The Visionary’s Manifesto in association with Heart of Cool Presents The Minnesota Orchestra Associate Conductor Roderick Cox
This week’s visionary builds on the work of groundbreaking figures. In 1945, Everett Lee was the first African American to conduct a major Broadway production On the Town, which marked the first time a black conductor led an all-white production. In 1953 Lee was the first black musician to conduct a white symphony orchestra in Louisville, KY. In 1955, William Grant Still became the first African American to conduct a major orchestra in the deep south when he led the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1972, Henry Lewis was the first African American to lead a major symphony orchestra with his Metropolitan Opera. On September 2016, Roderick Cox was named the Minnesota Orchestra’s Associate Conductor before then he was awarded the Robert J. Harth Conducting Prize from the Aspen Music Festival in 2013. Mr. Cox has held Fellowships with the Chicago Sinfonietta as part of the Project Inclusion programme and Chautaugua Music Festival. After such amazing and deserving accolades it is no wonder why The Visionary’s Manifesto and Heart of Cool deemed it necessary to reach out to this man of orchestratospheric (yes, we penned a new adjective) creativity and musical influence. Our featured associate conductor takes us on a unique journey few people have witnessed.
HoC: How do those historic accomplishments by the aforementioned African American conductors resonate with you as you strive for self-realization?
RC: It does give me perspective and it’s also a bit disappointing that we haven’t come very far when you think of the vast history of this art form. I think you’ll find even today that there are very few African American conductors who have the opportunity to conduct an orchestra. There is a lot of work to be done but the challenge, pressure and honor that I have is to continue the work of those that came before me and who have paved the way.
HoC: Can you tell us about your early childhood and what life was like for you growing up and your environmental influences?
RC: Well I think for me, I started to love music very early on as I played the keyboard and during my freshman year in high school I played percussion in a band. I read music by ear as I was around music growing up, listening to gospel music at my church, sitting in on the choir rehearsals along with my mother, going to concerts and touring with the church choir. I was exposed to the power of music in the non-classical forms and as my interest began to evolve the classical standards started to make an impression upon me. I did not know that there was a career path in that field and the furthest point I could imagine was being a band director but my world began to open up even more when I learned that I could perhaps be a college professor. Then I dared to aim even higher as an orchestral conductor and those dreams were realized when I landed my first job at the Alabama symphony.
HoC: Can you describe what it feels like when you are standing on a stage directing an amazing group of exceptional and gifted musicians?
RD: Well there’s no singular feeling and it’s a tough questions to answer, as there are a variety of feelings that are beyond words. There are things that need your absolute focus and there is an intensity that comes with practice as if you are telepathically sending out signals to the ensemble but I will say with a major orchestra the communication that is happening on the stage is like one of the busiest and most well paved highways connecting you and the players and when it all lines up I think there is no other feeling in the world that describes the immense joy that comes from it but there’s also that huge responsibility being at the head of it all as a conductor managing these powerful forces in front of you.
HoC: What were some of the most challenging times along your journey to becoming an established conductor?
RC: I think the challenge is very much relative to your career and the path you are on, the challenges will always be there but they are constantly changing. The challenge I confronted while with my parents right after graduate school were the questions of will I get work, will someone pay me a salary to get a single down beat, will I become that local high school band director? I was looking at public school teaching jobs online and possibly going back to school again to get more education. Another challenge was being given the first job and trying to navigate all the different elements such as the personality dynamics and collaboration efforts. And of course dealing with discouragement: do I have what it takes to be successful at this juncture, losing an audition here and there and wondering what else there is to work on to further my chances of staying at the top of my game etc. How do I build on the momentum if the deal does not go through and I now have to consider navigating within the industry without a current title? Where will I live, east or west coast? The challenges are constantly evolving and therefore it’s hard to put one above the other.
HoC: Does spirituality or a belief in a higher power play a role in how you navigate your life?
RC: I think it did for a long time, as I stated before how I grew up in the church and then I went to a Christian private school. I believe in a higher power but it’s not something that permeates my daily life. I have a good moral compass that allows for a peace within my spirit. There are times when I pray to God for understanding and clarity. At times things occur in my journey that seem to come at the most opportune moments within my career where I’m thinking like wow, God does work in mysterious ways. I do at times look to that higher power but I’m not in a church every weekend.
HoC: What other dreams and aspirations do you have beyond what some would already call the heights of a career as a conductor?
RC: I really try to focus on my work as a conductor for the most part. There are flashes of what I might glimpse down the road but in this profession, I find that it’s easier to stay a few steps ahead because the currents change quickly and dramatically. The opportunity presented itself for me to conduct an opera and I never imagined myself conducting opera and I remember saying this to my manager and yet I’m being directed towards that path. I try not to get ahead of myself because I want to allow things to happen naturally and not make plans that might limit my perspective.
HoC: I can imagine that you are constantly surrounded by sound in both low and high frequencies. How do you create a quiet space within your world that allows you to take a step back and furthermore what do you think about?
RC: Well I sleep! (laughter) I like absolute silence when I do that and sometimes those wondrous musical ideas float through my brain. I also like to hang out with my friends and do fun yet relaxing things. I can get into a space where I don’t want to talk about my work as a conductor and just take a break from it all to gather myself and yet somehow the music is always there.
HoC: How do you envision yourself evolving in the next phase of your life?
RC: Contractually I have one year left as the conductor for the Minnesota Orchestra and I’m proud of what I have accomplished thus far. I’m about to go into another critical point in my career and it may prove to be one of the most challenging. It’s the point when the conductor separates from their home orchestra and starts to form an independent path, somewhat like a bird leaving the nest. Opportunities may present themselves yet the title drops and you become the former associate conductor of said orchestra. I imagine I’ll continue working with my management team. As to the directions that are best suited for my life, the short-term goals tend to drive me more than the long-term considering the brevity of my profession.
HoC: Who are the people that you consider your closest supporters and/or confidants and why?
RC: I can say humbly the people that support my career but the person who I feel most comfortable discussing would be my best friend whom I’ve known since 9th grade. He’s been there every step of the way and knows me better than I know myself.
HoC: You hold a very special place within our culture as one of the few young African American conductors and I can imagine in a lot of ways that you have broken down barriers of your own. What advice would you give to the younger generation as it relates to following an immense calling that may diverge from their perceived life script?
RC: They must ask themselves how badly they want it and need it. I think the needing it beyond a shadow of a doubt is what will give you strength to overcome all the obstacles that will cloud your path as you strive to achieve your goals. There were times when I wanted to do something different but there was that stronger need to be a conductor and there was no turning from that calling. There was no left or right turn for me, moving forward was of the utmost importance and backwards was never an option. If you realize that thing which is crucial to your survival within a given career choice you will find a way to achieve your goals.
After the completion of this article it was announced with much appreciation that Roderick Cox was granted another contractual extension as the Associate Conductor with the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra!! It would seem Mr. Cox was correct when he stated that God works in mysterious ways. On behalf of The Visionary’s Manifesto and the Heart of Cool family we salute you along with a heartfelt congratulations Mr. Cox!! Well done Maestro!!
To learn more about the journey of this conductor extraordinaire please follow him on Instagram at roderickcoxconductor and on Facebook at Roderick Cox.