Connecting through music

Friday, February 1, 2008 | 12:00 p.m. CST; updated 1:47 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Alex Innecco directs the Chancel Choir at Missouri United Methodist Church through selections from “Navidad Nuestra,” or “Our Christmas.” Innecco said he chose a career in music as a means to connect with people on a personal level.

COLUMBIA — The man in front of the orchestra rhythmically moves his arms, holding his baton lightly but firmly, rocking forward and back, forward and back, shifting from foot to foot.

As the William Tell overture picks up speed, really picks up speed, even an untrained ear can tell the music is falling apart. The instruments aren’t playing together anymore, and the tune, long connected to “The Lone Ranger,” is no longer familiar.

If you go

What: 9th Street Philharmonic Orchestra performs Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with soloist Natalie Toida and Milhaud’s “Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit” (“The Ox on the Roof”). When: 7 p.m., Feb. 9. Where: MIssouri United Methodist Church, 204 S. Ninth St. Tickets: $10 in advance, $15 at the door, available at the church from 8 to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, phone 443-3111.

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The man’s steady rocking and his perfectly timed arm motions disintegrate into a wide, flailing “Stop! Stop! Stop!” motion. It looks as if all order has left the sanctuary, and the now-frustrated musicians in the 9th Street Philharmonic Orchestra look to their leader with tired eyes and red cheeks. They’re in the second hour of rehearsal, and it’s starting to show.

This is their first time playing this piece as a group, and it is failing miserably. All eyes are on the conductor, and he needs to regroup, rejuvenate, reassure before the musicians give up on themselves.

“It is more important to keep the tempo and the energy than it is to keep all the notes,” he says. “Just go with the flow. Go with the tempo.”

He picks up the tune with his voice, a strong “bum bum bum” over the cellos and the basses, and they come together again.

They play through the piece. They begin another.

For the entire rehearsal, he maintains their attention. Maybe some are frustrated, but if they’ve played with him before, they know that nothing is going to be perfect the first time around. But they know that with Alex Innecco’s confidence in them, the music will be ready for performance five days from now.

Innecco has an easily recognizable voice. His low, melodious words are carefully crafted before they leave his mouth, each syllable wrapped in a beautiful Brazilian accent. His voice, his energy, his rhythm and his choice of words have made him a singular figure.

Innecco conducts the 9th Street Philharmonic Orchestra, which he organized in 2005 and now is part of a music series at Missouri United Methodist Church where he is music director. He also directs the Columbia Chorale, which has been in town for more than 29 years and under his direction for the past five.

Anyone who has worked with Innecco will tell you he sets his goals high. With the 9th Street Philharmonic Orchestra, he brings together musicians ranging from their early teens to retirement age to practice three times before playing pieces that professional orchestras play. He leads his musicians to push themselves, he brings classical music to the masses, and he loves a challenge.

Innecco, 40, is a talker. Ask him a question, and he’ll give you 50 answers before you realize time has passed. The way he structures and speaks each of his sentences is like music. When searching for the word for a man who fixes organs, he tries a few combinations then stops to ask his friends, “How do I make it sound pretty?”

Ask him about growing up, and he’ll tell you about a life in Brazil. He’ll tell you that his paternal grandparents came from Italy and that being Italian-Brazilian makes him loud, talkative, very social and a man who gesticulates broadly. He’ll tell you being Brazilian means he lives life not to accomplish goals but to enjoy it.

Ask Innecco how he got started with music, and he’ll say something along the lines of, “You want the romantic, but true, story? It was 1983, and I was in Brazil watching the Oscars on television. I was about 15 years old, and I saw Pavarotti singing some cheesy Neapolitan song.

“What I felt was — and remember, I had no musical people in my family — it was inexplicable. I really don’t know what I felt. It was like pure emotion, and it came from just this cheesy Neapolitan song. The following morning, I went to the music school and joined the choir.”

Not thinking that music could be a career, he went to journalism school in Brasilia. After five years, he realized a career in media wasn’t for him, so he transferred to the music program.

But the school wasn’t what he had hoped, so Innecco transferred to MU in 1991. When his mentor accepted a position at Indiana University, he followed her to get his degree in vocal performance. He came back to MU to get a master’s degree in choral conducting in 2001.

Ask him why he chose music, and Innecco will tell you it isn’t necessarily about the music. He’ll tell you that at heart, he is a people person and music is just the method he chose to be with people.

His inherent ability to deal with people is visible at every practice. He doesn’t yell, he doesn’t lower his standards when his rehearsals don’t go well, and he does not care how many notes his musicians miss, as long as they get the tempo, the feeling. His practices are punctuated with jokes; his concerts are three-quarters music, one-quarter comedy.

The 9th Street Philharmonic Orchestra leaves the sanctuary, and Innecco heads to the basement of the church. He is late to the Columbia Chorale practice he is supposed to be leading. Men and women of varying ages sit in a brightly lit room, one of the members leading the practice. When he arrives, she takes her seat and the choir applauds his entrance.

Immediately sensing the practice isn’t what he wants it to be, Innecco makes them all stand. Like the instrumentalists, these vocalists have not worked together on this music before tonight. And like the orchestra, the group has no luster until he encourages them.

“I don’t care if you sing all the wrong notes, but give it the energy,” he insists.

But no matter how many times he stops a rehearsal, no matter how many times he corrects the same mistake, he knows that when the concert begins, everything will be ready.

The questions are why and how. “I’m not afraid of failing, honestly,” Innecco says. “It’s not that I don’t think I will fail — it’s not that I think that things will be completely perfect. I am not afraid of understanding that everything is a process.”

Frank Santoro, a close friend and frequent player with 9th Street Philharmonic, puts it this way: “He’s flirting with disaster, he’s asking for trouble. ... His running joke has always kind of been, ‘Bach is dead. Who is going to come complain from his family?’”

A few weeks later, you walk into the sanctuary, and you’re greeted by the musty smell of burgundy crushed velvet and old wooden pews, the sense that the carpet has been vacuumed frequently.

At the front of the church, Innecco quickly walks back and forth, moving chairs, adjusting music stands, testing the microphone. His movements are fast but not exactly rushed. He may be nervous, but he won’t let it show. It’s not really his style.

Before each concert he makes sure to sit and be alone in silence. He says he’s taken months to prepare for something that he has one hour to deliver. He wants to get in the mood, and he wants to get it done right.

The pews begin to fill. One person mentions he is there because Innecco is a good friend. You tell the man you’ve heard that everyone Innecco has ever met is his good friend. The man tells you that sounds about right.

Innecco is hosting tonight’s concert as a benefit to help cover the cost of his immigration fees. He is waiting for a permanent residency visa and hoping to raise $7,000.

At 7 sharp, he walks out. Blank-faced, stoic, Innecco looks lost in thought as he steps onto the platform.

Before each piece, he says something about the conductor, about the way the piece was composed or about a nuance in the trumpet section. He does it to pique interest. At one concert, he told the audience the song had been written by the man who murdered Mozart. He followed with, “That’s not true, but it always wakes everyone up.”

The concert lasts an hour and a half, and the entire time Innecco is beaming, grateful for the friends who play with him, grateful for the audience that supports him.

When the time comes, when the audience is ready, Innecco’s friends come around with plastic Aldi’s bags. Checks and cash are thrown in, and Innecco explains that the money is strictly to pay his immigration fees, that any excess will be used for a number of projects within the church.

With donations from the audience and members of the congregation the next day, Innecco raises the money to pay off his immigration debts. It all falls into place just in time. It always does.

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