January 28, 2009
Conductor brings liveliness to community orchestra
CORTLAND — Conductor Ubaldo Dante Valli impersonated Marlon Brando and attempted to speak in a Russian accent Monday during the season’s first practice of the Cortland College-Community Orchestra.
The 40-member orchestra is comprised of SUNY Cortland students and community members that range from high school students to retirees.
“It’s a pretty diverse group,” Valli said. “I love it because someone always understands any reference I make in a joke.”
Valli’s music career first began when nuns at his Roman Catholic school in the Elmira area recruited him to participate in a local orchestra’s summer music program.
“But after (the program), nothing happened for a while,” Valli said, noting his school did not offer any music programs, and as part of a family with six children, there was not a lot of extra money to pay for music lessons.
When the Elmira-area musician and teacher Rob Goodling heard about Valli’s situation, he began giving Valli discounted violin lessons and even gave him a ride home after the lessons.
“It was incredibly generous,” Valli said. “Without (Goodling’s) influence, I probably would have become a mathematician instead. That’s what everyone expected me to be at the time.”
After graduating from Ithaca College in 1979 with a bachelor of arts degree in music, Valli began his career as a freelance musician and currently plays the violin with Central New York ensembles, such as the Cayuga Chamber Orchestra and the Albany Symphony.
During concerts with the Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, Valli has performed for dignitaries such as singer Placido Domingo and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
In 1991, Valli also conducted a small string ensemble that performed for an interfaith service that was attended by Tibet’s Dalai Lama during one of his visits to Ithaca.
“But those aren’t really the most memorable moments,” Valli said, adding that he gets the most satisfaction when songs come together on stage after weeks of practice.
“It’s transcending,” Valli added. “And you never know when those moments are going to happen.”
Valli lives in Ithaca and travels as far as Cooperstown, Auburn and Saratoga Springs on a daily basis to play violin in various ensembles and conduct groups such as the Empire State Youth Orchestra String Ensemble in Albany and the Hamilton College Orchestra.
Since 2000, Valli has put more than 310,000 miles on his car, and he acknowledged the amount of traveling and sporadic hours are tough on significant others.
“I can’t even have a dog because I’d never be home to take care of it,” he said.
Valli first heard about the Cortland College-Community Orchestra through Lois Pfister, an adjunct professor at SUNY Cortland who plays violin in the Cortland College-Community Orchestra.
Pfister and Valli both play violin in the Binghamton Philharmonic Orchestra, and Pfister recommended Valli to conduct Cortland’s orchestra when conductor Ralph Dudgeon took a leave of absence in 2001.
When Dudgeon resigned from the position to pursue more classroom teaching at SUNY Cortland, Valli applied to become the group’s conductor and directed his first concert with the group in the spring of 2007.
Unlike other groups, Valli said the Cortland College-Community Orchestra gets new members with each concert because the college students are graduating every semester.
The community orchestra performs two concerts each year in November and April and practices each Monday evening from September to November and January to April at the Dowd Fine Arts Center at SUNY Cortland.
“Some community groups tend to get lopsided over time, with more community members or more students,” Valli said. “But this group tends to stay at a pretty even ratio of students and community.”
The group’s next concert on April 28 will have the theme “compose local, perform global” and will feature contemporary pieces written by local composers, including Malcolm Lewis whose wife, Carol, plays the French horn in the ensemble.
In each concert, Valli said he strives to feature a song written by an American composer.
“I don’t always succeed,” Valli said. “But I think it’s important to remember our heritage. If Americans don’t do anything to preserve it, no one else is going to do it either.”
Garrett Beaty, a senior studying sociology, said he had a full schedule this semester but dropped a class, so he could continue playing the string bass with the Cortland College-Community Orchestra.
“The music selection is very random, but somehow, it all comes together,” Beaty said, noting Valli also brings a lot of enthusiasm to the practices.
“And I like his hair,” Beaty added, referring to Valli’s dark ponytail.
Cortland resident Lynne Curtis said she finds the orchestra practices “refreshing” after spending her days teaching music classes at a Syracuse middle school.
“(Valli) sets goals for every rehearsal and maintains a high level of professionalism,” Curtis said. “He also relates to people very well and is encouraging.”
Pfister said she enjoys the community’s involvement in the ensemble.
“Professional orchestras are there because they have to be,” Pfister said. “Everybody in this orchestra is here because they want to be.”
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