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A Music Director With a Mission

Daniel Bassin believes in the role of the UB Symphony Orchestra

The Music Department at the University at Buffalo has developed a tradition of engaging innovative conductors to serve as music directors of the UB Symphony Orchestra. Current music director Daniel Bassin continues that rich tradition with his programming of yet another Buffalo premier, that of the first movement from Richard Wagner’s unfinished Faustsymphonie, for this academic year’s first concert on Friday, November 4 at 7:30pm, in Slee Hall on the UB Amherst Campus.

“Wagner conceived his Faustsymphonie when he was 26 years old and working with Meyerbeer in Paris, when he first heard Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony performed,” Bassin says. “This experience coupled with his participation in a performance of Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet Symphony sparked in the young composer an inspiration for a multi-movement symphony after Goethe’s Faust. Wagner wrote only the first movement before Meyerbeer was able to help him secure a performance of his opera Rienzi in Dresden. Then eventually, while composing The Flying Dutchman, Wagner permanently suspended his work on the Faustsymphonie, but he would adapt this first movement into a work we now know as A Faust Overture, 15 years later. I picked this work to show the crossroads at which Wagner found himself at this time, attempting to write a purely symphonic presentation of a dramatic idea.”

A Long Island native, Bassin started his musical studies in the pre-college division of Juilliard, before earning a degree at the New England Conservatory of Music. Returning to New York City, he became the orchestra librarian for the American Symphony Orchestra. During his five years in that position, he also occasionally served as assistant conductor. Much admired conductor Leon Botstein, who appeared as a BPO guest conductor last season, is music director of the ASO, and he was also the music director of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra; Bassin served as Botstein’s assistant conductor during that group’s 2008 American tour. The seemingly indefatigable Botstein is also the longtime president of Bard College, so it is not surprising that Bassin participated in Bard’s Conductors Institute, obtaining his MFA in Orchestral Conducting from Bard while studying with Harold Farberman.

Bassin was invited in 2010 to participate in the prestigious new music June in Buffalo Festival, where his string quartet Typographies II was performed by the Arditti Quartet, currently the most distinguished quartet performing new music in the world. “Additionally—and fortunately—I was able to meet June in Buffalo’s artistic director, David Felder, learn more about UB’s Department of Music, and, by the end of that June in Buffalo week, was hired as music director of the UBSO,” Bassin says. “At that time I was beginning to consider my career options outside of the New York City orchestral world, and came to the decision that pursuing a PhD in composition would be the best next step in my path towards being a professional conductor and composer.

“While I’ve been fortunate enough to have assistant conducted under interesting conductors with various types of ensembles, the opportunity afforded me by my position is that the UB Symphony is actually my group,” Bassin says. “To that end, I’m constantly seeking out new ways that I can best serve this ensemble as music director, as I shape and develop the group into the position it deserves as the only student orchestra on a campus of nearly 30,000 students. Only a handful of our 60 or so musicians are music majors or minors. My challenge is to create an environment where each student, regardless of their previous orchestral experience and background in music, feels engaged in the musical process, and relates to the ensemble as truly theirs. The fact that so many of these students are actively pursuing very difficult majors in fields quite removed from music, but still are driven to take out their instruments and practice our music is a tremendous motivation for me to serve them to the best of my ability.”

Working with the ASO, Bassin developed a continuing interest in thematic programming, reflected in the other works selected for Friday’s concert. “The program came about when Jacqueline Potts, a senior who is a student of Jonathan Golove, won our annual concerto competition last February, playing Lalo’s Cello Concerto in D Minor,” Bassin says. Potts’s recent, polished performance of a movement from this concerto, as part of a master class given by the members of the Jupiter String Quartet, served to convince many in attendance that this concert should not be missed. “When I programmed this late-19th-century French concerto, I immediately thought of another work in the same key, the Symphony in D Minor by César Franck—a grand romantic work I had once convinced a youth orchestra director to program,” Bassin says. “These two composers, besides living and working in the same time and place, were also tremendously influenced by the music of Wagner.”

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