand the world of music.

The notes of his career traveled to Bloomington, where he was accepted at the renowned Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. Gary intended to become a high school music teacher. During auditions, his piano ability made him eligible to major in the subject. His counselor encouraged him to choose a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hone his keyboard skills. With the blessing of his parents, he pursued that major and never looked back. He was surrounded by extraordinary instrumental and vocal professionals, including a menagerie of internationally talented artists who fled the horrors of Nazi Germany. Roaming the halls, the sounds of Hungarian, Polish and German music filled the air.

The school was also the perfect avenue for retiring divas and leading men from New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

“The dean was very clever,” Gary said. “He’d see these great stars at the Met. He was a huge opera fan. He’d see them at their peak, then he’d see them start on the other side of the hill. As they were on the other side, he’d start wooing them … to come … and many of them did.”

Gary honed his skills at IU, playing during voice lessons for those stars who embraced, guided and encouraged him. All the while, he was learning an incredible repertoire of music. He loved working with singers, and they with him.

“It was, ‘Gary, what are you doing Friday afternoon at 5?’ ‘Nothing.'” Gary said. ‘”I have 3 students flying in from New York and I’ll pay you $20 an hour.’ That was like $200 an hour now. I would sit there and play for those divas who had flown in to study with these divas.”

Fellow student vocalists also engaged his services. But it was virtuoso Jorge Bolet, a Cuban pianist and professor of music (piano) at IU, who struck a chord in Gary’s career.

Immediately after the vocal recital Gary was accompanying, his professor was the first one backstage. Being a sizeable man, he recalls, Bolet picked him up, shook him and with emotion said, “Why don’t you the play the piano like that when you play for me?”

It was a light-bulb moment.

“I don’t like playing by myself. I like playing with people, collaborating, being with people, being a part of a musical team, and that changed our work,” he said. “He (Bolet) respected me as a musician. He saw I had talent. Immediately, he’d hear all the music I played for the singers. That’s when I realized I need to be a musician who was with other musicians.”

After graduating, Gary headed to the New England Conservatory of Music and earned a Master of Music degree. There for a short time, he worked as pianist for a group of singing waiters at the Sheraton Hotel. Enjoying the experience, he unfortunately needed to choose between the two due to the time demands both required.

Completing his studies, he remained in Boston for about 10 years, working for the Handel and Haydn Society, which performs Baroque and classical music. It was an untitled apprenticeship role where he marked parts, organized rehearsals and played in the orchestra. Conductor and artistic director Thomas Dunn also gave him small opportunities to conduct.

Dunn saw what Bolet had seen: Gary’s potential as a conductor.

“You put things together,” Dunn told him. “When you play for singers you guide them … you shape them.”

After 12 years in Boston, Gary felt the time had come to move to New York. During the summers, he was chorus master at The Santa Fe Opera. Its director also ran the Manhattan School of Music. Mentioning the upcoming move to him, the director immediately hired Gary into its opera department.

The next 10 years provided numerous conducting opportunities, including seven years as chorus master and head of the young artist program at the Canadian Opera Co. While there, Julliard called. It was seeking a conductor for a key opera. Richard Bradshaw, who ran the Canadian Opera, was unavailable, but assured them he had the perfect person. Gary auditioned. His career as a conductor was born.

(He became a part-time faculty member at Julliard and has been there since 1994.)

During this time, he also met his husband, Larry. Keeping one foot in New York, he traveled to and from Toronto. Then in 1997, the New York City Music Opera came calling. It needed a chorus master. This was not what he wanted, but the offer of regular conducting opportunities was attractive.

“New York City Music Opera was great. They brought in star conductors, but also had a conductor team … We were this team of conductors who sometimes you rowed the boat, sometimes you led,” Gary said. “It was a wonderful, supportive feeling that you could learn your craft in this incredibly deep way.”

In 2007, Gary was conducting so frequently in addition to the New York City Music Opera that, with guidance from his agent, he struck out on his own.

