ARTS: Taras Krysa’s lasting mark on the Henderson Symphony
“When he first came to work with us we were playing our concerts in a high school gym,” said Leslie Godfrey, Chairperson of the Orchestra Board of Directors. “Everybody was really dedicated to it, and it was wonderful. But there was an air vent that would tap-tap-tap as the air flowed through, so there was a lot of distraction that complicated the timing of the songs. Everyone could hear it over the music. It was crazy.”
“I compare it to the Charlie Brown Christmas tree,” said cellist and board member Bethany Swain Stone. “It was adorable, sweet and kind. It wasn’t that we were terrible musicians; it’s just that we were still a little underdeveloped.”
The Henderson-based orchestra originated in 1987 with a handful of local musicians who simply wanted to play the music they loved. The volunteer orchestra grew over the years and eventually partnered with the City of Henderson as part of its cultural arts program, playing for audiences of about 150 people. Their search for a new conductor in 2007 coincided with what was supposed to be a one-year term for Taras Krysa, who had temporarily come to the area to serve as Interim Director of Orchestras at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Eight years later, the organization memebrs reflect on their journey with Krysa, which has seen audiences swell to more than 1,000 people in an award-winning venue, a $20,000 annual budget increase, and a growing reputation for being one of the most polished volunteer orchestras in the region.
This reflection is prompted by Krysa’s recent announcement of resignation, as he prepares to move on to new opportunities abroad.
“Everyone asks about the vision,” Krysa commented. “I had no ‘vision’ when I came here. . . . You don’t know until you get there what climate, demographics, et cetera, you will be working in.
My vision was I just followed my gut instinct, asking what is the best thing for the orchestra first — what will make the orchestra better?”
“My vision was I just followed my gut instinct, asking what is the best thing for the orchestra first — what will make the orchestra better? Then I worked to increase the quality and bring the audience.
“So did I have some kind of plan? No way. I just had an experience, that’s all.”
Krysa considers his biggest challenge to have been the task of strengthening the orchestra’s ability to perform more complex works that he hoped would produce a stronger program.
“He came in and he redid things,” Stone said. “He put all orchestra members through new auditions and got a feel for individual strengths and shortcomings. Then he brought in resources to develop the sections that needed more help,” she explained.
“Eventually, instead of being just a bunch of people being there to have a good time, it has become more about the music. The music is number one.”
“It’s not a professional orchestra, so some of the things in our program have been challenging for them,” Kyrsa said. “But that’s what has developed them as musicians and as artists. They’ve become a pretty sophisticated bunch of people, as far as musicians are concerned.”
In 2014 the group performed a challenging program comprised entirely of Richard Wagner’s works. The event stands out to Krysa as one of his favorite experiences with the orchestra.
“That was a humongous project . . . An extra 16 horns and a Wagner tuba were rented from San Francisco. It was a huge project. Luana De Vol, sang with us, who is considered a major Wagner specialist. She lives in Henderson, so it would have been stupid not to have put this together.
“(Wagner) you have to sort of reach. You’ll get gray hair from doing this type of music because of the enormous complexities. Most of his repertoires are operatic and very difficult operas. It’s not something you start with, so I’d never really had a chance to do this repertoire. It was the first time for me to actually explore that composer and his language. It was wonderful.”
Those who work with Krysa credit his respect for the integrity of the music performed to be the quality that has made all the difference.
“This is all about the music. It’s not about him,” Godfrey said. “It’s not about any one of the solo artists; it’s not about any one of the particular players; it’s not about anything but the music for him, and bringing that music to our musicians and the Henderson audience. He doesn’t allow anything to get in the way of creating that art.
“It’s beautiful. It turns out beautiful every single time.”
The power of music brings us all together and we’re able to convey that to the audience. They feel something, and they leave elevated.”
“Somebody asked me ‘what is music?’ and I was looking for the definition, and I realized I don’t know how to explain what the actual music is,” offered Tyrsa.
“It’s just a bunch of sounds, but there has to be something. It’s a language that unites. People who don’t speak the same language can still communicate through music. The audience, even though I have no idea who they are, they still seem to get some kind of a message from us. The power of music brings us all together and we’re able to convey that to the audience. They feel something, and they leave elevated.”
Born in Kiev, Ukraine and schooled for violin performance in Moscow, Kyrsa came to the United States as a young adult with his family – his parents both music professors – in 1990. Having been raised and groomed for music performance in the Soviet Union, he found himself in a very different system upon entering American universities to continue his education.
“(Becoming a musician) was the only choice – there was no choice. I knew I was going to do it and never thought of doing anything else, until I came to America. Then I went, Oh! All my forays into things — I quickly realized I better just stick to music because everything else I touch, it’s a disaster.
