Yemi Falodun | Staff Writer
A wand and a cast of musicians are all Roderick Cox needs to transform the Amphitheater stage into a sight to behold.
“There’s something particularly magical about being a conductor, because you’re not a musician who makes sound,” said Cox, this year’s David Effron Conducting Fellow.
Cox will make his Music School Festival Orchestra debut at 8:15 p.m. tonight at the Amphitheater. One piece he will conduct is “Les Préludes” by Franz Liszt.
“I think a conductor has the ability to provide the room and the space for the sound to flourish,” Cox said. “And that’s in part by how you work with an ensemble. Just by a simple smirk on the face or a flick of the stick, you can really make magic happen on the podium.”
The experience of being under the stage lights directing a world-class orchestra is what compelled Cox to conducting.
“There’s a moment I can recall of wanting to be a professional conductor,” he said. “I was sitting down with a group of friends. And one composer friend asked, ‘If you were to die soon, what would be one piece you would love to conduct?’ ”
Cox answered with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4.
“And it hit me at that moment. In order to do that piece, I needed to do something different — I needed to be a better musician,” he said. “And I felt if I wanted to do that piece at a very high level, I needed to be a professional conductor and work with great orchestras. So, not only could I do that one piece before I die, but continue to do it throughout a lifetime.”
It was the first piece that touched Cox as a musician.
“Tchaikovsky was a very troubled composer,” Cox said. “And I think you hear his life story through his symphonies. And that was very appealing to me that you can do that in classical music.”
Though captivating and moving, Cox’s conducting epiphany did not start with an undying love for classical music.
Growing up in Georgia, Cox was born into a family that loved more popular music. He was surrounded by soul, rhythm and blues, and more. Getting into classical music took longer for him. He still admits falling asleep at certain classical music concerts.
Nevertheless, he went along, trying to satisfy his insatiable thirst for music.
“I’m not one of these musicians who knew at the age of 12 or 15 that I was going to be a professional musician,” Cox said. “I didn’t even know that it was possible to have a career doing that. And I didn’t expect I’d be doing it.
“There was always a desire of mine to emerge at the top of anything that I did. I have a very competitive spirit. So, I wanted to be the top of my class. Or I wanted to be the best person in the high school band. But I felt I wanted to be the best at music as well.”
And the best way to do that was for Cox to become a professional musician. But at first he was hesitant, because the profession is difficult to enter.
“I needed to have the courage to do something where I wouldn’t look back 15 years later and wish I had done something different,” he said. “So I feel like right now, I am in a great moment in my life.”
The 24-year-old conductor understands that such power and command comes through education, practice and experience.
“I was fortunate to have Mallory Thompson at Northwestern,” Cox said about earning his master’s degree in conducting from Northwestern University. “She was the one that took a chance and saw raw talent in me. I think she got the sense that I wanted to be great but I didn’t know how.”
Thompson taught Cox how to be a better student, musician and conductor.
“I would always go to her and say, ‘How do I develop depth? I want depth. I want to be a great conductor,’ ” Cox said. “And she would say, ‘Conducting is not like a sprint but running a marathon. And you probably won’t get depth for another 10 years. And the best thing you can do is work hard and study, because opportunities are going to come.’ ”
That entire process, which culminates into how to project without words, attracted Cox to conducting.
“All your confidence, the emotion on your face, the energy that you project through your stick — it’s all due to months and months and years and years of experiences that you have learning and studying that music,” he said.
“That’s why you see people who will travel from all over the world for this one teacher like Marlena Malas of the Voice Program, because of her record of producing great singers,” Cox said.
Cox graduated summa cum laude from Columbus State University’s Schwob School of Music, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in music education. He is the Alabama Symphony Orchestra’s new assistant conductor.
Even with his many accomplishments, Cox still feels a bit inadequate.
“I’m still a baby conductor, even though I’ve achieved quite a bit at my age,” Cox said. “I want to bring a lot of raw passion to the music by telling a powerful story through it. And I want to move someone in some way.”