Professor/ Cellist/ Conductor/ Composer/ Music Entrepreneur
(West Chester, PA)
Ovidiu and I met for the first time at his inviting and cozy house filled with impressive array of original artwork in West Chester, Pennsylvania where he hosted a remarkable and intimate music concert back in summer of 2019. He and his piano trio, named Trio Casals, performed a beautiful program consisting of all new compositions by living composers. The house recital served as a pilot before their concert at Carnegie Hall later that week. The trio’s performance was well received by their audience, a handful of their friends who were classical musicians and aficionados. I still fondly remember the scintillating discussions about music and beyond that followed the performance!
After that, I got to know Ovidiu’s various involvements in music mainly through social media and by attending some of his concerts. I saw that he was the founder and director of International Musicians Academy (http://internationalmusiciansacademy.com) to hold an annual summer intensive program for aspiring classical instrumentalists, conductors and composers in Bulgaria. On another occasion, I watched him charismatically conduct a reading orchestra at Temple University playing Mahler’s Symphony no. 4. It was so easy to notice his great rapport with all orchestra members, and it was clear how much everyone enjoyed collaborating with him and with one another. I even saw him play his own compositions of cello solo pieces in February 2020. There was so much soul in his performance. I conducted the following interview in January 2020 at his studio in West Chester University where he is currently a full professor of music. I spent a few initial minutes studying and admiring his original Degas sketch among other framed art and photographs.
Hazel: Ovidiu, thank you so much for inviting me to your studio. I love all the art you have here. Can you tell me how you got started in music?
Ovidiu: Thanks for visiting me at my office. I guess I should tell you my childhood a little to give you a background on how I got started in music.
I was born and raised in Communist Romania in its capital city Bucharest. I was incredibly shy and sickly as a kid. I didn’t show any signs for special inclination for music early on. Then, one day in my 2nd grade, teachers from a music school came to our elementary school to recruit students. They had everyone sing and after they heard me sing, they rejected me. I was the only one who didn’t get invited to audition.
Hazel: No way! Then, what happened?
Ovidiu: For the first time, I mustered up the courage to speak up to an adult. I somehow felt a sense of injustice and was compelled to fight for my right to audition. I shouted that I wanted the invitation, too, and they let me go at it again at singing. That time, they granted me an invitation for an official audition.
Hazel: Good for you! So, I gather you auditioned successfully and got into the music school?
Ovidiu: Yes, and in the following fall, I started at the music school. My parents wanted me to pursue the piano or the violin, but I was already in 3rd grade and the school assigned me the cello because you’d have to be younger to elect the other two instruments at the school, based on government directives.
Hazel: So just like that, the instrument was chosen for you. Then, what happened?
Ovidiu: I was told I was talented but to be honest I didn’t really like to practice. So, I averaged about 1.25 hours a day of practice even during high school.
Hazel: That’s so little! How did you get to be a professional musician practicing so little?
Ovidiu: I guess I was blessed with the smarts, talent, focus, discipline and great teachers. In 5th grade, I auditioned and got into another school for the arts, the pre-college music school which was regarded as the highest caliber program in the country. There, I got extensive ear and harmony training. I even got private tutoring at home.
Hazel: Were your parents musicians?
Ovidiu: No, but they both appreciated music. My mom wanted to be a soprano when she was young. After high school, they had 2 openings in Bucharest Conservatory for cello and I was one of the lucky two who made it. After the bachelor’s degree, as anyone, I got assigned to a job by the government. In communist Romania, everyone got a mandatory 3-year assignment. The government tried to evenly distribute the workers geographically and ethnically. Many were assigned to small villages. I was assigned to be an orchestra member in Brasov, Romania, which was a 800 year old picturesque town in the mountains. I suspect that the director of the orchestra was most likely a high-level secret agent. He had a diplomatic passport, which only a few in Romania had. He was powerful and could bend rules. He was savvy, smart and incredibly talented. I played for this orchestra for 3 weeks then was deployed for military service for 6 months.
Hazel: Oh no. How was that experience?
Ovidiu: Oh, I couldn’t bare it. I defected multiple times during the 6 months because I missed my girlfriend and questioned and challenged the rules and the status quo of the society.
Hazel: Isn’t defecting a crime? Did you have to serve time?
Ovidiu: Luckily, I had some friends who could pull a few strings for me so I didn’t get into much trouble.
Hazel: What specific rules of society did not agree with you?
Ovidiu: Before becoming an adult, I never rebelled or questioned authority. I was not against communism. I didn’t know any better. At any rate, my home environment was so atrocious that the ways of society didn’t even matter. I was restricted and oppressed illogically by my father who physically and emotionally abused me constantly. I couldn’t defend or speak for myself at home. As a kid I prayed that my father would get killed in a car accident because I didn’t see a way out of my life.
