Photos by Derek Bell
Imagine you could watch a great painter using his brush to create masterpieces. Watch the individual strokes create a whole … the movement from palette to canvas … perhaps hesitation during contemplation.
But painting is not public performance art, except in extremely avant garde settings. Music, on the other hand, is almost pointless without performance, whether from a choir loft, a tavern stage or a concert hall. In the latter case, there is usually a conductor with a baton in one hand, not unlike a painter’s brush, creating a whole from individual parts. The baton jabs or weaves, depending on tempo and the desired mood, or hovers above, raptor-like, while the free hand waggles from below to coax a sustained chord.
Some world-renowned conductors are known for their egos and tempers and grimaces. Sam Baltzer, when he’s conducting, looks like he’s having so much fun, it isn’t really work. That belies the countless hours of rehearsal and years of study. But when the audience can catch a glimpse of his face, there is very often a smile such as Wile E. Coyote might display if he ever actually caught The Road Runner.
A case of nerves or cold sweat before a concert?
“With any live event, like a concert, there are about a million things that can go wrong,” Baltzer says. “Amazingly, however, they usually don’t. In most pieces of music, there might be some treacherous moments where the potential for disaster is greater, and even in ‘easy pieces,’ lightning can strike at any time.
“In some ways, I have an easy job: waving a little stick while everyone else actually makes the music,” he continues. “I’ve learned to trust the musicians to play correctly, and to bail me out if I make a mistake. So, there’s no need to be nervous.”
Baltzer is devoutly followed by talented acolytes and faithful fans of jazz, classical or popular music, the latter genre ranging from Johnny Mercer to Sam Cooke to highlights from a current children’s favorite, the movie “Frozen.” He has a beautiful wife and stage partner. He is also, beginning this fall, the new conductor and artistic director of the Rome Symphony Orchestra.
Patrons of the arts in these parts probably best know Baltzer as the Yoda-like leader of R.O.M.E. (Rome’s Own Musical Ensembles), which includes the NW Georgia Winds, the Chamber Players of the South and the Clock Tower Jazz Ensemble. Each year, Baltzer and R.O.M.E. deliver holiday-themed concerts, be it Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day … a variety you’d be hard-pressed to find close together in a big city, but in a nutshell in downtown Rome (City Auditorium, The Forum, Centre Hall).
Baltzer was principal trombonist in the RSO from 1988 to 1995. And, in his new role, he says the 2015-2016 R.O.M.E. series will go on as before. In fact, he adds, “There are several concerts that will appear on both the R.O.M.E. and RSO series.
“My vision for the RSO, in one word, is to ‘expand,’” he says. “I’d like to see the RSO expand its season, expand the size of the orchestra, expand the number of rehearsals, expand the literature we perform, expand our outreach programs to young audiences and to communities outside Rome, and expand our audience. In addition to performing more orchestral masterworks, I’d like to see us expand our pops season, and to reach a younger and more diverse audience. Of course, to do all this, we need to expand our fundraising. Mainly, I’d like to have the RSO have a greater impact in enriching our community.”
Big ambitions for a busy man. (He also teaches music at Georgia Highlands College, where he serves as community arts liaison.)
Maybe he doesn’t need sleep. Or maybe he could be a national spokesman for an energy drink. Or maybe …
“My wife, Janet, is a true partner. She has great musical sense and listens to a lot of music, and is often the one who comes up with novel themes for concerts,” Baltzer says. “She also likes to decorate the stage … I don’t think she has missed a single concert of mine in nearly 40 years, and so she has a great perspective on what works and what doesn’t, so I very much value her input.”
Baltzer also has his own way of unwinding after a performance, and it doesn’t involve what any of us would imagine.
“After a concert, my adrenaline count is pretty high, and I usually unwind by helping put away the equipment,” he says. “The manual labor helps me wind down.”
Intriguing story right there. But what about the baton?
“I hold the baton in my right hand because that’s my dominant hand,” he explains, “and it’s easier for me to display the beat pattern with my right hand.”
He actually has four batons. “Two were gifts, and two were purchases. I use a longer one for conducting large groups and a shorter one for smaller groups,” he says. “My favorite baton is a beautifully crafted piece of hardwood that has a great balance point … it’s just a rather nice stick.”
But if the curtain were rising, the spotlights trained on the podium, the audience hushing, and “the stick” nowhere to be found?