If you were born after 1978, then you do not know a world without Dr. G. Barry Epperley at the helm of a Tulsa symphonic organization. And that's about to change.
Epperley, who founded the Tulsa Little Symphony Orchestra in 1978, has announced that he will be stepping down from his post as artistic director and conductor of the Signature Symphony, the latest incarnation of what started back in (and somewhat in spite of) the days of disco.
"It's time," Epperley said of his decision. And sure, 35 years are a long time to do anything, so it's somewhat understandable that he's moving on. Still, looking around at Signature Symphony board members and faculty members of TCC -- where Epperley teaches and where SS resides -- one sees a certain sense of "what are we going to do now?" in their faces.
"It's been 35 years," he continued. "And I really don't know for sure what's next. When I say I'm going to get involved here or there, I really do have those plans, but other than that, I really don't know what's next. I've always had that gut feeling about things, and I have that feeling now. It's been a good time."
His resignation from the podium has been announced in waves of late, with a Tulsa World article here, a phone call there, a TCC campus newspaper article there, but the press gathering downtown last week that felt quite official included Epperley speaking about his retirement and about the 2013-2014 SS season, which will be his last.
Epperley is perhaps the greatest rabbit-chaser (other than my mother) I've ever heard, and that's a pretty great thing. While talking about the upcoming season and about his retirement, he regularly got sidetracked and regaled the group with stories of his 35 years with the symphony. And it's clear that he loves what he's done with his life.
He spoke of Dave Brubeck's six appearances over the years with SS, of soprano Roberta Peters throwing a minor temper tantrum over not being booked to stay in a hotel near the PAC, of former students coming back after college to become players and teachers themselves, of conducting Mahler, of conducting the orchestra for TCC's recent production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. What he didn't spend much time talking about were his exploits outside of and before Signature Symphony. And they were some pretty impressive exploits.
Epperley has performed for presidents, written music for Disney, produced programs for the likes of Duke Ellington and Tony Bennett, and performed with Leonard freaking Bernstein. At a Rotary meeting in the '90s, he sort of stumbled on to Dr. Dean VanTrease -- a former TCC president -- and his plan to build what would become the VanTrease Performing Arts Center for Education and expand TCC's music program.
In getting involved, Epperley was able to build on the work of his father, a music educator, and reach more and more students with the power of music and all that it can do. And in moving the Signature Symphony to be a part of TCC, the college became a one-of-a-kind.
"This is the only community college in the country that has a professional symphony orchestra in residence," he said. "This is a very unusual setting for a symphony. We're in residency at the community college, and we have a lot to do with education, and we have so many teachers who play with us.
It's not often that you find so many instructors who can play at the level that we want. Over the years, we've tried to hire players who have a gift for teaching. About 30 of our players are teachers, and between them, they touch more than 2,000 kids a week."
Epperley's love for education was reflected by Dr. Brett Campbell, who serves as provost for TCC's Southeast Campus, where Epperley and SS reside.
"You walk on to the third floor of the PACE and you hear our students practicing and hanging out and talking," he said. "They're talking about what they're going to do, or they're talking to Barry, or they're trying to get in to talk to Barry. What the public sees on the front end of the house is a small portion of what Barry does. He's developed a cult of high expectations for our students. It's very exciting to see what happens in the front of the house, but on that third floor, you see and you feel what he's done and what he's created."
The theme that begins to come through in the Epperley story is that he's accomplished a great deal in his life, and a whole bunch of that has benefitted our fair city.
On the horizon for him, well, as mentioned above, he's not entirely sure of anything other than the fact that it's time not to be doing this anymore. Though he does have some rough ideas of what's ahead.
"When I stare at my deck, I always think, 'There's work to be done out there,'" he laughed. "I'm on the committee to help build a new PAC in Stillwater. And I told the Signature Symphony advisory board that I'll hover. I'll be hovering around for if and whenever they need help. And I've never gotten to ride my motorcycle all the way across Europe, so I think I might end up doing that, too."
Kelly Clark, TCC Southeast's dean of performing arts, spoke a little more seriously about what Epperley's future likely holds.
"I expect him to fully embrace learning," she said. "He loves to learn. He's an academician. He's a student and a teacher. He just loves it."
In announcing the season -- which will contain ten performances between the Signature Symphony's Classics and Pop series -- Epperley spoke about the works chosen and how he set about putting together his final season.
"I treat the season and individual concerts like a good meal," he said. "There should be appetizers, salads, a meat dish, and a sweet dessert."
His swan song will be to the sounds of Gustav Mahler, a composer whose grandiose music seems a fitting end to the Epperley era.
"Our final concert will be Mahler's Second Symphony, the Resurrection Symphony," he said. "We'll have a choir of 120 voices. The one thing we're planning for this one is to have a harness, and as we end the Resurrection Symphony, I'll just sort of float up and out of the hall."
He was joking, of course, but damn. How awesome would that be?
As he makes his way to the exit, Epperley doesn't pause the least bit when asked about what he'll miss the most.
"The players and the music," he said, beginning his answer even before the full question had been asked. "Getting to do the things that I've gotten to do is just kind of amazing. Getting to conduct the Brahms Requiem, getting to do Tchaikovsky, Swan Lake, and the Nutcracker, and all these things. I'm just so very lucky."
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