Eisenhower Auditorium echoes with the strains of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Opus 68, as the Nittany Valley Symphony rehearses for an upcoming concert.Michael Jinbo is performing some movements of his own.
He stabs the air with his conductor’s baton, punctuating forceful passages. During languid stretches, he sweeps his arms as if they were undersea vines caught in a gentle current.
From his podium, he carries on two conversations at once. A point to his right reminds musicians to enter while an outstretched left palm keeps others at bay. Then comes the invitation, his hand turned up, fingers cupped and waving, as one would direct a truck backing up.
“There is a communication going between him and the musicians that is absolutely fascinating to watch,” says Roberta Strebel, symphony executive director.
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It’s a dialogue two decades in the making. Jinbo, 53, stands almost halfway through his 20th season as conductor of the symphony. In all that time, he has never lived in State College, instead commuting from Chicago, North Carolina, New York and now Maine for rehearsals and concerts.
But he long ago shed any outsider status. He might as well reside in town, for all the close friendships made over the years. In one sense, the symphony has been a longtime side pursuit, a break from serving as director of the acclaimed Pierre Monteux School for Conductors and Orchestra Musicians in Hancock, Maine.
And yet, for Jinbo, a college town community orchestra hasn’t played second fiddle. Throughout changes in his life, it has remained a constant, a pleasure to revisit time and again.
“Simply, it’s that I enjoy the job,” he says. “I enjoy the community and I enjoy the people in the orchestra.”
Together, they have refined the bond between a conductor and an orchestra, sharing an unspoken language in service of a mutual goal — synchronized voices creating soul-touching beauty for even the most critical ears.
“I’ve had a handful of experiences when I’m conducting, I’ve gone offstage and gone to my dressing room and started to cry,” Jinbo says. “And the best I can describe it is, I opened myself, and the music stopped, and I was still emotionally open.”
Picking up the baton
He has directed musicians for most of his adult life and teaches the art of conducting. But growing up in Honolulu, Jinbo never envisioned himself waving a baton for a living.
“I wasn’t one of those kids who picked up a pencil and conducted with recordings,” he says.
In elementary school, he became interested in music and took up the violin. It proved an excellent match. Eventually, Jinbo ended up first violinist, the concertmaster, of the Hawaii Youth Symphony and a member of the Hawaii All-State Orchestra. By the time he graduated valedictorian of his class, he had played a solo with the Honolulu Symphony as a concerto competition winner.
At the University of Chicago, where he was concertmaster of the school’s orchestra for four years, he initially decided against studying music. “I had gone to a couple of national music camps and seen how many incredibly talented people there were,” he says.
An intended linguistics major fizzled, however, a victim of his own prowess after he placed out of beginning classes and had to wait to take anything higher. Back with music, he considered transferring to a conservatory but stayed for a non-performance degree.
His conducting start fell into his lap.
A friend, tired of leading a youth orchestra, offered Jinbo the job during his senior year. He took it, and then the university’s sole conducting course. “It was enough to pique my interest,” he says.
After graduation, he married a classmate and worked an office job at his alma mater, all the while going to conducting workshops and guest-conducting in the Chicago area. “From the outside, one would say all that stuff was my hobby,” he says. “But it didn’t feel like a hobby to me.”
Nobody could accuse him of dabbling once he began pursuing a master’s degree in conducting at Northwestern University. He finished in 1983, but his education wasn’t over.
That year, he first attended summer sessions at the Pierre Monteux School, founded and named after one of the 20th century’s great conductors. Jinbo studied with the master’s pupil and successor, Charles Bruck, the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship.
Every summer, while working as a freelance violinist in Chicago, Jinbo returned to learn from his mentor. But a regular conducting job eluded him — until 1990, when the Nittany Valley Symphony hired him after losing its conductor, a friend of Jinbo’s, to another orchestra. Jinbo had substituted for her once, to good reviews.
“He was really vibrant and vigorous, and we responded very well to him,” says Joanne Feldman, Nittany Valley’s current concertmaster. “We all liked him very much.”
