Bohuslav Rattay

Two years and nine guest conductors later, El Paso Symphony Orchestra has a new music director.

Last Sunday, the well-kept secret was announced: Czech native Bohuslav “Bo” Rattay will carry the baton as the seventh conductor in the orchestra’s 82-year history.

More than 150 symphony fans gathered at a Plaza Theatre reception Tuesday to welcome him to El Paso. Some talked about his potential to energize our arts community and draw people Downtown for exciting concerts. Others spoke of his people skills and hoped-for ability to broaden the orchestra’s audience.

Many buzzed about the fact that he wants to move to El Paso, a nice bonus these days when most conductors work for more than one orchestra and don’t relocate.

Some of the biggest smiles at the reception were worn by Ruth Ellen Jacobson, the symphony’s executive director, and search committee members. They reviewed hundreds of applications, narrowed down candidates through weeks of phone interviews, and conducted all varieties of research and due diligence. The committee, chaired by long-time symphony supporter Debbie Hand and composed of five board members and five musicians, studied the all-important musician surveys and sorted through audience questionnaires collected during the “Is he the one?” campaign.

While some out of the loop or absent at Rattay’s rousing turn as guest conductor last October might not have predicted his selection, symphony insiders zeroed in on him right away. The survey results are confidential, but conversations lead one to guess that many orchestra members listed him as their first choice. Board members and patrons were very impressed by him from the start.

Rattay, 40, reflects an interesting combination of characteristics. Half worldly European sophisticate and half all-American bundle of enthusiasm, his personality and aesthetics reflect his perfectly divided life. He’s got a girlfriend but has never married, and is well-traveled. He’s spent 20 years in his native Czech Republic and 20 years in the United States – but this year, he notes with a laugh, “That scale is about to tip!”

In fact, he earned his U.S. citizenship just last year. His English, acquired rapidly in the 1990s as a graduate student and professional musician and singer, is impeccable; his strong and creative vocabulary shows that he is also an avid reader.

In addition to his new job in El Paso, Rattay is music director of the Midland Symphony Orchestra in Midland, Mich., as well as the symphony in Lake Charles, La.

During Rattay’s whirlwind El Paso visit last week – which ended with his conducting during the El Paso Symphony Youth Orchestra’s season finale – I sat down with him at the symphony’s offices. We had a lot of laughs; he’s genuinely fun to talk to and has a great sense of humor.

From that brief talk, I predict that our new music director’s intelligence, energy and charm will captivate our community. And I know that his exceptional background and world-acclaimed conducting expertise will usher in a new era of musical excellence for us all.

Q: Congratulations on becoming El Paso’s new music director. Everyone is curious about you. We want to know everything, from the beginning.

I was born in August 1972 in Prague, which was then in Czechoslovakia. In 1993, what they call the Velvet Revolution divided the country into Czech Republic and Slovakia, so now Prague is in the Czech Republic.

I was born into a musical family. My father played trombone, my grandfather played violin and my uncle is a concert cellist and a member of a famous string quartet. My brother plays trombone, but not professionally. My mother works at a pedagogical school; she teaches teachers.

I kind of didn’t have a choice about music – they put me on a instrument right away and I began playing the piano when I was 4. I was lucky because my piano teacher lived in our apartment building – I just had to walk upstairs. But it was also pretty dangerous because my teacher communicated with my parents on a regular basis! So that was kind of tricky. Then I played flute for a few years and switched to bassoon when I was about 10 and that stuck with me for the rest of my musical studies.

Q: Why bassoon? Isn’t that a challenging instrument?

Maybe at the beginning, some instruments are more challenging than others, but to play them at the pro level, they are all the same. Even the triangle is hard to play professionally!

It was an instrument that was needed. They didn’t have enough bassoons at school, so they said why don’t you try this? Then I did the Conservatory in Prague for about six years. You have to decide what to study when you’re about 16 – you specialize sooner in Eastern Europe.

After Conservatory, I played with different orchestras. As a college graduate, you just play with whoever calls. We call it “whoever shows up, plays.” So many orchestras in Prague.

Q: Why is Prague such a musical city?

It’s the history. In the 17th and 18th centuries, it started with the church that was capable of hiring composers and orchestras, and then it shifted onto the counts and kings who supported the music. Also it’s centralized – Prague is smack in the middle of Europe. Vienna, Berlin and Prague were the three huge cities where everything concentrated – they were really cultural centers at the time, plus Strasbourg and Paris.

Q: It’s a long road from the forests of Czechoslovakia to the deserts of West Texas. How did you get here?

After I graduated, I decided to go abroad and the United States was it. The way to do it was to become a student. I came here in 1993 and first spent a year in Lake Charles, La., as their principal bassoonist. Now it’s come full circle and I’m conducting the symphony I used to play for years ago. Even when I moved to Houston to go to school at Rice, I still traveled to Lake Charles to play the concerts.

This area is way different from Czech Republic! But it has its own beauty. I love the mountains, the Latino culture, the architecture. There it is so different – you see old castles and Baroque-style this and Renaissance that. It’s unique here and it’s warm! After seven years in the Midwest, with the snow and long winters, trust me, this is paradise.

Q: What were your thoughts about our orchestra when you spent a week with them last October?

