Wayland’s Way by Mark Stryker South Bend Tribune March 17, 1991
When Newton Wayland was a young pianist growing up in Santa Barbara, Calif., during the 1950′s, he loved to put on concerts with his own dance band.
No big deal, right? Lots of teenagers play in dance bands. Except Wayland would program his concerts with a theme, such as all jazz, or all show music.
In the early ’60′s , as a student at the New England Conservatory in Boston, Wayland continued to produce his own concerts. One of the first featured a little
jazz, flamenco guitar, and some folk music from an as-yet-unknown singer named Joan Baez.
Today, at age 50, as one of the premier orchestral pops conductors in the business, Wayland simply does what he’s always done. Oh, the settings are more
formal, the music’s more complicated, and the audiences are older, but, essentially, he’s still indulging his eclectic tastes.
And he’s still putting on a show. “I catch myself, periodically, realizing that I’m just doing what I used to do in high school, ” Wayland said during a recent
telephone conversation from his home near Santa Barbara. “It’s the same idea: I’m enjoying the music and entertaining, and yet at the same time, reaching out
to a general audience.”
Wayland, who has been the principal pops conductor with the South Bend Symphony Orchestra for 11 years, will close out his tenure with the orchestra at
7:30 p.m. EST today at Century Center.
In November of last year, Wayland announced that he wouldn’t return for his 12th season because symphony management was cutting back his rehearsal
time in an effort to save money. Wayland said at the time that he resigned because he couldn’t maintain his high standards with only two rehearsals per concert.
Those high standards- along with the rare ability to conduct classical literature, jazz, Broadway, and pop-influenced scores with equal authority- are among
the primary reasons Wayland has become one of the most popular pops conductors in America.
He currently is principal pops conductor with the Houston Symphony, as well as a regular guest conductor with more than 20 other orchestras in the United
States and Canada. He’s recorded a handful of albums, several of which feature not only his own arrangements, but also those he’s commissioned from the
South Bend Pops’ own Larry Dwyer and Jerry Lackey.
As just one measure of his stature, Wayland was named in a 1986 Symphony Magazine series on pops orchestras as one of the most pre-eminent conductors
in the field. The others included John Williams of the Boston Pops, Erich Kunzel of the Cincinnati Symphony, Mitch Miller, and Skitch Henderson.
“I was just blown away by his integrity – toward the music and the musicians, ” said South Bend Symphony flutist Anne-Marie Dawson, recalling the first time
she worked with Wayland in 1981.
“He’s an incredible fountain of knowledge. I’m not sure very many people outside the orchestra, or even in the orchestra, are aware of the depth and breadth
of his knowledge, ” she said.
Dawson pointed to the previous pops concert in February in which Wayland conducted the Schumann “Piano Concerto in A minor” before intermission and a
medley of Duke Ellington pieces after the break. With most conductors, she said, one of those styles would have felt foreign.
But Wayland speaks both the classical and jazz languages like a native, primarily because he IS a native” He’s a longhair who swings.
As a child, Wayland divided his time between playing chamber music and playing jazz with a dance band. He was enamored with the West Coast ” cool ” jazz
of Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker, as well as Stan Kenton, whose big-band music Wayland would eventually recast for pops orchestra.
“Simultaneously,” said Wayland, “I was discovering (Stravinsky’s) ‘Petrushka’ and ‘The Rite of Spring’ and humming the Bach ‘Mass in B minor.’ ”
Later, in Boston, friends introduced Wayland to the aggressive sounds of East Coast jazz: Charles Mingus, Horace Silver, Count Basie and Charlie Parker.
Wayland still recounts with awe the time he went to see the Basie band at a club and the legendary pianist Thelonious Monk walked in, took a seat on the piano
bench next to Basie, and sat in silence fore 15 minutes before leaving.
Today, such varied influences betray themselves not only in Wayland’s flexibility, but also in his innovative programming. He eschews the light classics and stock
show-tune arrangements that are the meat and potatoes of most pops programs, and substitutes instead challenging original arrangements that range from Basie to
the Beatles to the bossa nova to Bernstein.
