Becoming a conductor was never Richard McKay’s plan. Nearly ten years after founding Dallas Chamber Symphony, it’s been a multi-faceted career offering endless musical opportunities and constant challenges. McKay’s next challenge is to conduct Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphonies with the Dallas Chamber Symphony at Moody Performance Hall in the Dallas Arts District on March 15.
The Dallas native attended the University of Texas at Austin, initially earning a Bachelor of Music degree in piano performance. He was introduced to conducting through courses and his teachers encouraged him to pursue it. “They all told me it was something I should consider doing because they thought I had a knack for it and liked it. I loved the work when I first started doing it,” McKay said.
When the college conductor left, it opened up opportunities for McKay. Before beginning a graduate program for piano performance at UT Austin, McKay attended the Conductor’s Retreat in Maine. Upon his return to Texas, he obtained a contract as an assistant conductor for the orchestra program. “That was one of the moments that probably started me on a new trajectory,” McKay said.
In less than a year, he changed his graduate program from piano performance to orchestral conducting. He was musical director of the University Orchestra. “It was just kind of a trial by fire. I was terribly unskilled when I was thrown into this fire, but I had no choice but to learn everything very quickly,” said McKay: “Honestly, that’s where I learned to do everything with orchestras, from programming the season to organizing the rosters, including administering everything and directing the shows. something that prepared me for DCS was that experience at UT Austin.
After earning a master’s degree in music in orchestral conducting, McKay earned a doctorate at the Peabody Conservatory. Compared to the holistic experience at UT Austin, the Peabody program was competitive, demanding, and focused on working with seminar orchestras. “It was a very intense environment, training-wise,” McKay said. “Those two experiences together have really prepared me for what I’m doing now.
McKay also trained at the American Academy of Conducting in Aspen and the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. He has performed with the Fort Worth Symphony, Dallas Opera Orchestra, Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, Irving Symphony, Mendoza Symphony, Estonian National Youth Symphony, and Manhattan School of Music Symphony. He has assisted many conductors including Günther Herbig, Carlos Kalmar and Jaap van Zweden.
The construction of the Moody Performance Hall was the catalyst that prompted McKay to start the Dallas Chamber Symphony. “When I visited the Moody Performance Hall when it was under construction, I was so excited, because everywhere I looked there was everything I wanted. It had great acoustics, it had the right shape, it had a pit, it was going to have an acoustic shell, it was going to have a place where we could screen movies. It couldn’t have been better. It was perfect in every way,” McKay said.
McKay filed paperwork to establish the orchestra as a nonprofit in June 2012, received nonprofit designation in July, and on August 30, McKay’s birthday, Dallas Chamber Symphony publicly announced their concert plans. The orchestra became the first arts organization to lease Moody Performance Hall.
The orchestra’s first concert took place in September 2012 and a second followed in October. From August to October, McKay lost 20 pounds. “It was such an intense time. I’ll never forget it. It was so hard. It took everything I had to make it work,” McKay said.
And it worked. Ten years later, McKay is focused on developing programs that meet the needs of many constituencies. The audience is paramount. “You want them to come to your gig, understand what it’s all about, and have a good time, even if it’s difficult music you’re playing,” McKay said. “You need to set it up so they can understand why you’re programming it and what you’re accomplishing by presenting it.”
Overall progress is crucial. “There is the development of the orchestra to consider. This is going to take into account what combinations of plays you might put on a program and in what order over the course of a season or over the course of a few years to develop sections where you might have a talent that might need development mentioned McKay. “These are the long-term trajectories that I think about when I plan the seasons.”
Soloists play a different role in the Dallas Chamber Symphony than in larger orchestras. “For us, solo opportunities are much more about cultivating talent within our own band. They’re much more about acquainting an audience with people they’ve never heard of before,” McKay said. are the mid-sized orchestras that really listen to the uniqueness of your local culture and the gaps in local arts programming.
The March 15 concert features only one composer: Shostakovich, a Soviet-era Russian composer. The lineup was selected long before Russia invaded Ukraine, but the music is poignantly relevant.
“You couldn’t choose a composer who would have been more sensitive to the difficulties of working under an authoritarian regime. Shostakovich is one of those composers who spent much of his life looking over his shoulder, fearing he would be imprisoned or killed just for the music he wrote. It’s topical and frankly, it sheds light on a lot of what’s going on right now in a helpful way,” McKay said.
Preparation for a concert begins long before rehearsals, with orchestra staff carefully preparing the parts of each section to establish a unified vision of the work.
“With a symphony orchestra or a chamber orchestra, preparing for parts can take weeks and it’s very involved and time-consuming work,” McKay said. “So probably 99% of what I do is prep for the gig, and it’s all designed to allow some really big, magical things to happen on stage during the gig. If you do all 99% really well, that last one percent looks beautiful and effortless.”
The orchestra has three rehearsals. “Probably the most important thing for everyone in the room is that I get a good night’s sleep before that first rehearsal,” McKay said. “Big rehearsals are just more enjoyable than big gigs because it’s so rewarding and so cathartic to walk into them and work together and find your way through a piece of music to something that’s really quite special. and that was truly an outstanding achievement in the way the music is performed.
The day before a concert, sleeping is a time for problem solving. “I tend not to study sheet music the day before a concert. I tend to take everything I get out of rehearsal into bed with me. I think about it very often while I sleep. I solve all kinds of problems while I sleep,” McKay said.
After a final dress rehearsal on the day of the concert, McKay meets with his team to go over all the remaining details. He loves pre-show parties. “I like to keep things as relaxed as possible,” McKay said.
All that’s left for McKay is to enter stage right and walk to the podium.
Learn more: https://www.dcsymphony.org/