Michael Repper makes his debut on Sept. 29 as just the third music director in Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra (MSO) history, succeeding Julien Benichou, who reigned with his baton for 17 years following the MSO’s founding maestro, Don Buxton.
Considering his appointment was not announced until mid-June – around the time Benichou’s MSO contract was up, and he became artistic director of the Washington Opera Society – Repper considers himself fortunate to have a piece he chose on his premiere concert program. “Julien did the lion’s share,” Repper said of the orchestra’s upcoming 25th anniversary season programming. “I’m very excited about the soloists he lined up.” That includes guest piano soloist Michael McHale, who will open the concert at Chesapeake College with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor).” But the second half features Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 in E flat major (“Rhenish”), selected by Repper. “Next season will be all mine,” he says.
The 2022-23 season for Repper and the MSO continues, as usual, with two more concerts of the same program in southern Delaware and Ocean City area beach communities. The next set of shows are in November with a “Four Seasons” program of Vivaldi and Piazzolla, followed in early December by “Holiday Joy” favorites and the annual New Year’s Eve gig at Easton’s Christ Church. After a January-February break, the orchestra’s Elizabeth Loker Competition takes center stage. It will bring the winner of its young musicians’ prize, along with Brahms’ Tragic Overture and Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1, which was also the first symphony by an African-American woman performed by a major orchestra – the Chicago Symphony – in 1933. Repper and the MSO wrap up their first season together late next April with a piece by Louise Forrenc, an 18th Century French composer chosen by Benichou, a native of France, who also selected Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World”) for the finale.
While Benichou left big shoes to fill at the conductor’s podium, Repper, 31, brings a broad and deep resume for a music director his age – having already conducted orchestras on four continents. Aside from Delmarva’s professional ensemble, Repper directs the Northern Neck Orchestra of Kilmarnock, just across the Chesapeake from Virginia’s Eastern Shore, the Ashland Symphony Orchestra in Ohio, and Peru’s Central Ensembles of Sinfonia in that nation’s Lima capital. Additionally, in a position he’s held since age 22, he is also the music director of the New York Youth Symphony at Carnegie Hall. That he will be leaving the youth symphony after one more season is “a bittersweet occasion,” Repper says, citing the “amazingly talented kids I’ve met and helped nurture there.”
Speaking of mentoring, Repper counts Marin Alsop among the most influential musical figures in his life, starting at age 13. Describing what could well be an example of paying it forward, Alsop was mentored by Leonard Bernstein late in his life. “What she has done since,” says Repper, “ranks with historic proportions.” As a result, Repper, a native of southern California, moved to Baltimore. “I wanted to be closer,” he said of the people he studied under at the prestigious Peabody Conservatory, including Alsop and Swiss conductor Gustav Meier. It was there he also met Benichou during Repper’s time as a conducting fellow and guest conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, of which Alsop served as the first woman music director of a major American classical orchestra. It is also where Repper met many of the musicians he will now lead at MSO.
In the last year, the MSO has presented another significant professional opportunity for Repper. Not all of his many projects involved fully professional musicians. He taught students. He led orchestras comprised of adult freelance pros, volunteers, and talented youngsters. The MSO, led by board president Jeffrey Parker, consulted with the union that now represents the orchestra, Musicians’ Association of Metropolitan Baltimore, Local 40-543, American Federation of Musicians, among many other sources, in selecting their new maestro.
“We are delighted to welcome Michael to the Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra,” Parker said at the time he announced Repper’s appointment. “And we’re confident he will continue to build its reputation as an exceptional regional orchestra as he inspires and engages both our audiences and the communities he serves.”
To that end, Repper says one of his priorities, even above seeking recording opportunities for the orchestra, “is to make our concerts such a fun experience that our Delmarva fans come back again and again as we attract a new fanbase.”
Besides conducting, don’t be surprised if Repper takes a turn at the piano one evening. “I’ve played since I was four, and while I’m not sustaining myself as a concert pianist, I make sure I’m always playing, or I’ll forget,” he says with a laugh, adding that he “sometimes still plays a concerto with the orchestra.” In rehearsal, we guess. But you never know.
On increasingly rare occasions when he’s not on the road, Repper lives in Charlottesville to be with his girlfriend, who is studying law at the University of Virginia.
Steve Parks is a retired New York arts writer and editor now living in Easton.
Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra Season Openers:
Thursday, Sept. 29, 7: 30 p.m., Chesapeake College, Wye Mills
Saturday, Oct., 1 7:30 p.m., Cape Henlopen High School, Lewes, Del.
Sunday Oct. 2, 3 p.m., Performing Arts Center, Ocean City.