Madame Maestro Cornelia Kodkani-Laemmli
January Feature Story
By Angela Wampler | December 20, 2006Elegant and Down-to-Earth
Exciting. Enthusiastic. Energetic. Elegant. That's how people describe Cornelia Kodkani-Laemmli, the new music director and conductor of the Symphony of the Mountains Orchestra. They also use words such as passionate, creative, sincere and, most of all, warm and approachable, with a good sense of humor.
According to Norman Lebrecht, a widely-read commentator on music, culture and politics, "Conducting is not just a matter of musical talent. The conductor's job is a cross between traffic cop, philosopher, cabaret act, social worker and company chairman. To draw these strands together requires confidence."
"Artists of Cornelia's stature have to have a certain amount of personality to do what they do, but hers doesn't get in the way of personal relations," says Dr. Patrick W. Flannagan of Bristol, conductor of Voices of the Mountains, the chorus of Symphony of the Mountains. "Cornelia's enthusiasm is contagious. She could talk you into going anywhere with her. The thing that comes across most is her contagious enthusiasm and passion for making music. She has high standards, and she works as hard as she can to meet those standards."
"I've been watching Cornelia, and I was fascinated with the way people fell in love with her at concerts," says Ann Myers, the Symphony's Executive Director. "The connection she makes with an audience is amazing. She has a magnetism you wouldn't believe." Myers and the Symphony's board of directors are counting on Kodkani's passion to ignite more interest in concerts, to build audiences throughout the region.
Flannagan continues, "Cornelia is equally trained in choral and instrumental music — a rare combination in a conductor. Members of the symphony chorus already appreciate her understanding and her attention to them. The chorus expects help from the conductor with emotional things in a piece. Cornelia is providing that, which is a marvelous change."
French Moore, Jr. of Abingdon, president of the Symphony's board of directors, says, "When we invited Cornelia to be our conductor, we were hoping against hope that she would accept. She has met everyone's expectations, even more than we could imagine. The Symphony never remembers other conductors getting all the emails Cornelia has been receiving, congratulating her on what a great job she is doing. She's the answer to our prayers. She's been speaking to civic organizations, and everywhere people warm up to her in a hurry."
Charlie Daniels and the Symphony: Mixing Fun with the Classics
Kodkani believes in bringing all of the arts together, working together for the good of everyone in the community. She wants to dispel the notion that classical music is elitist, exclusionary, and out of touch with its listeners.
In addition to her extensive standard repertoire, Kodkani creates programs of variety and wide appeal by cultivating partnerships with visual artists and dancers, as well as musicians one doesn't normally associate with classical music.
"I've been impressed with Cornelia from the beginning. She's full of energy and ideas," says Wanda Valentine, manager of community relations for Eastman Chemical Company in Kingsport, a major sponsor of the Symphony. "From the moment I met her, I've been impressed with her vision and creativity. She is so willing to do whatever she can to help expose classical music to people of all ages and all walks of life. She is so good with an audience. People are just drawn to her."
The biggest production is scheduled for July 2007 when Kodkani and the Symphony take the stage with country music legend Charlie Daniels for the Eastman Fireworks Spectacular finale for Kingsport's annual Fun Fest celebration. "It's a win-win situation," Kodkani says, "a gift to the community (from Eastman Chemical Company) as well as exposing country music fans to the Symphony — in the casual, fun atmosphere of a picnic where people can wear blue jeans and shorts."
Kodkani notes, "I don't want people to think that orchestra music is only for rich, highly educated people. The Symphony belongs to everybody. Music can make a difference in people's life. I don't want to tell people that only classical music is good music. I think every type of music can be wonderful and touch people's hearts. We're not going to 'dumb down' our concerts — the music will be recognizable but still on the highest artistic level. Our performances won't be stiff, you don't have to dress up; you don't have to worry about when to clap. Just give it a try!"
At her first concert in Kingsport, Kodkani and the Symphony asked the Kingsport Ballet to join them. Myers recalls, "Everybody loved it. The program was dedicated to a local high school student who had died in a car crash. The girl had been a musician and a dancer. Cornelia wants to see art, sculpture, theater, dance and, of course, music all work together. I believe that we will see more and more collaborations."
