Edward Cumming, the new assistant conductor of the Pacific Symphony, got his first taste of group leadership in sixth grade in his native Oakland.
“I got the whole class to do a stunt together, to say, ‘Oink, oink, oink’ at 2:30,” the 36-year-old Cumming said in a recent phone interview. “There was a crucial moment at 2:29 when I asked myself, ‘Do I want to participate or stand in front and lead it?’ ”
He decided to lead.
He walked to the front of the class on the pretext of sharpening a pencil, then turned and conducted the porcine chorus. “It was a huge success--and I was suspended.”
Cumming got back into school shortly after, however, which was fortunate because he credits school for giving him his first taste of music. “If it hadn’t been for public-school music education, I don’t know if I would be doing this now.”
Cumming will lead his first Pacific Symphony family concert Saturday morning at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa. The next day, he has his first rehearsal as music director of the Pacific Symphony Orchestra Institute at Cal State Fullerton.
His third job, teaching conducting and music appreciation at the Cal State Fullerton, began about five weeks ago.
Cumming said he “fell into music when I was 12. I was in a chorus and the director said, ‘By the way, you have the option of being an instrumental musician and still fulfilling the (music) requirement.’ ”
So he and a friend opted out of the class and found that “French horns were the only instruments left in the closet. So we went from there.
“But I got so turned on by horn then and later playing in school band and orchestra, I began to study privately.”
A professional career wasn’t in his mind at first, although he did grow more serious about music in college.
“But UC Berkeley has a way of informing you very early on what you do well and what you don’t do well. I determined I really didn’t have the goods to be a horn player professionally, as much as I enjoyed it. That’s really when I began to seriously study orchestra conducting.”
After graduating from Berkeley, with the Eisner Prize for Creative Achievement in the Arts, he applied to the Yale School of Music to study with the renowned pedagogue Otto-Werner Mueller. But he didn’t get in immediately.
“It took me two tries to get into Yale,” he said. “It took three times to get my driver’s license. So it was harder to get a driver’s license than to get into Yale!”
He picked Yale because like Mueller, “I’m a tall man,” Cumming said.
“He’s enormous: 6-foot-7. I’m 6-foot-2. I had been told I had to use my whole body when I conducted, but I was not comfortable with that. I wanted to draw on an inner strength and project it to the ensemble, whereas everyone was telling me to flail away, just do it.
“I saw him (Mueller) conduct, and he used all of maybe four or five inches of the baton” to build a huge crescendo in the last movement of the Brahms’ First Symphony. “I was completely overwhelmed. I thought, ‘He knows how to make a forte without going nuts.’ ”
Among other things he learned from Mueller was to become “more comfortable with myself physically. Young conductors have to catch up with our brains. Physically, we are behind that. . . . That’s par for the profession. We have to learn by doing it.”
After three years of study with Mueller, Cumming spent a summer working with Michael Tilson Thomas--and received quite a shock.
“Michael has the antithesis of that (Germanic) approach. He woke me up. He asked me how old I was. I said, ’27.’ He said, ‘Why do you conduct like a 65-year-old man?’ ”
Since that experience, Cumming has tried “to embrace both of those approaches: What does the composer want and yet how can I make it special?”
He’s refined that approach through his work--prior to arriving in Orange County in August--as resident conductor of the Florida Orchestra and conductor of the University of South Florida Orchestra.
He sees his role leading children’s concerts as one way of sowing the seeds to develop new audiences for classical music, “in addition to those that are won over,” he said.
“I’m always asking myself, ‘Would I myself be coming to a concert if I were not a professional musician?’ I don’t know. That disturbs me,” he said. “That, too, goes into the question of how can I make it special for someone who is not a classical-music aficionado?”