First of all, it felt right away we were on the same page. The chemistry, as people say, was clicking. There was a certain acknowledgment of what I wanted and what they were giving back. That’s a relief when you sense that and I thought, “Oh – this could be an interesting relationship.” The musicians played really, really well. Lovely people here – I didn’t get a chance to get to talk with everybody, but look forward to that.

I have spent some 15 years sitting in the orchestra. Being on the other side, I’ve learned what to do and what not to do as a conductor. I’ve sat in place with so many different conductors and I’ve thought, “What is this schmuck doing up there? Do I have to look at him?” and so forth. As a bassoon player, I picked up so many no-nos that you know that players would dislike.

Q: You are not only a bassoonist, but also a baritone. Have you sung professionally?

I started singing when I was about 6 in a children’s choir. They have several choirs, you start with the lowest one as a small child and then you go up through the levels until you reach the top one, which was a pretty famous children’s choir that traveled quite a bit, to Japan and other places.

We had about 40 singers, 35 girls and 5 boys, so you can imagine what that was like! I stayed until I was about 14, when my voice started to change.

When I was in the United States, I made my living by singing. Some churches hire professional singers, such as one in each section, and I was in the baritone section. Believe it or not, but monthly pay from the church would cover my rent. It’s a great set up; it supports musicians and students and it makes the church choir sound very rich.

Here we look forward to working with local singers in our concerts. There are so many masses and requiems and other interesting pieces that include choirs. Singing is one of the most natural things people do, and it’s beautiful.

Q: What about multi-media? What are some examples of how you’ve incorporated visual elements in previous concerts?

I love to include multi-media. For example, there is a big piece called “The Planets” by Gustav Holst. I conducted it at a youth concert where we bused in thousands of kids. I found an astronomer at Ball State who talked about each planet while pictures of it were shown on a huge screen behind the orchestra. Then we would play an excerpt about that planet. You would hear lots of “ooohs” and “aaahs!”

Q: What was your initial reaction to the news that El Paso wanted to hire you?

I got the call when I was in a grocery store in Indianapolis and it was raining and I had to walk outside because it was so loud in there. Of course, I was thrilled! It was awesome! I went back in the store and bought a bottle of wine to celebrate with a friend.

Q: Do you know why they hired you? What do you think made the difference?

I don’t know – you’d have to ask Ruth Ellen! I think I’m a person who is kind of easy going and I try to listen to people. I guess every conductor that does well has a certain charisma, I suppose, that attracts people through the music. I guess the orchestra and administration saw that and thought I might be a good match for El Paso. I don’t like to talk about myself much, so that’s a hard question.

Q: How will you work with your three orchestras? How many concerts will you conduct at each?

It depends on the size of the organization, which really means how much they can spend on concerts. Lake Charles has four concerts, so I’ll go there four times a year. In Midland, Mich., they will have six concerts. These schedules have already been finalized and we expected we might have conflicts with El Paso’s season since it is so late in the planning, but we have no date conflicts. Since I hope to be living here, it’s whatever they want me to do.

Q: You will be spending quite a bit of time in the air this year. What music do you listen to on your iPod? What do you read?

I don’t listen to music – when you do music for a living, you don’t always want to listen to more music. I listen to podcasts, some from the BBC, about science, politics, history, sometimes books on tape. Right now I’m reading two books, both nonfiction. I’m interested in history – I’m not a big fiction person.

Q: You have worked and gone to school in different parts of the country. You’ve taught conducting at two very different colleges. You’ve been a guest conductor with orchestras overseas and here from Connecticut to Colorado, Hilton Head to Austin. What are your impressions of the U.S.?

It’s so much fun to visit different places. It’s unbelievable how big this country is! In Europe, you drive 30 minutes and you’re in a different town, a large town. Over here 30 minutes gets you to a restaurant. It’s so huge and the South is so different from the North and the Midwest – one would almost think it’s a different country.

Q: Besides hiking, riding your motorcycle, and, of course, music, what other interests do you have?

Love to cook. As a Czech, of course, I love goulash and Czech dumplings, which are very unique, and the Czech beer. I love Italian food and Mexican food; I try to learn as much as I can about it so I can kind of imitate it at home.

I used to sail a lot when I lived in Houston; I had my own boat and belonged to a club. Depending on the length of the trip, I would sail in the gulf or Galveston Bay.

I love to travel. One of my favorite destinations is Italy’s Tuscany region. On my bucket list is Antarctica. I’ve been to Ecuador and the Galapagos Island and next plan to visit a friend in Sao Paolo over Christmas. Maybe I could get to Antarctica then.

Q: You are house hunting now. What are you looking for?

It’s very exciting to be looking. The house needs to be unique and have a lot of character. If you saw my motorcycle, it screams unique. It’s yellow. I have a house now in Indiana, which is currently rented out.

Q: Dog person or cat person?

My girlfriend has a beautiful, beautiful cat named Jack, and Jack will be thrilled to have his name in the newspaper. My brother lives with his wife and two kids about 20 miles outside of Prague on some property my parents own and they have a dog, a Labrador retriever. They are restoring an old barn into living quarters and the dog loves living in the country. I would love to have a dog, but with all my travel, I don’t know.

Q: Will any of your family in Czech Republic be able to come see you conduct in El Paso?

Absolutely! They are already planning on it!


Email arts and culture columnist Cindy Graff Cohen at cindygraffcohen@gmail.com.

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