Taking the Pulse of the Region
Myers continues, "Cornelia's programming is fresh and appeals to all ages. She has a programming committee made up of musicians, a board member, a young professional, our chorus director, and myself. She listens to us and sincerely wants to know what the public wants. She wants to turn the symphony into an art form that ALL the people can enjoy and take the haughty highbrow attitude away from it."
Myers adds, "Cornelia picks up on the pulse of the region and she is SINCERE. She doesn't do it for a gimmick. She does it because she is a dear person herself, and she feels these things through and through her entire being. She is the most human, down-to-earth conductor I have ever met. You can feel her emotion when she conducts, and, by feeling her emotions, she is able to convey the feeling of the music in a fresh new way."
Kodkani explains, "After I dream something up, I run my ideas by my advisory groups and we discuss them. They all look at it from different angles."
An advisory group of young professionals suggested that every concert be "an event." Kodkani notes, "If people drive an hour, maybe have to find a babysitter, or go through other efforts to attend a concert, they might appreciate a bigger package — something happening before and/or after the performance that has something to do with the music on the program, something that makes it worth the drive even more."
To that end, when Kodkani and the Symphony announced its "Musica Caliente" program of Spanish music for November, they invited the audience to join them before the concert for Art in the Lobby and Preludes (a discussion of the music to be performed) and after the concert for salsa lessons at a local club.
Later this year, in Bristol, the Symphony will present "Fiddlin' Violins: The Sounds of Our Roots," a bluegrass concert with the McLain Family Band.
Bringing Kids Closer to Music
Another advisory group is the Music Education & Outreach committee. Kodkani says, "Next to maintaining a high standard of music, music education and outreach is a big obligation for the orchestra. We go to schools that don't have music programs, where we can really make a difference and introduce music to young people. It requires a lot of coordination and work to design a program and lesson plans, to coordinate musicians and volunteers, but if you see how the light goes on in some of these kids' eyes, it is worth everything!"
Following a family program that she conducted in Oak Ridge, Kodkani remembers meeting a father who saw the orchestra perform after his son came home from a symphony in-school program and begged to go to the concert.
"You have heard of the 'No Child Left Behind' campaign in Tennessee. Well, we have a saying here at Symphony of the Mountains: No Child's Ears Left Behind," says Elaine Barker, personnel manager of the Symphony. "As part of our Music Education Outreach Program, we take our love of music into classrooms. Unfortunately, there are still some people in our region who have never had any exposure to music. Some students have never heard a musical instrument played live. We are the only exposure they get to live instruments."
In addition, the Symphony's Youth Orchestra recruits, trains and rehearses up to 70 young people, representing schools from Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, for three concerts each year. It is the only program of its kind in a 100-mile radius. A valuable training ground for tomorrow's musicians, this experience also fosters teamwork, discipline and good communication skills among youngsters. Youth Orchestra concerts reach over 2,000 school-age audiences. At the annual Youth for Youth Concert, they perform an educational concert instructing area fifth graders how an orchestra is organized, a preview of the instruments, and a lesson in conducting.
Kodkani says such exposure is important in developing future classical musicians and listeners — "you have to catch them while they're young."
Passion and Humor
Asked how she juggles her responsibilities in the Tri-Cities region as well as Knoxville and Oak Ridge, Kodkani says, "Lots of chocolate!" Seriously, her passions in life include music, world travel, and horsemanship.
Kodkani and her husband like to visit different cultures. When they lived in Switzerland, where they got five weeks vacation, they visited Africa and Asia. Now that they're in the U.S., they're visiting South American countries — in between concerts. For Christmas, they traveled to India.
A down-to-earth person, Kodkani likes being outdoors, riding her horse. Of course, that means feeding it and cleaning its stall. Someone boarding a horse at the same place didn't recognize Kodkani until she began talking (her Swiss accent again). "I often get the feeling that people, especially kids, think I live on stage, but I'm a real person. Some people seem surprised to see me in the grocery store or covered in dirt at the stables."
A native of Switzerland, Kodkani feels "at home" in Northeast Tennessee. During a recent Symphony concert in Kingsport, she told the audience about an encounter she had in a New York City airport. "A gentleman remarked that I must be from Knoxville. I guess he could tell from my heavy East Tennessee accent," she joked, and the audience laughed with her. "Actually, he guessed I was from Knoxville because I was wearing orange socks."
