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MetroWest conductor is musician, storyteller and teacher

Published in the Metrowest Daily News on June 3, 2010
By Ed Symkus/Gatehouse News Service GHS

When the MetroWest Symphony Orchestra fills the hall at Keefe Technical School in Framingham with the sounds of Franz von Suppe, Paul Dukas and Gustav Mahler this weekend, they’ll play, as they have for the past three decades, under the direction of conductor Peter Cokkinias.

MSO rehearsesBut Cokkinias, who’s also an accomplished player, will do a lot more than just wave a baton.

“My job as conductor is not only to conduct the music,” says Cokkinias, a Springfield native and Winchester resident. “I like to engage the audience. I like to talk to them and educate them.”

So in the first half of the orchestra’s annual spring concert, he’ll probably offer a story or two about Dukas, before performing his “La Peri.” Maybe he’ll give some insight on von Suppe before launching into his Overture to “Poet and Peasant.” And he’ll be raring to go when it comes to talking about Mahler.

“The Mahler (Symphony No. 4) is such an incredibly interesting piece,” says Cokkinias, excitedly. “You have themes like love and hate, victory and defeat, ecstasy and torment, all happening within seconds of each other. It’s almost like a soap opera unfolding in front of you, with all the intrigues going on. I’ll talk about that in the first half, then after intermission, I’ll play the piece straight through, so the audience will have some knowledge of it.”

Cokkinias certainly has plenty of knowledge to share. He started playing music when he was 9.

“I wanted to play trumpet, but my father loved Benny Goodman, and he said, ‘You will play the clarinet,'” he recalls.

No doubt, Cokkinias took to the idea of playing woodwinds. His principle instruments are clarinet and saxophone, but when asked to list what else he plays, he takes a deep breath and says, “When I broke into the Broadway scene here, I realized quickly that in order to do this you have to play many instruments. So I play all the woodwinds: all the clarinets, all the saxophones, flute, piccolo, oboe, English horn and bassoon.”

If you happened to catch a recent performance of “Young Frankenstein” at the Opera House in Boston, that was Cokkinias in the pit, switching back and forth between numerous woodwinds. He’s also a busy freelance player with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Pops, Boston Ballet and Boston Lyric Opera. But he’s just as well-known as a conductor, having led the Boston Pops and a number of orchestras around the country.

“I remember back in Springfield we had a series of concert bands in the parks,” he says. “There were five different conductors, and every band its own take on music — opera, light classics, jazz, musicals. I saw these conductors up there, and I thought the way to do it was to show everything in the stick.”

Cokkinias went on to study the art of conducting over the years, and has a vivid memory of a class he took with Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood.

“I got up there to conduct one time, and I was thinking that I had to keep a clear beat and Bernstein said to me, ‘What the hell are you doing? Where’s the music? Where’s the music?’ And he was absolutely right. I got so caught up in technique, I wasn’t really feeling the flow. I was thinking about technique and not the music.

“What he did for me is he let me become more creative. People have called him a showman and a fraud, and said that he conducts like that just for the audience. But I realized that when he gets so involved with the music, he doesn’t know where he is. He doesn’t know what time it is. He literally becomes Mahler, and that’s what I want to do in this concert. I want to become the composer. I want to feel like I’m creating this music as it goes along.”

Cokkinias auditioned for the position of conductor with the MetroWest Symphony Orchestra in 1979, when it was still called the Framingham Symphony. In subsequent years it was also known as the Greater Marlborough Symphony Orchestra.

The players range in age from 16 to 80, and there’s an even wider spread in the audience.

“At the family concerts I see kids 3 and 4 years old and up from there,” says Cokkinias. “For the evening concerts, there’s an older group coming in. But I’m trying to make my programs fit a large range of people, not just one base. We’re still trying to figure out when is the best time to do concerts — Saturday night, like this one, or Sunday afternoon. When’s the best time to get the majority of people in?”

The program for this weekend’s concert is a typical one, with two short, relatively light pieces and a longer, more serious one. And Cokkinias isn’t afraid of putting some contemporary classical music into the mix.

“It’s like a sandwich,” he explains. “I don’t do a whole program of contemporary music. But I’ll do something in the program where I’ll surround a new piece with some classical pieces that they’ll know very well.”

When he’s not playing or conducting, Cokkinias is busy with what he calls his primary job: teaching conducting at Berklee College of Music.

“It’s great to have a job where you love what you’re doing and where every day there’s something new you can talk about,” he says. “The nice thing about my job is that I can bring it straight from the podium to the classroom. It’s not like I’m just talking about something in a book.

“This profession fits me to a T,” he adds. “One of my big dreams is that I’ll be at a show, sitting in a pit, and I’ll look up and see one of my students conducting. Or I’m sitting in a pit, and sitting next to me is one of my students, playing. And that’s already happened. I think that means I’m doing a good job.”

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