Twenty-nine-year-old Stefan Freund snaps his fingers as 38 pairs of eyes follow intently for their cue. “Short, long. Short, short — long,” Freund sings, raising the baton. After a few more stanzas, the Columbia Civic Orchestra is done with Czech composer Antonin Dvorzak’s “New World Symphony.”
“All right, we kind of got through it. We’ll run through it again the coming two weeks,” Freund says before turning to Igor Stravinski’s “Suite No. 2.” Freund snaps his fingers or whistles the melody at times; his expressive mouth and eyebrows sets the mood for the piece.
“So much when we speak has to do with facial expressions,” Freund said after last week’s rehearsal at the Missouri Theatre. “Communication is about so much more than syntax. It’s about communication. And music is communication.”
Freund was named musical director and conductor of the Columbia Civic Orchestra last Sunday. He came to Columbia in August as a visiting assistant professor in composition and music theory at MU. A colleague, MU associate professor emeritus Charles Kyriakos, recommended Freund for the post.
The civic orchestra is the only community orchestra in the area that targets nonprofessional volunteer musicians of all ages. Its 58 members are preparing for a busy performance schedule that begins with Freund’s debut as conductor Feb. 28.
Freund has been living and breathing music since his childhood in Memphis, Tenn. His father, Don, teaches composition at Indiana University in Bloomington. His mother, Sandra, is an elementary school music teacher. Freund started playing piano at 4 and took up the cello, the instrument he would later major in, when he was 10.
Freund’s early teachers became role models of musical passion and good teaching style. Students would drive for hours to take lessons with one of his first cello teachers, Peter Spurbeck, Freund said.
“His was true professionalism. Preparation was his mantra, and he shared that with us,” Freund said.
Members of the Youth Symphony Orchestra that Freund joined during high school flew their conductor, Bruce Dinkins, in from Columbia, S.C., every week.
“I remember the way (my teachers) took time out of their lives. That’s what keeps music alive: passing it on to a younger generation,” Freund said. “I always wanted to be a teacher and give back to other amateur musicians. I want to share my music education with others who haven’t had the opportunity. I’ve met people they’ve read about in books, played at venues they’ve seen on PBS. I can share with them the same ideas that those people gave me.”
Freund holds a doctoral degree of musical arts in composition and cello. His compositions have received numerous awards and have been performed by such groups as the Phoenix Symphony, the New York Youth Symphony and the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble. Freund is principal cellist for the New York-based chamber ensemble, Alarm Will Sound, and serves on the faculty of the Sewanee Summer Music Festival in Sewanee, Tenn.
Augusta Reed Thomas, one of Freund’s teachers, said he will make an excellent director for the civic orchestra.
“He’s got a lot of really good energy, good leadership. He’s very organized,” said the Northwestern University professor and composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “He’s very kind. I know that he was always eager to help out.”
Freund considers himself a composer first. He has never studied conducting or conducted an orchestra full time, but he feels comfortable in his new shoes.
“A lot of people feel awkward stepping on the podium. After the success of conducting the faculty orchestra at last summer’s Sewanee festival, it seemed quite natural to me,” he said. “Because I have such a strong idea about my own music, I have the same conviction for other music that I’ve come to appreciate.”
Hugo Vianello, co-founder of the Missouri Symphony Society, served as principal guest conductor during the current season since Dean Anderson, the group’s previous conductor, moved to California.
The orchestra’s board of directors is convinced that Freund provides a good match for its chamber ensemble.
“For a community orchestra to get the strings well requires the most efforts,” said managing director and orchestra member Bruce Gordon. “As a cellist, Stefan is very apt for the main problems with the string section. He will inspire us to new heights. He is always meticulously prepared, very organized and, I believe, ambitious in the realm of repertoire.”
The civic orchestra’s schedule for this spring includes music by Antonin Dvorak and Ludwig van Beethoven, as well as Igor Stravinsky — music that is usually considered too complicated for a community orchestra, Freund said.
Freund wants to use the coming weeks to make his conducting and the orchestra’s performance more consistent. He said he’s very concerned about getting the community involved. Besides annual events such as the Halloween children’s concert, an opera performance, and the singalong for Handel’s “Messiah,” Freund hopes to target high schools, retirement homes — “maybe even the Columbia Mall.”
“We can’t just sit down and play,” he said. “We’ve got to go to them.”
Freund often wishes the orchestra had more than its two weekly hours to rehearse.
“But it’s always like that. Usually things come together at the end. I’ve been in so many ensembles — it sometimes happens at the dress rehearsal, even the concert,” he said. “The most rewarding experience is when we play and sound like crap, and we practice and sound fine. It’s amazing: We just created art!”
Community orchestras play a unique role in the music world, according to Freund.
While the purpose of a collegial orchestra is to teach students how to play music, he said, the community orchestra provides an outlet for performance.
“We’re trying to have fun: creating art and sharing music,” he said. “We might even have some disasters along the way. But as long as we play with passion and energy, that’s okay. Whether people play every note is often not as important as the level of expression.”