The Colorado Symphony has just extended Perth conductor Christopher Dragon’s contract for another two years and his name blazes across their marketing with slogans like “Dragons are Real”. The 26 year old Perth conductor first stood in front of an orchestra just five years ago and is already making his mark internationally. He returns to Perth in September for several concerts including a season of Ariadne auf Naxos with OperaBox. 

What music gets your heart racing?

Listening to any sort of classical music can get my heart racing from symphonic to chamber music. As a conductor, what really gets my heart racing is the process of music making during the performance and being fully immersed in the moment.

What calms you down?

When I need to switch off after a rehearsal I enjoy listening to a variety of pop music – to not lose too much respect it’s probably better for me not to say what… I find it very hard to switch off listening to orchestral music as it usually results in me air conducting along.

What do you sing along to?

Due to my intense schedule with the Colorado Symphony and numerous outside engagements I am always studying, so the music I sing along to is whatever I’m currently preparing. On this current trip to Perth, Strauss’ Ariadne of Naxos is definitely getting the most karaoke time from me.

You are back in town to conduct (amongst other things) Ariadne Auf Naxos, your fourth opera with OperaBox. How are you preparing?

Strauss’ Ariadne of Naxos is a without any doubt the most difficult opera that OperaBox has ever staged and the music is extremely complicated and difficult to put together. There are tempo changes every few bars, the first act is basically all recitative and the individual parts are challenging for both the singers and orchestra.

In regards to preparation, before I started marking up my score I translated the text and watched numerous productions of the opera to get a good understanding of the work. Next I marked up the score using a specific process I use which basically breaks down the structure of the work into phrases. From there I then develop musically what I want and need from each phrase/line and work out how to transition from each of the sections.

I’m very fortunate to also have the close mentorship of WASO’s Principal Conductor Asher Fisch so I’ve been able to ask him various questions about conducting the work and how to approach certain sections.

You’ve just completed your first year as Associate Conductor with the Colorado Symphony. What have been the highlights so far of working with the orchestra?

4th July concert with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra

It has been such an amazing experience for me to be able to work with such a high quality orchestra and due to how busy the orchestra is it means I get to conduct a lot of concerts. Last season I conducted 22 different programs and as the orchestra prides itself on being innovative it meant I conducted a wide variety of styles and genres and collaborated with a diverse range of artists.

Everything I’ve done with the orchestra has been special to me but a few big learning experiences have come from the Symphony at the Movies concerts – Back to the Future and Home Alone. These shows are where the orchestra performs the music to a full screening of the movie. It is some of the most difficult music I’ve had to conduct as you have to sync it with the movie and there are constant sudden tempo changes. Even with a click track (live metronome) these shows are difficult to put together as well as the music often being quite difficult for the musicians. Due to the difficulty and challenge of putting it all together I find these concerts very rewarding – plus I get to watch some great movies!

Next season I’m looking forward to collaborating with Ben Folds on his Piano Concerto as well as conducting some major repertoire including Brahms’ Symphony no 1 and 3, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no 4 and Dvorak’s Symphony no 9.

It has been amusing seeing the symphony make the most of my surname Dragon! For example next season there is special allocated seating for a few of my concerts called “The Dragon Pit” and they even have a banner advertising the upcoming season with the quote “Dragons are real!”

Where are you living, how have you found the transition into American culture?

I have an apartment in downtown Denver that is about a five-minute walk from our hall. I want to avoid driving in the US as they drive on the other side of the road and worry that if I tried, I might not survive there very long….

The transition of moving to Denver has been quite smooth as I find the lifestyle very similar to Perth. It is not an overwhelmingly busy city yet there is enough happening to keep it interesting. It is a beautiful place and I can’t wait to explore the mountains more.

The American culture has been a blast and I have already been to a baseball and NFL Broncos game.  This year the Broncos won the Super Bowl so it was an amazing to experience the hype of it all. There are a few aspects I’m still trying to adjust to such as why portions are so large, why pizza comes with ranch sauce and when to tip.

Your career has escalated at a whirlwind pace:
2011 began conducting studies with the Symphony Services Conductor program
2013 Assistant Conductor WASO
2014 Jarvi Winter Academy in Estonia – Orchestra’s Favourite Conductor Prize
2015 Associate Conductor Colorado SO
Where to next?!

Yes I still cannot believe how everything has really snowballed to where I am today. It’s amazing to think that just over five years ago I conducted for the very first time in front of an orchestra. For the time being I know I will be with the Colorado Symphony for a while longer as my initial year contract was extended to three years.