A Wealth of Experience
EUROPE: Born in Switzerland, Kodkani brings a wealth of experience to the music scene in our region. She has three master's degrees, one in piano from the Winterthur Conservatory in Zurich, one in choral conducting from the University and Conservatory of Zurich, and another in orchestra conducting from Northwestern University in Illinois. In 1999, she was elected music director and conductor of the Operetta Theater of M?riken in Switzerland for a production of Franz Von Supp?'s Boccaccio. She was the youngest director and first woman to hold that position in the theater's 120-year history. In 1996, she had the distinction of being the youngest person in the school's history to be elected a full-tenure faculty member of the Canton of Zurich. A gifted teacher, Kodkani has taught piano, music history and theory, choir, orchestra conducting and voice since taking on her first students in 1987. She has conducted various choirs, youth orchestras, community orchestras, operas and musical theater productions in Europe and the United States.
CHICAGO: In Chicago, she conducted the North Shore Chamber Orchestra, the Northwestern University Symphony and Chamber Orchestra, appeared as guest conductor with the Northwestern Philharmonia and served as assistant conductor of the university's opera company. Also, she was musical director and conductor of a Kellogg Business School national touring show.
KNOXVILLE: Kodkani debuted with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra in 2002. She understudied Maestro Kirk Trevor for all performances and served as music director of the Knoxville Symphony Youth Sinfonia, one of three KSO youth orchestras. Upong winning the position after auditioning in competition with 10 other finalists from more than 100 applicants, she said, "Everything is so new and exciting, and I can't wait to start working with the orchestra and audiences here. I'll be learning a lot from Maestro Trevor and the musicians, but I'm also eager to learn about my new home here in East Tennessee." Kodkani studied two summers with Trevor at the International Workshop for Conductors held in the Czech Republic. Trevor is artistic director of the workshop, which he co-founded in 1991.
NEARBY: In 2003 and 2004 she served as Associate Conductor for the Missouri Symphony Orchestra, and in 2004 she was the Conductor for the Kentucky All-State Youth Orchestra.
OAK RIDGE: Kodkani made her debut as music director and conductor of the Oak Ridge Symphony in 2005 while continuing to serve as the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra's assistant conductor and conducting concerts for the KSO Chamber and Pops series and community outreach events. She conceived the Oak Ridge Symphony's interactive concert program, which encourages the audience to sing along and snap along to the music, have up-close encounters with musical instruments and musicians, and even brings up a lucky student lottery winner to guest-conduct the orchestra. The Oak Ridge Symphony offered many familiar faces to Kodkani. About 60 percent of its members also perform with the KSO. Kodkani expanded the 2005-06 Oak Ridge Symphony season to include a pops concert, a family concert, five Masterworks concerts, and an Oak Ridge Chorus concert. She also planned outreach and educational programs that took the orchestra into surrounding communities.
"I really believe in music education," Kodkani said. "I worked as a music teacher for many years. Education is a big obligation that orchestras have, not only for kids but also for adults. So many have not heard an orchestra."
During a free family concert, the Oak Ridge Symphony explored music-making from simple tools to orchestral instruments. According to an article in the Oak Ridger, Kodkani was "out to prove that everyone and everything is musical....She might have done one of those concerts where children are supposed to sit politely and listen to music to which they have no attachment. For Kodkani, that was simply unacceptable. With her usual intense energy and desire to thoroughly engage students in the process of making music, she fashioned an entire outreach program to area schools that [accompanied] the highly interactive program."
TRI-CITIES AREA: During outreach sessions at area schools in January, musical ambassadors will help students — from learning rhythm by playing minidrums, to learning pitch by swinging a rippled water pipe. They will make string instruments from shoeboxes and rubber bands stretched over cans.
In February, the Symphony of the Mountains will present "Step into the Music with the Whole Family" (details in the February edition of A! Magazine).
Performances are now "events" that mix fun with the classics — from Art in the Lobby and Preludes (a discussion of the music to be performed) to guest artists like Charlie Daniels (scheduled to appear at the FunFest concert this summer) or free salsa lessons after a concert of Spanish-influenced music.
Cornelia Kodkani-Laemmli takes a bow with guest artists at a Knoxville Symphony concert.
A gamut of emotions crosses the face of Cornelia Kodkani-Laemmli as she conducts the orchestra.
Cornelia's horse Rubix is a Dutch Trakener.