From piano to podium: Guest conductor Thomas Heuser lives music

Conductor Thomas Heuser poses next to a dilapidated piano on Thursday afternoon in central Casper. Heuser, who studied piano before turning to conducting, is a candidate for the music director job with the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)

Thomas Heuser has been surrounded by music the majority of his life.

“It’s a musical household,” said Heuser, recalling his childhood. “My dad’s a real music lover and opera aficionado, and my mom is an amateur musician.”

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Heuser is in Casper this week as he prepares to guest conduct the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra’s performance this Saturday. He is one of four finalists for the job of music director, each of whom will conduct one program this year.

Heuser’s musical journey started on violin as a young child. He quickly took to the piano and played in church and school productions.

He later studied piano at St. Louis Symphony Music School before earning a Master’s and doctorate elsewhere in conducting. He’s since conducted several orchestras around the world and is now music director for both the Idaho Falls Symphony and the San Juan Symphony in Durango, Colorado, where he lives with his violinist wife Lauren Avery and their son Theodore.

Heuser’s boundless enthusiasm and energy comes in handy with the many duties associated with a career in classical music. Weeks before arriving in Casper for his tryout, Heuser studied and marked up scores of the three pieces he chose for this week’s performance and sent them to the musicians to prepare. The conductor and orchestra just gathered together for rehearsal for the first time on Thursday evening.

Though Heuser still plays piano, he rarely performs publicly. The job of a music director leaves little time to stay at concert levels on an instrument.

“You’re not really taught as an instrumentalist to deal with the politics of music, or the psychology of musician relationships, or fundraising or marketing…the business aspect,” said Heuser. “That was the biggest transition.”

Because of schedule, travel and time constraints, small orchestras such as Wyoming’s get precious few hours with their conductor before the performance. Those several hours are key to forming the conductor’s vision for the score and orchestra.

“It’s a collaborative project, being a conductor,” explains Heuser. “You’re working with other musicians, coaching them and figuring out how to get the best out of other people.”

“The art of it is convincing and inspiring people to do their best and giving that experience to the listener,” said Heuser.

Conductor Thomas Heuser poses next to a dilapidated piano on Thursday afternoon in central Casper. Heuser, who studied piano before turning to conducting, is a candidate for the music director job with the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)

Heuser’s beginnings as a pianist led to a fascination with some of that instrument’s greatest composers.

“I’ve spent the majority of my time studying the late classical and early romantic period,” said Heuser. “We’re talking Beethoven to Brahms, that’s sort of my bread and butter there. I think they’re the composers that speak to me the most.”

Since taking up conducting, Heuser has enjoyed exploring composers from the 20th-century, such as Stravinsky and Bernstein.

“The great 20th-century composers are the ones I find most exciting to conduct,” said Heuser, “because the orchestra’s bigger, there’s more flash and color in the score…these composers that have really rich orchestral works are so fun to do.”

Heuser believes the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra is ready for the next level of performing. “There’s a lot of potential, having a group that is as talented and dedicated as this group of musicians means that we can venture into all these different genres and present a real diversity of programming options,” said Heuser.

“The community behind this orchestra is clearly engaged and dedicated so that combination is very exciting.”

Thomas Heuser will lead the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra on Saturday, Dec. 1 with acclaimed guest solo violinist Tim Fain. The program includes works by Smetana, Sibelius and Dvorak. Tickets and time can be found at the WSO’s website