A renowned bassoonist, a respected conductor and a composer whose career is on the rise.
Christopher Weait has worn all three labels for most of his life. And this year he adds another label – octogenarian – to the list.
A former co-principal bassoonist with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and OSU School of Music Professor Emeritus of bassoon, Weait is known in central Ohio and throughout the world as a top-flight orchestral musician and bassoon pedagogue.
The Central Ohio Symphony, which Weait served as music director and conductor from 1988 to 1999, will mark Weait’s 80th birthday – and celebrate his work as a composer – with its 2019-20 season debut concert. The program features Weait’s Divertimento for Strings, Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with pianist Dror Biran as soloist.
The concert was the brainchild of the Central Ohio Symphony’s current music director, Jaime Morales-Matos, who says he discovered by chance that Weait had composed his Divertimento for Strings, and wanted to honor Weait’s during his 80th birthday year with a performance of the piece.
"I said, he’s going to be 80, and I think it would be a great honor for us to play something he composed for us," said Morales-Matos. "We would like to give him recognition and thanks for the more than 10 years that he conducted the orchestra."
Those who played in the Central Ohio Symphony during Weait’s 11-year career there recall his consummate musicianship, his extreme professionalism and his nurturing spirit, an attribute not always evident on orchestra podiums. This combination of musical and personal mastery substantially helped the Central Ohio Symphony grow as an independent artistic organization during Weait’s tenure as music director.
“The Great Teaching Conductor”
Weait’s interest in teaching, in helping other musicians grow, runs like a leitmotif through his life and professional career and was at the heart of his work with the Central Ohio Symphony.
“One tremendous focus was on, I think, educating the musicians,” said Warren Hyer, Central Ohio Symphony violinist and executive director, in a recent phone interview. “He (Weait) had a real appreciation for bringing the musicians along. Not just standing up and conducting the music, but also helping each musician develop into a better musician,” Hyer said.
Weait’s path led him early on to become a teacher and a conductor...two roles that, for him, have always gone hand in hand.
A native of England, Weait moved to New York City with his family when he was eight years old. He started playing the bassoon when he was in seventh grade, and by the time he entered high school, he says, he was “hooked” on playing chamber music with other musicians at school.
Weait’s conducting career started to take shape during his high school years playing chamber music on the bassoon. The band director at his high school had to leave town for a few days during football season and left Weait in charge of the band at that weekend’s football game.
Weait furthered his conducting in music education classes during his college years, when he was training to become a schoolteacher. Wherever his career took him, he continued to conduct.
“Conducting wasn’t a career I sought, so much as it’s just a very handy technique to know about when you’re a musician. You end up having to lead things, and it’s handy to know how to conduct,” Weait said.
Weait worked as a teacher in Albany, New York for two years, then served for three years as a member of the band at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He then joined the Chamber Players of Philadelphia and, two years later, became co-principal bassoonist with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
Teaching beckoned again, and Weait left the Toronto Symphony Orchestra after 17 years to join the faculty of the Ohio State University School of Music, where he served as professor of bassoon from 1984 until his retirement in 2006.
During those years, Weait fostered his OSU bassoon students and also the players in the Central Ohio Symphony, which at that time worked in close partnership with the Ohio Wesleyan University’s Music Department.
“He kind of served as (Ohio Wesleyan) adjunct faculty conducting the symphony. And that’s at a time when the symphony was also non-profit. So it was kind of an unusual arrangement – a non-profit symphony and a music department deciding who would be music director,” according to Central Ohio Symphony violinist and Executive Director Warren Hyer.
With one foot on the podium and the other in a university music department, Weait nurtured – not nagged – the musicians in the orchestra during his time as the Central Ohio Symphony’s music director.
“I always called him the great teaching conductor,” said flutist Pam Beery, who retired from the Central Ohio Symphony last spring after 37 years in the orchestra. “He doesn’t just conduct; he teaches the music... he teaches how to interpret it.”
The Ambassador of the Orchestra
A conductor may well spend 99% of his or her work time honing interpretations of musical works. But when it comes to standing on the podium and leading a group of human beings who are playing their hearts out, a conductor’s people skills quickly become very important.
Although the power of the podium corrupts some conductors, musicians who know Weait’s conducting say he never succumbed to that mindset.
