Energetic and in command is the best way to characterize the tall, shaven-head Jessel Murray, artistic director/conductor of the T&T National Steel Symphony Orchestra (NSSO). Murray and the NSSO were recently featured at the President's annual Carols by Candlelight Concert at the bandstand in the botanical gardens, Port-of-Spain. Those in attendance were treated to the melodious sound of our national instrument that reverberated sweetly in the evening breeze that kept the proceedings cool and enjoyable.
His full-time job, though, is senior lecturer at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, and the head of the Department of Creative Arts. He also directs the UWI Arts Chorale, co-directs the UWI Steel, and teaches advanced singing and piano as well as courses in choral methods, including conducting.
Murray is a well-travelled conductor (USA, Guyana, Suriname, Costa Rica, Japan, China) under whose leadership the NSSO has championed the original works of local composers including that of Jit Samaroo, Ray Holman and Len "Boogsie" Sharpe, as well as calypso arrangements of many of the masters and classical transcriptions.
Among his many awards, the UWI Arts Chorale and Must Come See Productions (MCS) have been awarded 14 Cacique awards over the last five years, including awards for Best Production in 2007 (Oliver! ). Mr Murray himself was awarded a Cacique for Best Music Director in 2006 for Fiddler on the Roof. He is both the chairman and music director of MCS.
Murray has conducted many of the choral masterworks with the UWI Arts Chorale and the UWI Steelband, including Orff's Carmina Burana, Bernstein's Chichester Psalms, the Faur� Requiem, and the J S Bach Magnificat. With the National Sinfonia Orchestra (NSO) he has conducted many of the orchestral masterworks, including the complete Beethoven Symphony No 5 as well as the Schubert Symphony No 5, the Rachmaninov Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Beethoven Piano Concerto No 3 with concert pianist SothyPaul-Duraisamy, as well as the Grieg Piano Concerto with Sean Sutherland.
He has a deep interest in music theatre and has been the music director for over 20 productions in the USA, Japan and Trinidad, including ten productions for Must Come See Productions (MCS), The Sound of Music; Disney's Beauty and the Beast; and Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida. The UWI Arts Chorale and MCS have received 14 Cacique awards over the last five years.
Tell us about your early days growing up.
I grew up in a house in Mt Lambert, where I currently reside. Actually, I was born in that house via midwife delivery.
What schools/institutions did you attend, including primary and post-secondary?
I attended Mt Lambert RC and St Xavier's Private school (where I completed my Common Entrance), then went on to St Mary's College, and finally successfully repeated my A-Levels at Sixth Form Secondary. After that, I returned to St Mary's College to teach for two years in the sciences. Eventually, I studied at Temple University, in Philadelphia, where I attained a Bachelor's in Music Education (piano with voice) and then a Master's in Choral Conducting (with advanced Piano Accompanying). Further to that, I participated in two orchestral conducting workshops in Oregon and Connecticut.
How did you become so involved with the steelpan and what are some of your early fond memories of playing the steelpan?
I became involved with steelpan in two ways: in 1982 Desmond Waithe introduced me to arranging a classical piece with the Trintoc Sun Valley in Point Fortin for a national steel competition. It was my first memory and it is still special to me.
Then I did not have any involvement since I left the country in 1983. However, in 1999 I was teaching at a high school in Massachusetts (Amherst Regional High School) and the then department head of music and I decided to start a steelband there. So, I flew to Trinidad to undertake a ten-day intensive workshop with Major Edouard Wade. I then returned to the US and started that ensemble which is still performing to this day.
How did you become so involved with the NSSO?
I became involved first with the G-Pans in 2007 when I was invited to lead the team of players to debut the G-Pans at the UWI. After that successful experience, I was appointed as the artistic director of the unnamed national group which became the NSSO.
How do you balance things given the many hats you wear?
