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Julian Pellicano On Drumsticks And Batons

June 18, 2019

Julian Pellicano may have traded his drumsticks for a baton, but his percussion roots are never far from his work on the podium.

“I couldn’t be happier than when I’m on the podium. I get to be in the middle of that sound,” he says. “One of the reasons I was drawn to conducting in the first place is that as a timpanist you have a lot of time. To play properly you need to know the piece very well other than just the timpani part. You have to understand how to fit it into the rest of the piece and approach it in an artistic way. I like the big picture and how to bring everybody together, how to shape the music.”

Pellicano’s percussion background is also one of the reasons he conducts a lot of contemporary and new music. “For percussionists almost all of our repertoire for solo and chamber works are contemporary works,” he says. “Coming from a percussion background, I conducted a lot of contemporary music because I was playing a lot of contemporary music.”

Pellicano has conducted Norfolk Chamber Music Festival’s contemporary ensemble at the New Music Workshop since 2008. (The year’s free concert is June 28.) “I started conducting there as a grad student at Yale and continued on after that because it was such a great atmosphere,” he says.

Julian Pellicano conducted the premiere of Tyler Eschendal’s Scraptangle during the Festival’s 2018 New Music Workshop.

Pellicano loves the collaborative nature of the New Music Workshop. “The composers’ works are changed and developed throughout the week we’re at Norfolk,” he says. “It’s an intense process for myself and the players.”

Scores or parts of scores can literally change daily for the 6 players in the ensemble. Ideally the final version of the piece is ready by Wednesday morning so performers and conductor have time to rehearse for the Friday evening concert. “That means four or five days where we could have potentially a new score and parts every day,” Pellicano says.

Each year the New Music Workshop has a focus. During the weeklong workshop composer and workshop director Martin Bresnick, along with the instrumentalists, offer feedback on each composer’s interpretation of a particular composer or compositional technique. This year the focus is Leoš Janáček’s unique compositional method represented in his Concertino, which will also be performed by the ensemble with pianist Lisa Moore.

“Everybody has to write a new piece for this festival so instrumentation is often unusual and not something people have written for in the past,” Pellicano says. “There’s usually one instrument that throws it off like a trombone.”

The University of Oregon Woodwind Quintet performs Jordyn Gallinek’s Carnival Lost. Julian Pellicano will be conducting the world premiere of Gallinek’s Thought Chatter on June 28th.

Composer Daniel Shaheed is another of the six composers whose work will be performed under the baton of Julian Pellicano. Sheheed’s Particular Rotations is heard here performed by the Quartetto Indaco.

Performers and composers aren’t the only ones learning at this kind of collaborative workshop, Pellicano says. “[Martin] can pinpoint so many small details of orchestration, structure, pitch and all the parameters that go into any work. I’m interested to hear what he has to say to be perfectly honest.”

Pellicano, who is based in Winnepeg, Canada, does not spend all his time on contemporary work. After two seasons of guest conducting with the Royal Winnepeg Ballet, he has now been hired as its principal conductor.

The 2018 – 2019 season included exciting debut performances with the Vancouver Symphony, Seattle Symphony, Edmonton Symphony, and Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra as well as a return to conduct performances with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. This year also marks Julian’s sixth season as resident conductor of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.

Pellicano has expanded his expertise in recent years to include conducting live music to films. His repertoire of projects includes Fritz Lang’s science fiction masterpiece Metropolis with its original 1927 score, E.T. The Extra-terrestrial, Home Alone, Jurassic Park, Singin’ in the Rain, The Wizard of Oz, Disney’s Fantasia, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, Howard Blake’s The Snowman and The Bear, as well as Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, The Circus and The Kid Auto Races at Venice. During the 2018 – 2019 season Pellicano added on four new live film projects: Casablanca, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Miloš Forman’s award-winning film Amadeus.

While Pellicano started playing piano when he was five — “my older sister played so I wanted to play” — hearing drums played by a family friend changed his future. “I heard them for the first time and that was it,” he says. “I needed to play drums.” While he played every chance he could get, he never had any formal training other than his high school band teacher, a percussionist, occasionally giving him some tips. “I just played all the time,” he says, “hours a day. I never had to be told to practice. I just did it. At the same time, I had no guidance.” Instead he played in everything he could, from bands to more traditional groups and orchestras.

Not surprisingly, when he went to Peabody Conservatory of Music, his technique had to be changed. He persevered, simultaneously earning a degree in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University. He continued his percussion studies at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, Sweden, and then the Yale School of Music, where he was a member of the Yale Percussion Group.

His entry into conducting is almost as random as his first discovery of drums. He was studying percussion at Yale and also taking a conducting class with Shinik Hahm. Hahm needed an assistant, tested Pellicano out in a rehearsal and offered him the assistantship. “I was kind of thrown in the deep end,” he says. “I had to conduct a lot pretty much every other week.”

But that experience changed his life. “I felt this is my life, the direction I should go,” Pellicano says. “It felt natural. So I decided to go full throttle.”

By Janet Reynolds

Janet Reynolds is a writer, editor and content strategist living in Connecticut. She’s a lifelong cellist and viola da gamba player, and has played in the Farmington Valley Symphony Orchestra for 36 years.