“It’s just different. I went to a special music school in Moscow at age six, and they give a very strong training early on. But, ultimately, it’s up to the musician later on to make choices — and that system did not teach you very well how to think for yourself.
“Here, in my mind, everyone starts much too late to play musical instruments. Having said that, America produces a lot of great musicians because people are doing it because they want to do it, which is different than the way it was in the Soviet Union.
“Ideally, there has to be a little bit of both. The musicians here, it’s pretty much up to parents to they make sure the kids are practicing, et cetera. There is a certain element of pressure and drill; there has to be. It’s the same thing as soccer or tennis, or whatever you want to get good at or make a career of, you have to start early and practice a lot.”
Krysa studied music performance at Indiana University and went on to play with the New World Symphony in Miami, then the St. Louis Symphony. Though he did not originally set out to become a conductor, he was inspired by two men throughout his early career that helped him define his expectations for performance, and eventually inspired him to become a conductor himself.
“Michael Tilson Thomas, the director of the New World Symphony, had a huge influence on me because he was absolutely brilliant as a musician and that’s part of what inspired me to do this.
“Another conductor, who I admired and revered, was Hans Vonk of the St. Louis Symphony. He was the complete opposite of Michael Tilson Thomas. Michael was flashy and flamboyant, very electrifying on the podium, and also when educating young musicians.
“Vong was completely opposite, very pedantic, Dutch schooling, you’d get to the concert and there wasn’t a drop of sweat out of place, it was so tightly controlled – and I liked it. It was all about the music, it was never about the show.
“Sometimes they forget, the people at the podium, why they are there. It’s not about them, it’s about the music.”
Kyrsa went on to obtain a Masters of Orchestral Conductorship at Northwestern University and enjoyed playing some European tours before he started at UNLV, where he was eventually hired permanently as the Director of Orchestras.
“Many have asked what attracted Kyrsa to an area with a cultural emphasis so different from those he had come from.
“The question of the culture, it’s a double-edged sword,” he said. “There is a culture here, but it’s different. It’s not the culture in the sense I’m used to — Chicago, Moscow, Kiev, or New York City, or Toronto. There’s a different kind of entertainment when you’re talking about the Strip, of course. It’s huge and it’s on the cutting edge. But it’s not what I grew up with, which is classical music and classical art.
“But I think it’s slowly building up. Not as quickly as one might want, especially implants from Europe or even the East Coast, but it’s slowly building up and that’s the choice we have to make.
“When you come to a place like this, it’s an opportunity for you to make something happen. You have to work harder to get this to happen, there’s a sense of frontier. I don’t want to call it a cultural frontier, but there is a sense of that, so you make things happen, and there’s opportunity for people to build something.”
Krysa’s departure from the Henderson Symphony Orchestra is decidedly amicable, and he will remain with the group through the annual 4th of July concert. Afterward, he will stay based at UNLV as he works on projects abroad.
The reason I’m leaving,” Krysa offered, “is that I’ve done it for almost nine years and it’s just time to go. It was a wonderful ride. It’s a great institution. All the musical experience and the people in the orchestra, it’s all been a great part of my life.”
According to Stone, who heads up the search committee for Krysa’s replacement, Henderson is in store for some great entertainment as the new conductor is sought.
“After we whittle it down to a certain number of finalists, we’ll have each conduct a concert in the 2015-2016 season,” said Stone.
“I’m expecting this to be a fun, diverse thing. It could be a very exciting thing for the community to experience a different conductor at each concert. It’s going to be a little crazy, but it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
“Our main focus for our conductor search,” said Godfrey, “is to make sure it’s someone who will help us continue to grow. We really take our responsibility to spread music to anyone who wants to hear it in Henderson, and the Las Vegas Valley as a whole, very seriously.
“That’s part of the reason why our concerts remain free with requested donations from audience members, because we want to make sure that families and people who may not otherwise be able to buy expensive tickets to go see a symphony can continue to be exposed and learn about this music, and enjoy it.
“What we’re looking for in a new conductor is someone who buys into that same mission and is excited, and comes in ready to continue to build us up.”
“Where else can you take a six-year-old to go see a symphony orchestra concert,” said Stone, “and not be stressed out about the cost of the tickets?
“You can go there and have a picnic on the grass and not be worried that your kid is running around in circles. It’s such a great experience and we’re really trying to encourage that.”
“It’s important for our culture,” said Godfrey, “for our community to have this.”| iH
Please visit the Henderson Symphony Orchestra website for current performance schedule.
This article was featured on page 17 of the April 2015 issue of Inside Henderson Magazine.