It is not easy to balance being a head of department, a lecturer (which includes individual teaching), and a performer (which includes the directorship of three ensembles–the NSSO, the UWI Arts Chorale and the UWI Steel.
I may be adding back soon directorship of the National Sinfonia Orchestra and the musical direction of Must Come See Productions. The 'secret' is to rigidly schedule my activities and to be disciplined in the approach to planning and execution of the priorities of each activity. My work at the UWI is primary but the bulk of the teaching is seasonal during the academic year. The administrative work is continuous (and sometimes onerous) but rewarding when one views the outcomes. I have to always make sure that the work of the NSSO is balanced with other matters and so far, I have been successful except for the odd clash. When the clashes come I make the best decision at the time.
Your future plans?
All of my future plans revolve around upgrading the visibility of the ensembles which I direct and those of my current and past students. This is not meant to be serving, however, but to increase the viability of the groups as future professional groups which will provide meaningful and sustainable employment as part of a larger arts industry. I have been successful in establishing myself within the arts industry (with lots of assistance from many persons). It is my mission to assist as many persons as possible to do the same and to join (even influence) larger national conversations about the establishment of a viable arts experience past the recreational.
What do you see for the future of the steelband movement? Any suggestions?
The steelband movement has to move out of its constant preoccupation with Panorama and to embrace the many other issues involving its sustainability. Failure to do so will allow the fast growing sectors outside of Trinidad to overtake us. I could go on in detail about suggestions, however the main suggestion is that the movement has to be open to bold decisions and risk-taking in many areas not limited to diversification of repertoire, literacy, and the critical areas of instrument research, innovation and instrument care.
What inspires you to do what you do, and what motivates you to put forth your greatest efforts?
I am driven to succeed at what I do. Also, I am pressured (in the best way possible) by the faith of those who trust me to lead them in the various ensembles that I direct.
What makes for a really good job of conducting?
There are a number of factors. One has to be a teacher cum psychologist to convince others of one's musical intent; this has to be done without with firmness and humour but no tantrums. Also, one has also has to be a strong musician who researches repertoire and possesses a knack for combining repertoire to unified programmes. Finally, on the podium it helps to have strong technique with a certain shrewd type of showmanship that does not overshadow the efforts of the ensemble.
What's the most unexpected thing that has ever happened to you while conducting?
Hmmm. Perhaps, when my cummerbund slipped off as I stepped on to the podium in Massachusetts! I have always checked it since then. The only other time was when I was conducting a pit orchestra for a musical and the technicians turned off all of the lights but the orchestra managed to keep playing!
Of all your performances/productions which would you like a first-time viewer to experience?
That is a difficult one but certainly, the one that remains in memory is when the National Steel Symphony Orchestra performed in 2013 in Martinique. The NSSO played gloriously and the reaction of the audience is one that we all shall never forget.
What major challenges have you faced as an artistic director/conductor?
With Must Come See Productions the major challenge has always been about finance to keep the institution on sound footing. This financial challenge is also not limited to them but as well the chorale and the steel. With the NSSO, the major challenges have been artistic and administrative. One must constantly be commissioning repertoire for the NSSO since there is not a body of literature on which one can draw. Also, that ensemble is drawing nearer to a permanent mandate but it has taken quite a while.
What is your greatest fear?
The non-completion of my work and passing it on to persons to take it forward.
Who was your hero growing up (fictional or real or both) and why? And who do you admire most today?
I greatly admired my late mother and strangely enough, the admittedly romanticised character of the 'Godfather' Vito Coreleone. Strangely enough, both of them believed in taking care of family and community, success against the odds, and reasoning with persons past the point of patience. I am a huge fan of the former president Bill Clinton who persevered in public despite personal difficulty.
What daily motto/credo do you live by...your recipe for success?
I am a big fan of cricket and so I believe that after a century that the next innings starts at zero.
Describe yourself in two words, one beginning with J, the other with M, the initials of your name.
Judicious and musical.