James Feddeck has become the go-to guy in the symphonic world. Whenever a major conductor is sick or has to cancel at the last minute, Feddeck, winner of the 2013 Solti Conducting Award, often gets the call to substitute.
In just over a year, he has filled in with little notice five times, including in March when he made an unexpected debut with the San Francisco Symphony, stepping in for famed maestro Semyon Bychkov in Bruckner’s challenging Symphony No. 8. Other substitutions have occurred with the Helsinki Philharmonic, Royal Scottish National Orchestra in Glasgow, Residentie Orchestra in the Hague and Hallé Orchestra in Manchester. In each case, the emerging Cleveland-based conductor not only persevered under the pressure but excelled.
Alfred Hickling wrote in the Guardian after Feddeck’s appearance in Manchester: “The 32-year-old is a conductor to watch, not least because his business-like demeanor might initially seem more at home on a trading floor than the podium. Yet he worked up a real heat, inhabiting every bar of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as if it were a second skin.”
Such sure-footedness on the podium helps explain why the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has invited him to lead concerts June 26-27 at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle and to return next season for his subscription-series debut at Orchestra Hall in concerts Oct. 17 and 20.
“I suppose, realistically, for a young conductor,” Feddeck said, “cancellations are often a very good way to debut with an orchestra, because obviously they need someone, and if you happen to be free, it works out. And actually, in all these cases, they were extraordinary experiences, and the orchestras have all invited me back.”
Before each of these substitutions, Feddeck reminded himself that he was performing music and not surgery, so no lives were in the balance. “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” he said. “People don’t like it. In a way, that’s inevitable, whether it’s a planned appearance or a step-in situation. People will either really like it or they won’t. You don’t have much control over that. All you can do as the performer and the artist is bring what you do and hope that resonates with enough people.”
The budding maestro credits much of his success so far to the four summers he spent in 2006-09 at the American Academy of Conducting at the famed Aspen (Colo.) Music Festival and School: three as a student and one as an assistant. The program, which has produced such noted alumni as Mei-Ann Chen, music director of the Chicago Sinfonietta, was founded in 1999 by well-known conductor David Zinman, who was then the festival’s music director. “It’s very difficult to actually study conducting,” Feddeck said. “In a way, it’s a bit of a mystery, because one doesn’t make any sound one’s self. So it isn’t quite as apparent as, say, studying the violin. But there is obviously a fair amount of something that must go into it and be behind it.”
The elite academy serves as a kind of pre-professional finishing school for top young conductors, with classes in baton technique and score reading. But most important, the students have regular opportunities to lead a student orchestra assigned to the program, with critiques during rehearsals and coaching from both staff and guest conductors at the festival.
Feddeck calls it a safe place where could he try things and make mistakes. “That kind of regular practical experience is something that really helped me a great deal,” he said. “While it’s very important in studying conducting to analyze and talk about with mentors and teachers the psychological approaches and musical issues, there really comes a time when you have to just do it, and you have to do it a lot.”
From 2009 through 2013, Feddeck served as assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra and music director of the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra. Since then, he has devoted himself to international guest conducting, including both planned and unplanned appearances, but he acknowledges that he would like to secure a music directorship somewhere.
“It’s just a matter of finding the right place,” he said. “We’ll see. For now, it’s been an amazing adventure to conduct so many different orchestras. Since leaving the Cleveland Orchestra in 2013, I think I’ve conducted 35 or 36 different orchestras around the world, and to be able to do that is also a great opportunity and a great learning experience.”
In working with Chicago Symphony leaders to pick the repertoire for his upcoming concerts, he needed to find works that would make sense in an open-air setting and also would fit into the orchestra’s subscription series, since a few will be performed at both engagements.
Because Christopher Martin, CSO principal trumpet, will be the guest soloist, it was quickly decided that he would perform Haydn’s well-known Trumpet Concerto. To accompany that work on the fall program, Feddeck chose Rachmaninov’s grand, hourlong Symphony No. 2. When making his debut with an orchestra, Feddeck likes to pick works that have not been heard recently, and the CSO has not performed it since 2010. “I love the piece, and I can’t wait to do it with the Chicago Symphony,” Feddeck said. “I’ve been looking forward to it for quite some time.”
During the 2015-16 season, the Chicago Symphony will celebrate its 125th anniversary by performing works that were given their world or American premieres by the orchestra. As part of this initiative, Feddeck’s October program will include Franck’s Les Eolides, which received its American premiere in Chicago in 1895.
Anchoring the June 26 program will be the Symphony No. 2, along with two works by another Russian composer, Igor Stravinsky: Suite from The Firebird and Circus Polka. “It’s quite an absurd little piece,” Feddeck said of the latter. “I think it’s only three or four minutes. But I felt on the June 26 program that we needed something a little less heavy to start before we get into The Firebird and the Rachmaninov.” The June 27 program will feature the Haydn Concerto along with Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique and Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Ludmila.
Nearly all of these works are ones that the CSO has played dozens if not hundreds of times, but Feddeck believes that it will be possible to find some new dimension in each piece. “What’s fun for me,” he said, “is if we can, even if very quickly, bring it some level of interpretation or some detail which hasn’t necessarily been realized before. It really is a two-way street. With such a strong tradition and such a strong identity and history of doing this repertoire with so many outstanding conductors, the orchestra brings something, definitely brings something. And I’d like to think that I bring something, too, and that we can kind of shape, for the purposes of our performance, each other a little bit and end up with something that is still part of the tradition and the identity but something that is new as well.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts writer.
VIDEO: James Feddeck leads members of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Orchestra in Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 (video via YouTube).