Looking at a map, it's not hard to figure out how Corner, Alabama, got its name. The tiny unincorporated area is located smack at the intersection of Jefferson, Walker, and Blount Counties, about 30 miles northwest of Birmingham. We're talking football country, farm country. Not the kind of place that would produce a leading classical conductor. And yet, it did: Bard College professor James Bagwell, who was born and raised there.
"I actually grew up on a farm," says Bagwell. "My father was a farmer, and so was his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. There weren't any serious musicians in my family, although my maternal grandfather could play [1940s hit] 'Pistol Packin' Mama' on the black keys of the pump organ, and my sister did play piano. She also had the Mary Poppins soundtrack, which was the first music I heard that really grabbed me. Years later, I met the Sherman Brothers [Robert and Richard Sherman, the composers of Mary Poppins and other Disney musicals], and it hit me how I knew every note of every song on that album. It was just so ingrained."
TV also played a role in pulling the potential plowboy to the piano and, subsequently, the podium. "I saw a documentary on Arthur Rubinstein, and what he was doing looked so great, so glamorous," remembers Bagwell, who came to the keyboard later than many in his chosen field. "I loved singing and I'd been listening to a lot of classical music, but I didn't actually start lessons until I was 12 or 13. In high school, I played trombone in the school band. I started singing in school as well, and after I'd been playing the piano for a bit, I learned how to do that sort of Billy Joel/Elton John singer-pianist style. Most of my friends were into stuff like Van Halen when I was more into punk—the Clash, the Pogues, Talking Heads. But I was listening to everything. It was always music with me, all the time."
Bagwell pursued a bachelor's degree in music education at Birmingham-Southern University and in 1985 appeared to be on his way as a rising instrumentalist when he won the prestigious Alys Stephenson Piano Competition. But something didn't feel quite right. A Christmas choral concert at the campus was revelatory, and thereafter he found himself increasingly drawn away from the piano and into the realm of choral music. "The classical scene in Birmingham at that time was very much dominated by vocal music, and the idea of being hunkered down at the piano for hours and hours alone, practicing, wasn't really all that attractive," he says. "Plus, I'd grown up singing, so to me that just seemed like the most direct, natural way of expressing oneself musically."
A sojourn to Princeton University during a workshop overseen by legendary choral conductor Robert Shaw led to Bagwell's joining the Robert Shaw Festival Singers for a 1988 residency in France and his decision to pursue master's degrees in choral conducting and musicology at Florida State University. "I got to drive Shaw between engagements once, and he told me all these amazing stories about working with people like Szell, Ives, Toscanini...," Bagwell recalls. "Not to be crude, but I was like a pig in shit." At FSU he led the women's glee club in performance and founded and directed the school's United States Music Ensemble. Next, he went slightly north, to Asheville, North Carolina, where from 1991 to 1993 he served as the assistant conductor of the Asheville Symphony Chorus and the director of music at the college-preparatory Asheville School. From there it was off to the Midwest: While earning his doctorate of music in choral conducting from Indiana University, he founded and conducted the Indianapolis Chamber Singers and became the conductor and music director of the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir and the youth chorus director of the May Festival Youth Chorus in Cincinnati (he still holds the latter position, commuting to the Ohio city almost weekly for rehearsals). He made his formal concert debut as a conductor in 1998, leading the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir through a rendition of Mozart's Great Mass in C minor.
In 1998, Bagwell and his wife, singer Teresa Buchholz, were visiting New York and noticed a newspaper article about the world-renowned music program at Bard College. "I said to her, 'Gee, that sounds like a great place to have a job!'" he recollects. "And then we both looked at each other, said, 'Ha, ha, ha!' and just sort of shrugged it off." But what had then seemed like an unattainable dream would soon become reality. At the start of the new millennium, Bagwell, who had minored in music literature, history, and 20th-century cultural studies at Florida State, learned of an opening at Bard. "It was really serendipitous, because I'd just left the job in Indianapolis and I wasn't sure where I was going to go," he says. "I didn't know a soul at Bard, but we just sort of found each other." In 2000 he became a professor at the Annandale-on-Hudson college, where he also chairs the undergraduate music program and co-directs its graduate program in conducting.
Since he signed on at Bard, several other plum positions have also come Bagwell's way. Concurrently, he's the associate conductor and academic director of Bard's graduate-level The Orchestra Now, the principal guest conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra, and, since 2009, music director of the Robert Shaw-founded Collegiate Chorale, which he has led in concerts at Carnegie and Alice Tully Halls. In addition to directing New York's esteemed Dessoff Choirs from 2005 to 2010, Bagwell, a specialist in training choruses, has worked in that capacity with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, the St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, and others. Throughout his baton-waving work, the Hudson resident mirrors the eclectic nature of his own tastes, fleetly navigating the music of not only standard repertoire composers such as Bach, Mozart, and Brahms, but also that of modernists like Ives and Glass.
Bagwell's diversity has won the high-profile admiration of pop singer Natalie Merchant, one of his neighbors and frequent collaborators. "James and I have been working together since 2008," says the ex-10,000 Maniacs vocalist. "We first met when my daughter was a student at the Bard Conservatory and I was asked to do a fundraising event for their scholarship program. He has been my go-to musical director for orchestral shows ever since. We are about the same age and grew up listening to much of the same music. James and I spent an entire six-hour flight to San Francisco listening to the music collection on his computer. I have never heard such an eclectic playlist. He would play some obscure 15th-century Gregorian chant followed by Radiohead, and he seemed equally passionate about both."
This month, Bagwell will lead The Orchestra Now in two concert performances of Leonard Bernstein's Candide, which is based on the comedic classic by Voltaire. "Candide is satire at its most serious, with dazzling music and great depth," offers Bagwell about the operetta, whose lyrics are among contributor Stephen Sondheim's earliest efforts. "It's unique, in that it's a very American hybrid of musical theater and opera. It's also a soprano showcase—songs like [coloratura aria] 'Glitter and Be Gay' aren't easily done." The concerts will take place at Bard's Fisher Center, which the conductor calls, in an allusion to the college's prioritizing of the arts over athletics, "our football stadium."
So, was there one divine moment that made Bagwell want to become a conductor? "In my freshman year at Birmingham-Southern, I was singing in a performance of Bach's St. John Passion and I had what I guess you'd call an out-of-body experience, where you just get that tingling feeling in your solar plexus," says the maestro. "Afterward, I just thought to myself, 'I really want to show other people how to do this.'" And with all the music he's explored over his decades in the field, does he have a favorite composer? "Yes," he says. "Whosever music I'm working on now."
James Bagwell will conduct The Orchestra Now featuring soloists from Bard College's Graduate Arts Program, in performances of Leonard Bernstein's Candide at the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts in Annandale-on-Hudson on February 25 at 8pm and February 26 at 2pm. Fishercenter.bard.edu.