The man behind the baton

Anyone who thinks of a symphony orchestra conductor as the stuffed shirt depicted in the Bugs Bunny Leopold cartoon (an awed concert audience gasps “Leopold!” as a pompous, wigged Bugs Bunny takes the podium) does not know Claude Lapalme.

Red Deer Symphony Director Claude Lapalme at his piano at home.

Red Deer Symphony Director Claude Lapalme at his piano at home.

Anyone who thinks of a symphony orchestra conductor as the stuffed shirt depicted in the Bugs Bunny Leopold cartoon (an awed concert audience gasps “Leopold!” as a pompous, wigged Bugs Bunny takes the podium) does not know Claude Lapalme.

Far from being stuffy, Lapalme, who is now in his 20th season with the Red Deer Symphony Orchestra, is known for disarming an audience with his wit and charm.

The last Halloween concert featured music from the film Psycho, so Lapalme surprised and amused the crowd by pulling out a cleaver instead of his baton.

At the recent Christmas concert, Lapalme confessed his pet peeve is hearing the Tchaikovsky ballet called The Nutcracker Suite, instead of its proper title, The Nutcracker. “So when you get to the end of cracker — restrain yourself,” he quipped, to peals of laughter.

Lapalme often takes the time to explain the background of a classic work, allowing music that might be considered intimidating to become accessible to a wider audience.

Funnily enough, he confessed to initially hesitating to talk much during performances. “I don’t want every concert to be a lecture.” But after getting good feedback on his humorous intros, he learned to give his inner ham a freer rein.

“The truth is, not everyone likes classical music,” said Lapalme, who doesn’t particularly enjoy eating salmon. “But I know there’s value in it. I know that its Omega 3 fatty acids are good for you.”

In the same way, Lapalme believes people should value the performing arts — whether at the highbrow end, or the commercial end. “It’s important to have things in your life that deal with beauty, for no other reason than beauty’s sake . . .”

He compared going through daily, unemotional routines to having a harp with a thousand strings, but only plucking the same few on any given day.

“Because people don’t fall in love every day, you need the performing arts to remind you of all those other strings . . . We can play those other strings for you to help complete your own symphony of life.”

Lapalme was born in Montreal, but grew up in Laval, Quebec, as the son of a senior oil company executive.

His mother and grandmother played the piano, so Lapalme also took lessons as a child. But he knew that he never wanted to be a professional pianist, or even trombonist (he played the trombone as a self-described high school band geek).

“I’ve always wanted to conduct,” said the 48-year-old.

As a small boy, he admired the guy waving his arms in front of an orchestra at concerts he attended with his parents. Lapalme — who will explain, before this story is over, what exactly those conductors do — compares his younger self to the latest YouTube novelty — a three-year-old conductor named Jonathan. “That was me!” he said with a laugh.

His family moved to Toronto when Lapalme was 14. After conquering his English language difficulties in high school, Lapalme studied music at the University of Toronto.

Although conducting never offered great job prospects, Lapalme recalled his parents never stymied his ambitions. “They’d seen enough friends with supposedly great jobs have the carpet swept out from under them . . . it was important to do something you loved.”

After graduating, Lapalme wanted to study in Europe. And he decided to hitch a ride across the Atlantic with the Toronto Symphony’s Youth Orchestra, which was planning a European tour. His resolve to join the group only grew after discovering his cellist girlfriend (and now wife) Janet Kuschak was going on the trip.

Lapalme successfully pitched himself as a pianist to the youth orchestra’s director, thinking his services would only be needed for the relatively undemanding Symphony No. 5 by Sergei Prokofiev.

After being hired, he discovered his rather limited piano skills would be sorely tested when the orchestra also performed the difficult Concerto Grosso for Strings and Piano Obligato by Ernest Bloch.

The Concerto was not only to be played live — but broadcast by the BBC, Radio Netherlands and other radio stations. “I was so nervous, I thought I was going to vomit,” recalled Lapalme, who put himself through a gruelling practice schedule — and somehow pulled it off.

Lapalme eventually completed a two-year conducting program in Holland before returning to the U of T to teach crash conducting courses to school band instructors. The newly married Lapalme soon realized high-priced Toronto would be a difficult place to settle down.

His wife Janet was already exhausting herself by performing in three orchestras to help make ends meet. “It’s a case of a chiropractor and massage therapist being your best friend because you were in pain all the time,” said Lapalme, who jumped at the chance to become music director of the Red Deer Symphony Orchestra in 1990, when local houses could be purchased for $80,000.

At the time, the RDSO was made up of talented community musicians. But the RDSO non-profit board eventually determined that to compete with professional orchestras in Edmonton and Calgary, the RDSO had to go pro — which it did by 2005.

In the process of signing professional musicians from across Central Alberta as well as Edmonton and Calgary, the orchestra has doubled its audience, said Lapalme. The RDSO is now so popular its board is making a case for a larger concert hall to be built in Red Deer.

And Lapalme has unexpectedly stumbled onto a new side career — as a music arranger.

Adapting popular tunes for orchestral performance had always come easily to him. But Lapalme didn’t realize this could have a fairly lucrative professional application until he was hired in 2002 to arrange Ian Tyson’s cowboy songs for accompaniment by the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra.

The results were so glowing he went on to score tunes by Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young and Leonard Cohen. And the commissions haven’t stopped.

Arranging “has paid for my basement and lots of other renovations,” said a chuckling Lapalme, who can work quickly when the muse strikes. “Sometimes I can be wicked fast!”

The father of two teenage boys has also guest conducted with the Saskatoon, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Laval, Sherbrooke, and Hamilton orchestras and performed in competitions in France, Hungary, the U.S., Cuba, and the Netherlands.

The Paris newspaper Le Figaro called him a “remarkable and superb” conductor, while the Havana Granma praised him for his warmth and sincerity — and for his dexterity.

That brings us to what you have all been waiting for (drum roll please): Lapalme is going to explain what he does when standing in front of an orchestra.

“It gets complicated, rhythmically, but I have to keep time in meters,” he said.

He must also stay slightly ahead of musicians in order to direct how certain accent notes are to be “attacked.” “You have to decide how heavy are certain things, how light are others,” said Lapalme.

Orchestra members can tell how much to stress a note by noticing how sharply his arm swings a split second before the note is to be played.

Lapalme also has to have an excellent ear. During rehearsals, he takes certain musicians to task for being slightly late with cues, praises others who hit the “proper stroke,” and instructs on who should be louder, or quieter.

“You have to make decisions quickly,” said Lapalme, who added, almost apologetically, “It’s not a very democratic process.”