“He never raised his voice, and everybody loved Chris because his personality is such that he’s not an enemy, he’s a friend,” said Jacob Schlosser, a bassoonist with the Central Ohio Symphony since 1979. “He was always loved by the players and everybody associated with the orchestra.”
Carol Brulotte played as a hornist with the Central Ohio Symphony for 37 years, and has served on the orchestra’s board of trustees for more than 20 years. She recalls Weait’s personal sensitivity with all of the orchestra’s constituents.
“Sometimes conductors think a lot of themselves and are a little standoffish with the rank and file, so to speak. But Chris was never that way,” Brulotte said. “And he worked very well with the community – the board of trustees and people who support the arts in the Delaware community.”
This skill at cultivating relationships seems to come naturally to a musician who sees his chosen instrument as a bridge builder.
“I like to think of the bassoon as an ambassador instrument,” Weait said. “It’s constantly playing with other players, other sections.”
Clown Meets Curmudgeon
Playing and, one might say, joking.
I can’t resist asking Weait what he, a world-class bassoonist, thinks of the old canard that the bassoon – with its flatulent-sounding low notes and high notes suggesting a congested soprano – sometimes just sounds funny.
“I’ve had to live with that,” Weait says. “The instrument is sometimes called the clown of the orchestra, and the bassoon has kind of a sardonic, even sarcastic sound. The bassoon is low. It’s a little bit like your favorite grandfather laughing away at some times. Grandfather from Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, is a very good example of what the bassoon does. And it’s supposed to depict a kind of grumpy old man, and that’s what we do.”
Apparently Weait was always happy to bring others into the joke, as he did in one memorable performance.
“He and (one of) his ensembles … did the 1812 Overture all on bassoons. And for the bells at the end of it, he found flower pots that he suspended, and they all played those at the end of the piece,” Hyer said.
“There was always a sense of humor and fun and willingness – he has a great, great laugh – and the smiles that were always on his face were, I think, very important to the cultural change of this organization.”
That smile stretches across Weait’s face when I note during our interview that, paradoxically, he has called his instrument – always something of an alter ego for a musician – an ambassador, an affable clown and a grumpy grandfather figure. So which is it?
“The crusty old curmudgeon,” Weait laughs. “I want that role.”
Crusty curmudgeon maybe, if Weait says so. But old?
Although Weait has been composing on and off since graduating from college in 1961, his career as a composer is really just starting to take off, now that performing and teaching and making bassoon reeds and conducting aren’t consuming his time. And, he says, using the occasion of his 80th birthday to – as he put it – “browbeat” his friends into performing his music, has both jumpstarted his Act Two career and brought him in touch with the reality of the need to promote his music.
“When I turned 80, my wife gave me a shirt that said, ‘I’m 80 and still hot, but that’s 27 Celsius.’ So I thought, oh yes, okay, I’m acting like a 27-year-old composer in my 80s because I’m pushing my music,” Weait said.
Weait says he’s been able to have a number of his works performed in recent years, including a set of orchestral songs to texts by Emily Dickinson, performed in April 2018 by the McConnell Arts Center Chamber Orchestra. His Estampie for double reed ensemble will be performed at the 2020 Texas Music Education Conference.
He is also currently composing some pieces for piano and editing some wind band works by Anton Reicha and, on commission from the McConnell Arts Center Chamber Orchestra, is composing an orchestra work to demonstrate to children the sounds of the instruments.
Weait is quick to point out that this type of piece has been done before – Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Britten’s Yong Person’s Guide to the Orchestra are two notable examples. But no one has written a children’s orchestra piece in Weait’s musical style, which even Weait himself says he can’t quite define –and doesn’t want to.
“My wife and I have been trying to figure out, Well, okay, what’s your style? One of the words that keeps coming up is quirky,” Weait said. “I write quirky music, and I think that’s fine, because I don’t think there’s a lot of quirky music going on in the world right now, so maybe I’m happy to be in that corner.”
Hear Weait’s Divertimento for Strings on the Central Ohio Symphony’s 2019-20 season debut concert, Saturday, Oct. 26 at 7:30 p.m. in Ohio Wesleyan University’s Gray Chapel. For more information, go to www.centralohiosymphony.org