Hazel: I’m so sorry… Did music help you through your desperate situation?
Ovidiu: Yes, absolutely. Music helps everyone.
Hazel: I’m so curious… How was it like growing up in a communist country?
Ovidiu: I have an anecdote to share. I think I was in 2nd or 3rd grade. I was smart but never got first prize in anything. It took me awhile to figure out that the kids who were awarded “first prize” had powerful parents. Romania was so corrupt in its communist regime and kept declining as a society. By the time it was the 80s, there was no more honor and ethics. Communism destroyed those.
In 1989, the communist regime finally fell and shortly after, in 1991, I came to the United States.
Hazel: What made you move?
Ovidiu: I came with a string quartet and to study at University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. I needed to get out of Romania. I felt I never quite fit in and couldn’t be my true self in Romania. In order to be accepted in Romania, I had to act/pretend to be whatever I was expected to be. I could only trust very few people. When I first moved to the States, the idea of being direct and not being afraid to speak my mind was something that took a while for me to get used to.
The quartet, unfortunately, disbanded after 1 year and I was only one who remained and finished my master’s degree. Then, I moved to Philadelphia and completed my doctorate degree at Temple University.
Hazel: How do you like Philadelphia?
Ovidiu: I love it here. I’ve also loved being a professor at West Chester University for now over 15 years.
Hazel: Are you a tenured professor?
Ovidiu: Yes, I’m a full professor.
Hazel: That’s a great achievement. Congratulations! What is the process of being promoted at West Chester University?
Ovidiu: The promotion is dependent on meeting criteria for three components. Teaching is 50% of the consideration. You get reviewed and evaluated by your peers and students. Scholarly research is 30% of the decision making. It constitutes performing at concerts, writing articles, conducting, recording, and generally being active in your field. Lastly, 20% is based on your committee work. This includes providing service and volunteering in community and your involvement with the university level committee. For example, I served on the Undergraduate Research and Global Education committees at West Chester University.
Once you meet the three component’s criteria, your promotion gets discussed by an evaluation committee in the college. Then it goes to the Dean. A university wide 30-member tenure and promotion committee then makes a decision to support your promotion (or not) and communicates the promotion recommendation to the Provost. After the Provost approves then ultimately, the President of the university gives the final stamp on one’s promotion.
Hazel: I loved watching you conduct the reading orchestra at Temple a couple of months ago. How did you get into conducting?
Ovidiu: A cousin of mine is a brilliant conductor and I wanted to do what he did. In 1993, when I was a doctorate student at Temple University, I needed work to make the ends meet. I had taken some conducting lessons back in Romania. A 1000-member Korean church in Horsham, PA called Young Sung was hiring a conductor, so I applied and got the job. After that I became the music director of a community orchestra in New Jersey and my conducting career took off from there.
Hazel: I know you also compose. Did composing come before or after you started to conduct?
Ovidiu: I started to compose fairly recently. I never studied composition formally and it started in 2015. I have an imaginative and creative mind and interested in various forms of art such as painting, writing, etc. But, how many things can one do?
I had been playing a lot of new, contemporary music. For much of this music, I was hired to do so. Recording companies and concert presenters would approach me to perform new music. Frankly, some pieces were great and some utterly uninspiring. I’ve found that many compositions are poorly written. I have spent hundreds of hours trying to make poorly written pieces to sound great and be commercially successful.
In my music high school back in Romania, my teacher told me that my responsibility as a performer is to bring the composer’s dream and inspiration to life. A good performer can turn a bad piece into a powerful one. But in the end, I got tired of making poor composers known and I thought it was time for me to write music that I wanted to play for myself.
Hazel: Can you share with me a few recordings of your composition?
Ovidiu: My first piece called “I’m All Ears” was written in 5 days. Its seed came from listening to flamenco players perform live. The guitarist played fast and cool rhythm and I wanted to bring that out in my music.
Hazel: I’m amazed by your music! Thank you so much for sharing! Any last thoughts?
Ovidiu: Musicians today have to be entrepreneurs. There are no more managers calling to tell you to come to a tour. You have to create opportunities for you and others around you such as colleagues and students.
Ovidiu, thank you so much for sharing so many facets of your music career with me. I truly have enjoyed watching you perform music by you and others. It was fascinating to witness you leading the orchestra and building a great relationship with a community of musicians with so much ease and finesse. I also appreciate your openness in sharing your life story in general. I look forward to watching you at concerts!