Washburn University needed a new Director of Orchestras summer of 2019. It found Silas Huff, a self-described coffee junky, who has jammed guitar for an 80s glam rock band called Modern Gypsy, feted American ambassadors in Middle Eastern nations, and produced operas in New York City.
Huff is in his first semester as Washburn University’s interim Director of Orchestras.
“I was interested in a new part of America,” said Huff. “The history of [Kansas] is great.”
Huff also knew one of the previous directors of orchestras at Washburn and was impressed by Washburn’s White Concert Hall, where the Washburn Symphony Orchestra performs.
“I just really like the vibe here,” said Huff.
Huff compared the music department faculty to family. He noted the investment that Washburn faculty members have in their students’ lives. Washburn approached Huff about leading the university orchestra and teaching after receiving what cello professor Erinn Renyer described as "a flood of hundreds of applications" for the position.
“Huff stood out because of his extensive professional experience,” said Renyer. “The colleagues we were able to speak very highly of him.”
Huff’s employment at Washburn comes after he spent years traveling around the United States, and the world, deeply involved in numerous aspects of music. His students at Washburn refer to him as “Captain Huff” because of the seven-and-a-half years he spent in the U.S. Army, where he attained the rank of captain.
Huff was an Army Band Officer and is still in the Army reserves. He spends a weekend every month to meet with the Army Band in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Frequent travel was a major part of Huff’s commitment in the Army band. While in the Middle East, his band entertained various dignitaries, including American ambassadors, and the American troops deployed there. Pop music dominated the songs the band played. Every set had to include “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars.
Huff said there were similarities in what he experienced as an Army Band Officer, and how he views a university orchestra like Washburn’s.
“It’s a lot like a university band,” said Huff. “You’ve got to have discipline. You’ve got to log the hours.”
Huff demonstrates this philosophy in his practice sessions with students. During an early October practice session with the orchestra in White Concert Hall, Huff hummed the base melody of a Schubert symphony to get his players started. Instead of using a baton, Huff waved and spread his arms about to indicate when and how the sections should enter the melody. His practice attire, a long-sleeved shirt and a pair of blue jeans, contrasted the formal dark suit he wears to performances.
Huff wasn’t afraid to interrupt a playing session if he felt that something wasn’t sounding right.
“[Huff] holds students accountable for the quality that they need to be putting out,” said Renyer. “He expects a high standard.”
He took the time between practices to talk with his players and crack jokes with them about the piece being played.
“He’s very different compared to other directors I’ve had,” said Katelyn Terbovich, a student in the orchestra. Terbovich, a junior majoring in music and philosophy, plays the flute.
“[Huff] knows what he wants out of the group,” said Terbovich. It leads to his easygoing demeanor. He displays a clear, expressive conducting style. “[Huff] wants what’s best for us, but [he’s] not condescending.”
Huff brings numerous other musical experiences to his conducting and teaching style at Washburn. He has loved music from a very young age. He enjoyed singing in elementary school and started playing guitar in middle school. In high school, Huff and several of his friends started the garage band Modern Gypsy.
Huff hasn’t lost his love of guitar. A classical guitar sits in the middle of his office. He realized that music affects the way people think and feel. He recalled a moment right before his Army band began playing in Boston’s TD Gardens about how much power he had over the audience’s emotions.
The feeling Huff had in young adulthood of music’s influence on humans cemented his love of musical performance into his college years. This passion took him overseas where he studied abroad in Germany.
“If you have an opportunity to study abroad, take it,” said Huff.
He lived in the small town of Trossingen for a semester, and then in Germany’s capital city, Berlin, for another. While in Germany, Huff studied German music composition masters such as Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven. He said that Beethoven is one of his two favorite composers.
“I like the innovators” said Huff. “Every creative artist is either an innovator or [they] enhance the traditions that exist.”
Huff said his other favorite composer, Russia’s Igor Stravinsky, also fell under the innovator category. A framed portrait of Beethoven and a framed photograph of Stravinsky hang in Huff’s office. Huff himself has composed original music.
“I wanted to follow in the footsteps of Stravinsky,” said Huff.
The Boulder Chamber Orchestra from Boulder, Colorado, recently approached him about writing a piece for them to perform.
“Like an idiot, I said yes,” said Huff, laughing.
At Washburn, Huff’s responsibilities as professor and conductor have taken highest priority. His teaching style has received praise from two colleagues in the music department.
“He’s doing the best to his ability to create programming that’s inspiring and challenging to all of the different sections of the orchestra,” said Renyer.
Renyer also complimented Huff’s abilities for arranging the Sept. 22, 2019, Mosaic concert in a way that highlighted the most talented players’ instruments.
“It was creative genius,” said Reyner. “To be aware enough to know what kind of repertoire would fit the different strengths and weaknesses of the symphonic orchestra right now.”
Zsolt Eder, a lecturer in music, also really enjoys working with Huff.
“He has a really good sense of style,” said Eder, who teaches violin. “I was impressed by his ability to hear if something needs to be fixed.”
Eder, who said many of his students overlap with players in Huff’s orchestra, also spoke well of Huff’s manner of conducting.
“He’s an absolute professional,” said Eder. “For a conductor, it’s very important that your arm movements reflect the music not just where the beat is, but the character of the music.”
Huff likened a conductor to a sports coach going over and rehearsing plays before a matchup while sticking to the sidelines during the actual game. A conductor’s movements with a baton help keep the orchestra members on time.
“I’m mostly just having fun,” said Huff. “I’m basically just the big metronome.”
Huff hasn’t just conducted symphony orchestras. He has also conducted for dance performances, including a staging of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” in New York City with the Martha Graham Dance Company, America’s oldest dance company. Martha Graham was the choreographer for “Appalachian Spring” in its original production in 1941.
Huff also has experience with conducting and producing operas. He said that popular images of opera, such as loud singers wearing horns on their heads, are unfortunate stereotypes that hide the reality of the work.
At the helm of Washburn’s Symphony Orchestra, Huff will conduct six performances in the 2019-20 academic year. He spoke with excitement about an upcoming concert on Nov. 17 when the Symphony Orchestra will play Schubert’s “Symphony No. 8,” nicknamed the “Unfinished Symphony” because it has just two movements instead of the four typically found in other works.
In addition, Huff could go from the interim Director of Orchestras to having the position officially.
Renyer said that she hopes Huff will be the final applicant for the official position. Time will tell if Washburn’s Orchestra will follow Huff’s baton for future semesters.
Edited by Adam White, Jason Morrison