Conductor & Music Director, Birmingham-Bloomfield Symphony Orchestra
Photographed by Brandon Schwartz
Meet John Thomas Dodson. A native of Dayton, Ohio, he lives in Ann Arbor with his girlfriend, bilingual music educator Yolanda Borrás, but has made a name for himself in Oakland County over the past several years as the music director for the Birmingham-Bloomfield Symphony Orchestra.
“I was invited here to guest conduct in 2010,” he says. “We made several concerts together over the next few years, and I began as the orchestra’s music director during the 2013-14 season. It’s been a great experience.”
Music has been at the center of Dodson’s life. He completed his undergrad education at Tennessee Tech University and achieved a bachelor’s degree of music education, specializing in composition and studying with American composer Robert Jager. He also earned a master’s in music orchestral conducting from the Peabody Conservatory, which is affiliated with John Hopkins University in Baltimore. He was also a conducting fellow at the Aspen Music School in Colorado.
“I’ve been so lucky,” he says. “I’ve had opportunities to collaborate with living composers and with so many wonderful artists. A recent one that stands out is with the legendary pianist Philippe Entremont. I first heard one of his albums when I was in high school. Decades later, there we were working together on a Beethoven Concerto. He was 80 years old and playing like a giant! It was just unbelievable.”
Industry changes: This job is more complex and demanding now than it has been historically. Traditionally, orchestras made concerts and expected people to come. Now, there is so much more to it than that. You have to engage your audience and constantly prove your relevance. We take on the role of educators with our audiences and with students.
Professionally speaking: My family always made music, but I came to understand my path in life when I was in high school. Since then, everything has been dedicated to this art. I’ve sought teachers and experiences to broaden me and deepen me. The next thing I knew, I’ve made a whole life out of this.
Proud career accomplishment: I’ve had the privilege to conduct in Russia on seven occasions. Those concerts were in the years just after the Soviet Era had ended. The highlight for me was a chance to conduct Shostakovich’s 9th Symphony in Siberia for an audience made up of the children and grandchildren of dissidents who had been exiled to that region during Stalin’s time. They were so silent during the concert, and they understood the music so deeply — it was a spiritual experience for all of us. After the performance, I was presented with an original first edition of the score; it’s a memory I truly treasure.
Career thoughts: The 21st-century orchestra model is a challenge that consumes me. We venerate tradition in this field — and rightly so — but there is a place for more community engagement platforms than we ever could have imagined. The orchestra will only survive if we can manage these waters well. We have to experiment with venues, formats and new technologies to help the orchestra remain vibrant and viable — and we always have to keep the music at the forefront of the experience.
Passion for: Everything. My job is a combination of art, people, history and what it all means. Everything connects to everything else. My passion is to let all of that serve music and to try to do it in a field of kindness.
Working in Oakland County: It’s a place with resources and values and that makes it a marvelous and exciting place to work. It has a real sense of place and the schools and the children are reflective of that. I see a lot of young people around — on the streets, in the stores — and they keep the area feeling new to me each time I’m here.
Favorite place to hang out: I love Birmingham. There are a lot of great places there to grab coffee or a meal. But the surrounding areas are just as vibrant. This job has given me a chance to discover new places: parks, shops and restaurants and communities that are new to me.
My perfect day: A perfect day means I’m on the path. It starts with meditation and then the rest of the day is a mix between the responsibilities of art, administration, relating to the community and nurturing myself. My job is seen as a very public one because of the nature of concerts, but that’s just 1 percent of it. The rest is rather private: studying and enriching my inner world. It’s about making right choices. If I feel I have a settled mind at night, then it means my day was a good
— Interviewed by Matthew Totsky