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Carmon DeLeone a Cincinnati Phenom

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Nov 24, 2008 - 5:27:55 AM in news_2004


Carmon DeLeone
(first published in The Cincinnati Post April 30, 2004)

For a person who has spent a large part of his professional life out of public view – a curly head in the orchestra pit – it is ironic that Carmon DeLeone got where he is today by being noticed.

  •    Lee Roy Reams advised dancer Juliet Prowse to hire "this great conductor back in Cincinnati" for her touring show after working with DeLeone on a production of "Bye, Bye Birdie" at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music in the 1960s.

  •    Erich Kunzel, then head of the conducting department at CCM, noticed DeLeone’s work and invited him to become his assistant.

  • Cincinnati Symphony music director Max Rudolf tapped DeLeone as CSO assistant conductor in 1968 after working with him on a CCM production of Cimarosa’s opera "The Secret Marriage."

  • Cincinnati Ballet founder David McLain asked DeLeone to become the ballet’s first music director after DeLeone led a collaboration by the CSO and the ballet.

DeLeone, 62, a multiple-threat musician who is also a symphony conductor, a composer, a jazz musician and a radio commentator, celebrates his 35th year with the ballet this year.

To honor him, the ballet has created a limited edition DeLeone bobblehead doll.

It is also devoting its season finale to him.

Entitled "The Princess and the Pea: A Tribute to Carmon DeLeone," the program is a showcase of DeLeone works commissioned for the ballet.

Receiving its world premiere will be "Fanfare, Funk and Fandango - An American Dance Set," an orchestral work commissioned by WGUC-FM for its 40th anniversary.

Performances are 8 p.m. tonight and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday in Procter and Gamble Hall at the Aronoff Center.

Featured work is DeLeone’s 1998 setting of the fairy tale about the princess rendered sleepless (and a bona fide royal) by a pesky pea in a stack of mattresses.

Also on the program are excerpts from Ruth Page’s "Billy Sunday" (DeLeone’s first work for the ballet, aired on public television in 1983 with ballet artistic director Freddie Franklin as Billy and Johnny Bench as narrator), "Frevo" (a Latin-flavored
"street dance" written in 1974 for James Truitte) and DeLeone’s blockbuster "Peter Pan," which has been performed nationally and internationally since its 1994 Cincinnati Ballet premiere.

"Fanfare, Funk and Fandango" (not yet choreographed) comprises a double fanfare, a waltz, a funky blues segment inspired by Johnny Guitar Watson, a ballad, a Spanish-flavored fandango and a "blazing finale."

The opening motto, by the way, spells WGUC, DeLeone said (using the notes G and C, plus b for W and another g for U).

The 11-minute work will be recorded by WGUC next week as part of an all DeLeone CD that will include "The Princess and the Pea," "Harper Set" based on the paintings of Cincinnati artist Charlie Harper, and an excerpt from "Billy Sunday."

A native of Ravenna, Ohio, DeLeone came to Cincinnati in 1960 as a French horn major at CCM. He played horn with the CSO as well as jazz and dance jobs on drums. "I was interested in all kinds of music," he said. "My college roommate Dave Matthews was James Brown’s arranger and later his conductor. We used to play recording sessions at King Records over on Brewster Avenue."

He played in musicals at CCM and volunteered one year to conduct "Bye, Bye Birdie" with Reams and Marcia Lewis (his conducting debut). As Kunzel’s assistant at CCM, he conducted opera with then unknowns such as Kathleen Battle and Barbara Daniels.

He remained on the CSO conducting staff for 12 years, as assistant conductor under Rudolf and Thomas Schippers, then as resident conductor for two years after Schippers’ death. He also taught at Miami University for 13 years and through its relationship with Miami, conducted at the Echternach Festival in Luxembourg.

Symphony conducting remains a primary focus of DeLeone’s career. He spends two weekends a month with the Illinois Philharmonic, a professional orchestra based in the south suburbs of Chicago (the orchestra was named Illinois Orchestra of the year in 1992, DeLeone, Illinois music director of the year in 1995). He has been music director of the Middletown Symphony since 1982.

"When I start my calendar, the ballet dates are the first entries. We work around those for my engagements in Chicago. Middletown performs about every other month." It has always worked, he said, "until next year, when we are doing our ‘Peter Pan’ here," (a guest conductor will fill in for him in Illinois).

DeLeone, who lives in North Avondale with his wife Kathy, is a well known Cincinnati personality for his radio show "Sunday Morning Music Hall" for WRRM-FM (8-11 a.m. since 1991). "Disk jockeys nowadays don’t get to pick their own material, but I choose all the music that I do. I can play a movement of a Mahler symphony and follow it with Miles Davis’ ‘Porgy and Bess’ if I wish."

Jazz is a major chord with DeLeone, who heads his own Studio Big Band (he’s the drummer) and also plays French horn with CCM’s Rick VanMatre on saxophone in The Studio Quintet. DeLeone’s big band has played during intermission at ballet performances and there has been talk, he said, of a series at the Taft Museum or the Public Library.

Conducting ballet is the most challenging of his assignments, DeLeone said.

"Symphonic conducting is the freest and most liberal in terms of interpretation. You want to do what the composer wants, but it’s not particularly critical if you decide in a particular performance, because you’ve eaten too much mostaccioli or something, that you want to slow down at a particular moment.

"As a ballet conductor, your memory for tempi needs to be impeccable. The dancers are so attuned to tempo that they sense when something is just a notch low or fast, and you need to be as close as you possibly can."

A ballet conductor has to keep an eagle eye out for the stage "to watch if the dancer is in trouble, or to try to help the situation - like make that jump or wait a moment for that lift, if they’re a little bit behind."

It’s like an opera singer who might want to hold a note a little bit longer, he said, "but that’s a little less critical. In the case of dancers, a conductor can actually do damage."

DeLeone has had more than a few trying moments. One occurred during his very first conducting stint with "Bye, Bye Birdie." During the bows, one of the singers fell into the pit. "I continued to conduct and there’s this person now sitting in my pit" (fortunately, she wasn’t hurt and the band played on).

Once during "La Sylphide," spillover from the witches’ cauldron caused several dancers to slip and fall. "I was ready to cut the orchestra off when the curtain came down."

The band played on, too, during "The Nutcracker" at Music Hall a couple of seasons ago when all the lights went out. "I don’t use a score for ‘Nutcracker’ so it doesn’t matter to me whether it’s light or dark, and the orchestra knows it so well they kept playing. It was only about a measure or two before the power came back up, but we wondered how much we could do."

Tickets for "The Princess and the Pea" are $17.50-$57.50 at (513) 621-5219 or order online at www.cincinnatiballet.com.