UM’s Zeniodi ending four years with student orchestra

Arts / Article

April 25 marks the last appearance of the Greek pianist and conductor Zoe Zeniodi as the associate conductor of the Frost Symphony Orchestra at the University of Miami.

She’ll be leading the orchestra in the Symphony No. 3 (in E-flat, Op. 97, Rhenish) of Robert Schumann, which she decribes as “a beautiful work,” particularly the finale. “And, really, the fourth movement is a masterpiece. Schumann’s closest to Bach,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Also on the program will be the Symphony No. 4 of Gustav Mahler, conducted by Thomas Sleeper, who heads UM’s orchestral activities. Soprano Susan Williams will be the soloist in the Mahler finale, a setting of Das himmlische Leben, from the Des Knaben Wunderhorn collection of German folk poetry.

Zeniodi, who earned a doctorate in conducting from UM, also is being awarded the school’s first-ever diploma in conducting next month. As this video demonstrates, she’s a conductor with a clear, precise beat who refrains from most of the demonstrative podium manner a piece such as Musorgsky’s The Great Gate of Kiev generates in some chefs d’orchestre.

Next week, she’ll lead the Broward Symphony, a volunteer group that plays at Bailey Hall in Davie, in a concert with the Broward Choral Society in music by Elgar, Mozart and Fauré, among others. In addition to her local work, she’s done master classes with the young British conductor Daniel Harding, who invited Zeniodi to rehearsals of the Dresden Staatskapelle, London Symphony and the Swedish Radio Symphony. In June, she’ll appear as a pianist in the Casa dei Mezzo Music Festival on the Greek island of Crete.

Zeniodi, in an e-mail interview, had high praise for her Frost troops.

“The Frost Symphony orchestra has been — and is — a phenomenal student orchestra,” she wrote. “I can hardly think of student orchestras that work so well, are so organized and perform [such] demanding and difficult pieces (musically and technically).”

She also has very kind things to say about Sleeper, whose Alto Sax Concerto and song cycle Through a Glass Darkly were premiered in late February under Zeniodi’s direction. She also led the Frost in Sleeper’s song cycle Xenia, on an Albany Records disc that came out last year.

“My mentor, Thomas Sleeper, is the greatest man and teacher I have ever come across. I am convinced there is no other man in this world that can offer so much to his students or could possibly ‘dedicate’ so much knowledge and time,” she wrote. “I have worked with him intensely, both as a mentor and as a composer over the last four years, and I really have no words to describe what I have learned.

“If anyone ever wants to study music — and I am not talking about conducting here but about music – then there is one man, and his name is Thomas Sleeper,” she wrote.

Zeniodi was born in Athens and studied there at the Piraikos Union Conservatory, then at the Royal College of Music in London, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in piano performance. She followed that with a vocal accompaniment diploma from the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria.

But she always retains a great affection for her home nation.

“I feel happy and proud that I am Greek and that I grew up there,” Zeniodi said, adding that over the past five years she’s gone home twice a year. “Before that, during my time in England and Austria, I visited my country almost once a month.

“It is vital for me to be with ‘my’ people, next [to] and inside ‘my sea,’ watch ‘my sky’ and smell ‘my lemon trees,’” she wrote. “Greece is a blessed country, and I deeply miss it. As people say when they visit Greece, there is no sun like the Greek sun, and no other moon, either.”

In addition to her Crete appearance in June, she’ll be touring overseas during the summer and fall for “various professional engagements,” she wrote. She plans to remain as director of the Broward Symphony, but after that, says her destiny will be decided by what direction her music takes, and that means conducting and piano playing.

“These are two mediums that I cannot separate from and I cannot think of separately. Both are music to me and both are my personal ways to look inwards and outwards,” she wrote. “A wonderful goal would be to be able to work with great orchestras and collaborate with artists that feel music in the same way I do.”

For Zeniodi, music and art are not only intimately allied with her background, they also are part of the larger human story.

“One always gets inspired by what is familiar and lived, and we all become creative through various states of return: nostalgia, missing, loving and wishing for home,” Zeniodi wrote. “I can’t really know how things would be if I were not Greek, or if I had not grown up there.

“I just know that we are who we are because of history and education. There are lines we carry through centuries — the same lines we work hard on, we ‘train’ and improve, in order to create humanity and pass on history to future generations.”

The Frost Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Zoe Zeniodi and Thomas Sleeper, performs at 8 tonight at Gusman Hall on the UM campus in Coral Gables. Admission is free. For more information, call 305-284-5813.