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Monday, January 13, 2014 - A Life in Music: Daniel Walshaw

by Gillian Ellis

At the recent funeral of Nelson Mandela, the music was provided by South Africa’s premier symphony orchestra, the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic. The hymns and traditional South African music were heard around the world as people everywhere paused to pay tribute to the passing of a great man. As we watched online or on television, most members of our Music, Theatre and Dance community were unaware that an OU alumnus was involved in that historic event. 

Daniel Walshaw (B.M. ‘06) is the artistic administrator of the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic, which is based in Durban. He lives just north of the city with his wife Joanna Frankel, who is the concertmaster of the orchestra. Daniel said, “We have a beautiful beachfront apartment in the quiet town of Umdloti Beach.”

Daniel’s work with the orchestra includes planning repertoire, the selection of soloists and conductors, and some conducting. He is also the new music coordinator (running the South African New Music Initiative) and head of the library.

He said playing a role in the Mandela funeral was an honor but also quite a logistical task. It took place in in the town of Qunu in an area of South Africa called the Transkei, which he says we might compare to the U.P. “Imagine one road in and suddenly 100,000 people need to get there – with security clearance.”

South Africa is a long way from Okemos, Michigan, which is where Daniel grew up. Both his parents taught at Michigan State’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Daniel attended Okemos public schools. His early musical experience was in playing guitar, first for rock and later for jazz and classical. He played in the high school jazz band, and both the Okemos band and orchestra teachers encouraged his interest in conducting and composition. He also began to take piano lessons.

He came to OU wanting to study composition and music theory, which he did mostly with Associate Professor Lettie Alston. His main instrument was classical guitar but wanting to understand how the instruments of the orchestra worked, he also studied violin with Elizabeth Rowin and cello with Nadine Deleury.

Daniel’s passion was conducting and he says the first person at OU to take an interest in this aspect of his studies was Associate Professor Mike Mitchell, director of choral activities, who gave him private lessons. Professor Mitchell said, “Daniel is one of the best musicians we have ever graduated,” so little wonder that at the end of his year with this promising student Mike suggested he continue with Associate Professor Greg Cunningham, who was at that time conductor of the Pontiac Oakland Symphony. For two years Daniel and Greg worked through every score for every concert the orchestra gave. In his senior year, Daniel was appointed assistant conductor and conducted a Beethoven overture at one of the concerts.

Daniel was hungry for experience. He said, “I played in every ensemble I could,” but he also lists other more extraordinary experiences that Oakland provided. He received an Undergraduate Student Research Scholar Award from the College of Arts and Sciences to conduct students and other local musicians in a performance of chamber music by Stravinsky. He won a Stanley Hollingsworth Scholarship to study at a conducting workshop in the Czech Republic town of Zlin.

And Daniel recalls that a much less formal opportunity was equally, if not more important. “Nadine [Deleury] would sneak me into rehearsals at the Michigan Opera Theatre in Detroit so I could watch the conductor. That was life changing for me.”

He also names Associate Professor Mark Stone, director of the OU percussion program, as a great influence. “Mark is a world class musician himself. He taught me everything you need to know about rhythm, but also, he has a refreshing attitude about what it means to be a musician. He is open to anything.”

In 2006, Daniel graduated summa cum laude, as the recipient of the College of Arts and Sciences Meritorious Achievement Award. His résumé also listed two MaTilDa Awards from Music, Theatre and Dance: Outstanding Student in Composition and the Distinguished Musicianship Award.

He moved to the University of Maryland for a M.M. in conducting, but continued to perform. Daniel said that his passion to combine composition and performance really developed through his studies with Kenneth Slowik, who taught musicology in his graduate program and was also the curator of musical instruments at the Smithsonian.

With his masters degree in hand (magna cum laude), Daniel began freelancing in 2009, including doing some work in Michigan. It was while conducting the Rochester Symphony that he met his wife, who was the soloist for the piece they were playing. But soon an opportunity for regular work came along and it was too good to miss. In 2010, Daniel became the curator of the Danny Kaye and Sylvia Fine Collection at the Library of Congress. He created an exhibition that was displayed at the Library in Washington, D.C. and can still be seen in Los Angeles at Walt Disney Concert Hall. He also curated the online exhibition of more than 1,500 items. That exhibit can be seen here.

While he was in D.C., Daniel loved his time as the music director of the National Institutes of Health Community Orchestra, finding it “truly inspirational.” The members of this orchestra are all professionals working with the government. Daniel says the musicians have day jobs ranging from “astrophysicists to NASA scientists, cancer researchers and lawyers.” He joined as a violinist but quickly took over as the conductor. The orchestra was giving four concerts a year but “teetering” when Daniel took over. It grew to have 70 members and was “booming” by the time he reluctantly handed over the baton. You can hear more about the orchestra in this NPR story.

Washington, the Library of Congress and his orchestra were hard to leave behind, but opportunity and adventure were beckoning for both Daniel and Joanna. They moved to their beachside apartment in October, just in time to avoid the Northern hemisphere winter! Daniel said, “We love every minute of our lives.”

Daniel’s career since leaving OU has been both successful and somewhat unorthodox. His advice to young musicians is, “Say yes to everything. Always go at anything with an open mind; you never know what you’re going to get out of it.”

Read more about KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic here.

Upper: Daniel Walshaw
Lower: Daniel conducts a rehearsal of the National Institutes of Health Community Orchestra