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Legendary Rhode Island College Conductor Edward Markward to Retire

Monday, April 22, 2013


His passion for perfection inspired legions of musicians--beloved RI College conductor Edward Markward.

After 40 years of bringing great classical music of the past and present to Rhode Island and training scores of Rhode Island College students, Professor Edward Markward is retiring. He will lead his final concert as conductor of the Rhode Island College Symphony Orchestra on April 29 at 8 p.m. in Sapinsley Hall.

On the program is Antonin Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E Minor from the “New World,” which Markward is dedicating to his father, who he said was the greatest influence in his life.

“It was the first classical music recording my father ever bought me as a boy,” he said.

A father's influence

Markward’s father has been one of the biggest supporters of his music career, from his early days in an elementary school band through his tenure as professor of music at Rhode Island College, which began in 1973.

“After my father retired as a salesman, he and my mother would make the fall drive from Dubuque, Iowa, where I grew up, to Rhode Island to make the first concert of the season,” Markward said. He noted that this is one of many reasons why he has chosen to dedicate Dvořák’s work to his father.

“Of all the pieces I’ve conducted since I came to Rhode Island, Dvořák’s is not necessarily my favorite, but it brings closure to all the trips my parents made out here and what they meant to me in my formative years and later,” he said.

It was his father who bought Markward his first trumpet in fourth grade. Markward would go on to play in the school band from elementary school through high school and college at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

From baritone to baton

He earned a bachelor’s degree in trumpet music education from Drake. By graduate school, his aspiration had gone from being a trumpet player and teacher to becoming a professional singer of classical music. He was a promising baritone. He earned a master’s degree in performance and voice at Drake, then went on to earn his Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Michigan.

It was while he was a student in Ann Arbor, Mich., that he took up the baton, becoming the sabbatical replacement for the conductor of the Ann Arbor Cantata Singers and Chamber Orchestra and serving as director of the Ann Arbor Civic Theater.

“The first time I conducted a major work, I walked out onto the stage and stood at the podium,” he said. “On the cover of the score were the words G.F. Handel. It was a two-hour piece.”

“I thought to myself, ‘What are you doing? You don’t belong here.’ But I opened the score and began to conduct and immediately forgot everything else. It all came together in one big privileged experience,” he said.

Rhode Island College

In 1973 Markward was hired by the Rhode Island College music department. He would teach voice and medieval and Renaissance music literature, as well as direct the Rhode Island College Chorus, found the Rhode Island College Chamber Singers and conduct the Rhode Island College Symphony Orchestra.

As a conductor, there was no time to practice voice, which meant the end of a classical singing career, he said. But Markward has no regrets. “Being a conductor is who I am,” he said. “It’s what I love. I could never see myself doing anything else.”

When he arrived at RIC, the symphony orchestra was small – between 40 and 55 members, depending on the piece being performed. It had always been a college and community orchestra, with members of the ensemble ranging in age from 18 to 60. "The orchestra has come a long way, and it’s been a long, long journey,” he said.

The orchestra now has 75 members. Sixty percent of the musicians are RIC students; the rest are community musicians, as well as a small number of professional musicians, many of whom were once Markward’s students. “When I first came to RIC, I didn’t think it was possible for the orchestra to perform the large works that they’re playing now, yet in the last decade, they haven’t shied away from anything.”

“This year we played ‘The Rite of Spring,’ and I’ll quote a retired colleague: he said, ‘Ed, are you crazy? You’re not Juilliard (a premier conservatory).’” Yet inspired by their maestro, they played as if they were.

Relentless pursuit of musical perfection

Markward has been described by his students as a professor with “a relentless pursuit of musical perfection,” a conductor with “impeccable technique” and “an inspirer of youthful musicians to heights few would have believed possible.”

“We were the lucky ones,” said Christine Noel ’12, who studied conducting under him.

“Inspiration is one of the most important qualities a conductor can have,” said John Di Costanzo ’84, another of Markward’s former students.

Today Di Costanzo is music director and associate artistic director of Tri-Cities Opera in Binghamton, N.Y. He recalled that after one conducting class and a one-hour lesson with Markward, he knew that he was learning from one of the greats.

Even though Markward had been conducting since he was in graduate school, he has never stopped learning. Five years after his arrival at RIC, he began studying conducting under Maestro Gustav Meier. “Meier was the second greatest influence in my life,” he said. “I learned most of the technical aspects of conducting from him.”

He learned by observing Meier and the other great conductors of the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood. Meier also allowed him to attend master classes at Tanglewood given by conductors Leonard Bernstein, André Previn, Erich Leinsdorf and Seiji Ozawa.

Conducting and teaching

Markward views conducting and teaching as synonymous, whether in a classroom or on a stage. “I was once asked, ‘Do you just conduct here or do you teach as well?’ Every time I’m up there on stage waving my arms, I’m teaching,” he said.

Though he’s been called a perfectionist, Markward doesn’t see himself that way. He said, “I believe a performer should get as close as possible to the composer’s intent and that anything shy of that lacks integrity.”

His wife, Diana McVey, began singing with the RIC chorus, chamber singers, opera workshop and orchestra in 1988. Today she is a highly successful operatic soprano with the Florentine Opera in Milwaukee, Wis.

“From my own experience as his student,” she said, “I can say without a doubt that he is initially intimidating as a teacher because his standards and expectations are high and he sees no reason to settle for mediocrity. But the high standards he has for his students are surpassed only by the high standards he has for himself.”

An enormous impact--near and far

Markward has made a point of showcasing his students on stages outside of RIC. In the 1970s his chamber singers performed three free concerts a day in schools and churches throughout New England and in Canada. His orchestra and choral singers also performed a free concert each year at the Ocean State Performing Arts Center, now known as the Providence Performing Arts Center, for years. The event was called the Annual Gift to the Community Concert, it regularly attracted audiences of more than 3,000 people.

He has served as music director for the Bel Canto Opera Company, music director/conductor for Opera Rhode Island, associate conductor of the Providence Opera Theater, principal guest conductor for the Brooklyn Heights Symphony and founding conductor of the Festival Chamber Orchestra of Rhode Island. He is currently conductor of the Rhode Island Civic Chorale and Orchestra.

“It will be difficult to imagine what the Rhode Island College music department will be like after Ed retires,” said Rob Franzblau, assistant chair of the music department, where he also serves as a professor of music and conductor of the RIC Wind Ensemble.

“He’s had such a huge influence on our students and on our programs,” Franzblau said. “I will miss him very much, but I have no doubt that his musical presence will continue to be felt in the community for many years. He’s simply one of the most talented and hardworking conductors I have ever known. He has also earned the highest respect from the students at RIC.”

Markward will continue to conduct the Rhode Island Civic Chorale and Orchestra, offer private lessons in voice and conducting, and serve as music consultant on various projects, such as digitizing the unpublished music of composer Paul Nelson. Markward said there are also a lot of musical works that he would like to learn.

“His appetite for knowledge and improving himself never wanes,” said McVey. “He’s conducted Handel’s ‘Messiah’ upwards of 20 times – perhaps more – and each time it is on the program, he opens the well-worn score and studies it with great care to discover anything exciting and new he may have missed along the way.”

“Many nights I have found him in front of the computer, headphones on, listening to the Berlin Philharmonic via its virtual concert hall,” she said. “He has an insatiable desire to learn and better himself.”

Admission to Markward’s final concert with the RIC symphony on April 29 is $10. Tickets may be purchased at the Nazarian Center Box Office (401) 456-8144, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., as well as two hours before the performance.


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