“I’ve played in a lot of pops orchestras , and most of them are so dull,” said Zeal Fisher, long-time violist with the South Bend Pops, ” But Newton is so exciting to
Unlike most pops conductors, Fisher continued, Wayland is extraordinarily meticulous in rehearsal. He won’t stand for the lax attitude that pervades other pops
orchestras. ” Newton’s approach to jazz and pops is just as serious as any classical conductor’s approach to Mahler or Mozart, ” said Fisher.
Those high expectations, said Dawson, have continually raised the quality level of the orchestra.
As serious as Wayland is about the pops, Fisher said, he never preaches from the podium. He’s never without a joke, and his charisma ensures that both
audiences and musicians enjoy the concerts- no easy feat in the pops. ‘
Curiously, for someone so respected as a pops conductor, Wayland entered the field through the back door in the mid-’70′s – about 15 years after backing into a career
in music in the first place.
Both of Wayland’s parents were pediatricians, and they discouraged their son from going into music because it offered so little security. Wayland entered Harvard in
1958, but dropped out after just a year and worked at a Pepsi-Cola bottling plant. He said he just never felt at home at Harvard.
“It was stay up all night, write novels, drink wine, listen to music, go on the road,” explained Wayland. ” It was post-beat, but we emulated Kerouac’s getting into old
beat-up cars and driving down the road” He and a buddy once drove from Boston to Santa Barbara in an Austin-Healey in 47 hours, stopping only for gas and to rotate
Something of the hipster is still very much a part of Wayland: Musicians say nothing seems to ruffle him. When he tells stories, he often adapts different voices and
mannerisms for his characters, a la Lenny Bruce. He hangs out with orchestra members after the concert. His informal speech is punctuated by colorful phrases culled
from the jazz lexicon. An enthusiastic endorsement of a piece by Rachmaninoff he’s been studying, for example, began with the exclamation, DIg it!”.
A year after leaving Harvard Wayland decided it was time to get on with his life. His Harvard experience told him that he didn’t want to be an academic, a lawyer or
a scientist. ” By default, music won,” he said – though after entering the New England Conservatory, he said , he became obsessed with music.
While in school, Wayland began a successful career as a free-lance pianist, arranger and composer. As one of Boston’s young musical lions in the ’60′s , he played
chamber music, coached opera, hosted a TV program, was music director at a playhouse in downtown Boston and began a long tenure as first-call keyboardist for the
Boston Symphony Orchestra. later, in the early ’70′s he spent a year with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops.
In 1967, Wayland began an especially critical 10-year association as the conductor for a children’s concert organization called ” Adventures in Music”.
“I can’t overstress its value in my development, ” he said. ” It allowed me to experiment with new ways of reaching untrained audiences. It allowed me to work with
professional musicians. It taught me how to rehearse in a very short period of time. And it taught me how to wear many different hats on stage: arranger, singer, pianist,
narrator, conductor, actor.”
By the mid-’70′s, though successful enough to have bought a home, Wayland was beginning to tire of the freelance grind. An offer came out of the blue to guest-
conduct a concert with the Boston Pops in 1977. Despite o formal training as a conductor, the concert went well enough that Wayland decided to switch careers.
He studied conducting privately for a couple of years while he began building his reputation with guest-conducting appearances, including one in South Bend that led
to his permanent position. His career has skyrocketed since then, and , for the last 11 years, he’s taken the South Bend Symphony Pops on a musically scenic journey.
Wayland is just beginning to chart the next phase of his career. He’s thinking about new creative challenges, including ways to reach a younger generation of
listeners, and maybe performing, more than he has since leaving Boston.
For now, he’s as busy as ever, whether conducting in Houston, Toronto or anywhere else along the way He still spends six months a year on the road,doing what he loves
to do, and what he’ll continue to do: Put on a show.