A musical virtuoso among us
From jazz clubs to opera halls, campus conductor has found a home in music

By Marguerite Rigoglioso


David Milnes

David Milnes
Noah Berger photo

24 April 2002 | It was on a night in 1992, in Riga, Latvia, that conductor David Milnes hit what he calls “the zone” — the ecstatic, transcendent realm that artists and athletes achieve maybe a handful of times in their lives.

“I was conducting a composition by Steve Reich, called ‘Desert Music,’ an anti-war piece inspired by William Carlos Williams’ poem about the Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb,” Milnes recalls. “There I was, among people who had just witnessed the fall of the Iron Curtain, sharing this message of peace. Suddenly, it’s as though we were all one — the audience, the musicians, the composer and myself. The music took us all to a higher level in which our spirits were touched and became intermeshed. It was one of those incredible moments that you wait for your entire life.”

Milnes, 45, music director of the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, is lucky enough to boast several such peak moments during his relatively young and illustrious career. And no surprise. Hailed as “one of the major new conducting talents of our day,” Milnes has performed with some of music’s best and brightest. He’s conducted premiere orchestras here at home, in Russia and the Baltics, played jazz saxophone with the likes of Gene Krupa, Chuck Mangione and Billy Taylor, and studied with such teaching greats as Leonard Bernstein, Herbert Blomstedt and Otto-Werner Mueller.

Musical prodigy
You might call Milnes a prodigy. The son of a professional pianist mother and an amateur clarinetist father, he taught himself, as a young child in Long Island, N.Y., to play piano, saxophone, clarinet, flute and “whatever other instruments were hanging around.” There must have been something in the water besides fluoride, as Milnes’ three siblings took to music, as well, and eventually became acclaimed professional musicians in their own right.

By the time he was in grade school, Milnes was improvising jazz on a variety of instruments, and by high school he was playing tenor sax in smoking jazz clubs on Long Island and in Greenwich Village. “I was interested in all different kinds of music,” he says. “I didn’t care about the boundaries between genres.”

The eclectic Milnes turned down the prestigious Eastman School of Music, where he was accepted as a clarinet student, to attend SUNY Stonybrook. There, he got formal training in a number of instruments and voice, and was immediately pushed into Ph.D.-level seminars in conducting. He also maintained a dizzying performance schedule, playing clarinet professionally in orchestras and opera companies, doing jazz gigs at night, and conducting his own Baroque music group, which included every member of his immediate family.

“Unwittingly, all of this turned out to give me the kind of wide background that is essential for conducting,” says Milnes.

After SUNY, he entered Yale University’s rigorous program in orchestral conducting. “One of my teachers, Otto-Werner Mueller, was famous for doing things like giving us one day’s notice to learn and conduct a Beethoven symphony,” he says.
During summers, Milnes studied conducting with Leonard Bernstein at the Tanglewood Festival in Massachusetts. “He was always teaching, all day long, even at dinner and into the night,” Milnes recalls. “Everyone who had any contact with him felt personally taken under his wing, he was so generous.”

Proud mentor
In 1984, armed with two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. from Yale, the then 27-year-old Milnes landed the prestigious Exxon Conductor post with the San Francisco Symphony from among some 300 other impressive competitors. Two years later, he returned to New York and again began wide-ranging professional musical activities, including college-level teaching.

“Teaching turned out to be such fun and so fulfilling that I decided to pursue it,” he says. Here, as associate professor, he teaches conducting, symphonic literature and the history of jazz, and each year selects from among some 200 to 300 hopeful students, faculty and staff the most skilled musicians for seats in the UC orchestra. “The orchestra is open to anybody who can pass a rigorous audition — playing for me — and who can commit to our biweekly rehearsal schedule and bimonthly performance schedule,” he explains.

Milnes works with orchestra members to choose the performance repertoire, which includes “anything from Mozart on” and at least one major premiere of a student work each year. “We’re lucky to have the talents of one of the world’s foremost composition departments to draw on,” says Milnes, who hopes to take the group on tour.

The enthusiastic conductor takes great pride in his orchestra’s musical prowess. “Our musicians are totally on all the time,” he says. “There’s an intensity to their playing that I haven’t experienced anywhere else, even among the most professional orchestras in the world.”


Home | Search | Archive | About | Contact | More News

Copyright 2002, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.

Comments? E-mail