I have a few future goals set that I see as my next steps. One is finding an agent as my schedule is already very busy and it would be good to have someone help organize all my outside engagements. More guest conducting in Australia (as I love travelling back here regardless of the long trip) and expanding my guest conducting in America. Finally a Music Director position somewhere, as I feel ready to have a strong input building an orchestra and integrating it with the community. To be honest though, as long as I’m still conducting and making music in the future I will be more than happy.

When did you first become interested in conducting?

Even before I studied clarinet at university I was interested in conducting but it wasn’t offered as a core subject of study. At WASO concerts I would always try to get choir stall tickets so I could watch the conductor to see how their gestures and expressions shaped the music. Also when I played clarinet in orchestras I wanted to have more of an input to the overall music making but as a clarinetist it wasn’t really my position to be doing anything like that as I was responsible for just my part.

Orchestral musicians love working with you – what is it that you offer that is so compelling?

Haha! I’m not sure how true that statement is but I know they definitely do a good job putting up with me. I’m often asked if it’s difficult being a “young” conductor especially when the musicians are more experienced etc, but to be honest I have not really found this to be an issue. I believe that if you respect the musicians in front of you, you know what you want to do with the music and you use your time effectively you should not have any problems working with any orchestra.

Mark Applebaum says music should be above all else be interesting. What do you think is the most important role of music?

Music has a unique ability to connect with people on a transcendental level and life without it would be soul-less. There is that cheesy saying that music is a universal language but there is a lot of truth behind it – music has the ability to pull people together from all over the world regardless of race, religion and age.

You have a soft spot for reading scores – for hours and hours on end. What is the appeal?

Haha! I don’t really know if it is a soft spot or more just it is what I have to do for my job. Saying that, my scores are my most prized possessions as I put so much time into marking them up. I always find it fascinating returning to a score I’ve done before; trying to decipher my scribbles and seeing how my interpretation of the piece has changed.

Do you have a partner/significant other/pet?

I really want a dog but as I travel so much it’s not really possible for me to have one. Also no girlfriend at this stage which is probably a good thing considering the amount of work I’ve had on!

You have just finished conducting at two back-to-back festivals in the US (Breckenridge Music Festival) and Australia (Bangalow Music Festival), involving a huge amount of repertoire in a short space of time. Where did you learn the skills to manage your time and absorb so much music?

Marking up a score at the Bangalow Music Festival

I’ve really tried to push myself over this two month period. Three weeks before the Breckenridge Music Festival I had two different concerts with the Colorado Symphony as well as making my conducting debut in Brazil. The day I got back to Australia I started music calls for Operabox then two days later flew to New South Wales for the Bangalow Music Festival. Being back in Perth I now have Operabox, WAAPA Faith Court Orchestra and MetSO to juggle as well as being at WASO rehearsals. So far everything has gone ok so I’m coping (just!)

When I was living in Perth I was quite fortunate to have so many conducting opportunities – at one stage I was conducting, two community orchestras, Operabox, the WA Youth Orchestra and WAAPA’s Faith Court all at the same time as well as being at WASO rehearsals so this really helped me to develop my time management of being able to work on multiple projects. The other benefit of this was that it exposed me to a lot of music early on. The same goes with the Symphony Services masterclasses and others I did overseas where I was able to learn major repertoire in front of professional orchestras.

What do you miss most about Perth?

I have some really great friends in Perth that I love catching up with over good food and wine. It seems a bit topsy-turvy but I always lose weight whilst in America and gain it when I’m back in Australia as I spend so many nights out catching up with friends.

I also miss watching WASO with Asher Fisch as the quality of playing is just world class and the orchestra is really in a golden period right now. I am also very close with a lot of the musicians and Asher so it’s always nice returning home and seeing them all.

Do you have a soft spot for anything else in life or is it all about the music?

Music definitely is a major part of my life and apart from general things like hanging out with friends and going out for good food and wine, I guess a secret pleasure of mine is that I LOVE to watch cooking shows. I can’t really cook at all but I am just completely hooked on shows like Masterchef and anything with Gordon Ramsay in it – he is just brilliant!

Christopher Dragon conducts the WAAPA Faith Court Orchestra on September 2nd/3rd, Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos with OperaBox from the 9-16th and the WA Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra on the 18th. You can follow Christopher on Instagram Dragonconducts