It's been four years since Richard Lee began his stint as the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's resident conductor. His assignment: to lead the WSO Pops Series, Concerts for Kids, several special shows throughout the season, outreach programs in area schools and to conduct the University of Manitoba's Symphony Orchestra.
He did it all -- and did it well. Lee has made his mark not only on the audiences of the WSO and the musicians themselves, but on countless students as well.
The 42-year-old leaves Winnipeg at the end of the concert season. He has already segued into the next stage of his career -- as music director of the East Texas Symphony Orchestra in Tyler, Texas (90 minutes southeast of Dallas). He will also continue to conduct the Korean-Canadian Symphony Orchestra in Toronto, where he'll live most of the year.
"It's a slightly larger orchestra than the WSO," says Lee of the ETSO. "I'll be doing about eight to 10 concerts a year as music director. It will be a more secure financial situation for me than I have now."
"It's time for the orchestra to have a new resident conductor," says Lee, reached during a family visit to Toronto. "I'm ready to move on to a position with more responsibility -- jobs where I call the shots artistically... I know that I'm good enough. It's a confidence that comes from doing this for so long. You don't know that when you start."
Lee arrived in Winnipeg with a solid resumé, having served as resident and assistant conductor with orchestras in Quebec City and Thunder Bay.
He has other opportunities in the wings as well, after receiving a positive response from his audition and interview with the Kingston Symphony. Its current conductor, Glen Fast, is planning on retiring and Lee guest-conducted in Kingston last month.
"I have an agent now," Lee says of the many doors opening for him. "It's important for a conductor. I am trying to make sure I do more auditions. I'm confident that I will continue to have regular work with orchestras of a good standard... as my resumé becomes more padded; people are giving me a second look. I want to guest-conduct more."
WSO music director Alexander Mickelthwate stands behind Lee's efforts.
"He is a very generous guy, especially about my career," Lee says of Mickelthwate. "I really appreciate how he gave me his time and was supportive and flexible. He gave me time to do auditions."
"I really enjoyed Winnipeg and will miss it. The city, the people and such a great orchestra -- it's amazing. Their strengths are evident -- they run like a well-oiled machine. They follow and are willing to go with you."
The orchestra has appreciated Lee's conducting skills and his versatility.
"Richard Lee endeared himself to the orchestra through his skills as a conductor, his professional respect for his colleagues and his genuine manner," writes WSO principal harpist Richard Turner by email. "He brings a real sincerity to music-making combined with a high degree of consistency. His knowledge and ease with the different types of music he conducted is exemplary. He made a very positive contribution to WSO performances."
WSO double bass player Paul Nagelberg agrees: "Richard had the tough task of putting together difficult programs with very little rehearsal time. He did a wonderful job, rehearsing efficiently and always keeping his cool. Richard will be missed by many here."
Asked about special memories and moments he will take from his time in Winnipeg, Lee has quite the list, including the Concerts for Kids and outreach programs. "The school concerts were very ambitious but so important. You really see how excited the kids are to participate."
"There's a lot of music we played that I will cherish," he elaborates. He also recalls the only time he got to wear tails -- when replacing a scheduled guest conductor on short notice in a performance by Augustin Hadelich of Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto.
Lee values the social time spent with colleagues almost as much as the professional interaction. "Those bus rides to Brandon and back," he laughs, referring to the four Sunday treks to the Wheat City for the annual matinee series. "They were lots of fun -- there are a lot of nice people in the WSO and its administration. I made many friends."
And he's especially proud of the progress and growth of UMSO. "The orchestra has really improved," he says. "They are at the level now where they are supposed to be. I hope I have instilled in them what it takes to be good orchestral musicians."
Audience members will remember Lee for his affable, almost self-effacing onstage personality and his strong and confident direction.
Lee conducts his final Pops Series concerts the weekend of April 26-28 (Cirque Musica) and his last Concert for Kids on June 23.