A couple of years later, he joined the North Carolina Symphony as an assistant conductor and moved to Raleigh, N.C. With his wife staying in Chicago for post-doctoral studies, he juggled leading 60 to 75 concerts a year with the State College trips. He settled into his busy life — until an upheaval shook him.
In 1995, Bruck died.
He had become increasingly ill during the summer, to the point Jinbo cooked him meals and took over his classes, worried that disappointed students would leave. Everyone stayed.
“I had my week of teaching, and it was an incredibly cathartic experience,” he recalls. “I had all these lessons, and I knew I was good at this.”
Upon Bruck’s death, a shattered Jinbo taught the rest of the six-week session. Subsequently, the school made him its third director.
Other changes were in store. Denied a promotion, he grew disenchanted with North Carolina. His marriage dissolved after he realized he’s gay.
“I think more time on my own caused me to think about this more, and my feelings got stronger and stronger,” he says.
He moved to New York for more than a decade, playing the violin, teaching and appearing as a guest conductor with orchestras in, among other places, Switzerland, Germany, Quebec, Erie and Dayton, Ohio.
Today, he lives in Augusta, Maine, with his partner. When not leading musicians from around the world in his school’s orchestra, teaching conducting classes or staying in State College, he tends his burgeoning garden. It’s a new interest, inspired by a nursery gift card from one of his students, who remarked that Jinbo “likes to make things grow and evolve.”
Joy of Teaching
The same creative spirit fuels his love for cooking, a source of many a rehearsal comment.
“I used to use cooking metaphors more than I use them now,” he says.
Jan Diehl, a Nittany Valley violinist and charter orchestra member, has heard plenty; she once compiled Jinbo’s colorful sayings as a present to him. She remembers when he corrected the orchestra’s tone by telling it to think of a certain Viennese dessert with whipped cream.
“All of a sudden, it got all sweet and saccharin, exactly what he wanted,” Diehl says.
His images aren’t limited to the kitchen. Once, for Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 “Winter Dreams,” he advised the violins to sound “like breaking icicles in the Winter Palace, or frost growing on the window panes.” Another time, likening an overly brusque passage to “Gestapo troops arriving,” he said: “I want it to sound like your girlfriend’s arriving with wine.”
“He certainly builds bonds and gets laughter,” Diehl says. “It’s a very effective technique. There’s nothing worse than a taskmaster who drives you and puts you through beat after beat.”
Jinbo even feeds the orchestra, habitually bringing chocolate-covered macadamia nuts from his trips back to Hawaii. Several players he counts as close friends, none more so than the late Inez “Snookie” Williams, a cellist who became almost like a grandmother to him.
On stage, however, he’s not shy about criticizing, though he says he has mellowed over time and rarely singles out individuals. His volatile mentor, Bruck, often screamed his displeasure. That’s not Jinbo’s style; a dry aside now and then expresses his sentiments just fine.
“I think I’m a teacher,” he says. “I think that’s my temperament, and I think I came to that through conducting.”
Diehl, for one, appreciates the guidance: “He always pulls the best out of us somehow.”
Joanne Feldman admires the research and preparation behind Jinbo’s program notes and direction. “He knows the scores he’s conducting like the back of his hand,” she says.
From knowledge comes intuition, feeling, intangibles that make an effective conductor more than a human metronome. Jinbo’s old teacher showed him that. To wield the baton means balancing technique with emotion, being able to convey the music’s spirit without excessive flamboyance.
Jinbo says when he’s conducting, he’s “singing the music inside.”
“I love making something better, and I love that feeling that you start with nothing — until we start playing, there’s nothing but a printed page — and make something,” he says.
Indeed, at a fall rehearsal, Brahms’ first symphony comes together like a savory soup. As the finale builds to the climax, Jinbo mouths the notes, his eyebrows arched, channeling the music as though a charge flowed through him.
“Lots of good things,” he says afterward, smiling with everyone else. “When you’re cooking, it’s a joy. Thank you.”