Gary has conducted numerous companies, such as Boston Lyric Opera, Glimmerglass Opera, Portland Opera and the Amherst Early Music Festival. He receives repeat conducting requests. Since the start of the year, he has been involved in projects at Julliard and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. After the concert in La Porte, he will work on a project with the Utah Opera in Salt Lake City. This summer, he is working with the Des Moines Metro Opera doing “Platee,” a French Baroque opera.

Grueling is not a word he associates with his schedule; rather, he sees it as an opportunity. If things start to feel overwhelming, he heeds a mentor’s wisdom: “Don’t see it as this thing weighing down on you. See it as this wonderful tapestry that you’re a part of. Yes, there’s a lot of things going on at the same time, but it’s rich and it’s involved and you just have to keep going forward and it’s exciting.”

Gary explains there are three types of conductors: the tyrant, the mother-father-parent, and the scholar. He conducts as the parent and the scholar. Every once in a while, he says, you may have to pull out the tyrant.

His style of conducting encourages those he works with to perform their best by explaining the why.

“Would you consider doing it this way? Because look at how the composer has written it. Look at how your line is shaped,” Gary explains. “I feel explaining to and showing the musicians that you’re trying to get them to sound their best, wow, they’ll let you do anything then. They’ll trust you.”

Throughout his career, he has promoted singing because of the happiness factor.

“They used to say it’s because of the breathing. There is truth to that, but more they have discovered it raises your level of endorphins. It makes you happier,” he said. “If I play the piano for a little bit, I’m soothed.”

Gary has worked on numerous projects over the years. So many have brought him the same intensity of happiness, he won’t choose a favorite. Instead, he defers to Luther Vandross’ song “Love the One You’re With.”

“For me, it’s what you’re doing … when I’m not near the one I love, I love the one I’m near,” he said.

Gary was not immune to the challenges created by COVID-19; fortunately, he was able to work online. By the end of last October, the simple act of going into Julliard for distanced-masked one-on-ones with students was a joyous occasion.

He learned years ago at Julliard to check his ego at the door, as many of his students will be more gifted and smarter than him. Instead of it bothering him, he embraces working with the younger generation and learning from them. There is a mutual respect, an admiration between them.

There are things Gary would still like to accomplish. As a young chorus master, for instance, he had the opportunity through New York City Music Opera to conduct “Madame Butterfly” at the Lincoln Center. He turned it down to the dismay of many. From what he was seeing, he knew the production would not turn out well. He was correct and dodged a bullet.

Today, he yearns for more.

“If you gave me a ‘Butterfly’ to conduct, I would say yes so fast, because now, what do I have to lose?” Gary said. “I will conduct anything. I am hungry for every new experience, every new repertoire. I’ve done the safe route. I’ve grown as a conductor. I want new experiences.”

Throughout it all, he continues to think about Miss Andrew, Guy Foreman, Eddie Burke, Jorge Bolet. It’s as if those people are still with him. Urging him on. He also acknowledges the generosity of conductors he met along the way who gave him opportunities that allowed him to learn his craft by doing.

He encourages young artists to never surrender to fear or cynicism, even though the profession is difficult. He says to preserve your joy in the art form. It’s natural to experience fear and nervousness, he said, but learn from the mistakes, knowing that life is a constant learning curve.

On life’s road, he has learned anything is possible, and don’t limit yourself.

“Start out on a journey. Be directed, but don’t be afraid to try another path. Don’t be afraid to experiment in a different direction,” Gary said. “I went to school to be a high school music teacher. I think I would have loved that. I think I would have been a good high school music teacher, but I’ve had this other life that for me has been extremely rich. A wonderful man that I have spent 35 years with. I’ve lived in New York for 35 years and had experiences that I would have never dreamed were possible, and all because I said yes.”

2 Responses to “Gary Wedow: hometown pride”

  1. Ken Juranek

    Apr 08. 2021

    Wonderful article. We’re looking forward to the concert.

    Reply to this comment
  2. Chucka

    Apr 08. 2021

    Excellent story, amazing talent, impressive person and musician, delighted Gary is conducting in LaPorte!

    Reply to this comment

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