At the Oregon Symphony’s June 1 concert this year, Niel DePonte will play the famously energetic snare drum part in Maurice Ravel’s Bolero. The spring season will end his 42-year career as the symphony’s principal percussionist, a job he’s had since he was 24 years old. Symphonic percussionists’ duties have grown more complex in the past half-century, with all manner of bells and whistles added to scores. His responsibilities have burgeoned along with the bigger and, usually, better drumming parts.
He’s retiring from that role, but head percussion guy is only one of several jobs DePonte juggles on Portland’s arts scene.
He will continue to conduct the Oregon Ballet Theatre Orchestra, something he’s done since 1985, and carry on his 26 years of work with MetroArts Inc. mentoring young musicians and pushing educational programs. Then there’s his composing and arranging, including his arrangement for Houston Ballet’s Peter Pan, played since 2002. That won’t stop, either.
Keeping all those artistic balls moving in harmony has gotten tougher as DePonte has turned grayer, he said in a recent interview. “These are high-wire jobs. When you’re trying to be perfect all the time (as a musician and conductor), and the number of performances has increased, it’s demanding. Artistic organizations are trying to grow and help artists to make a living. It’s a lot.”
DePonte grew up in the New York area in a high-achieving family where “education was the thing, and music was played.” His mother sang Italian opera by heart, a piano was in the house, he started drumming at 7, and earned a masters degree at Eastman School of Music. All in all, “expectations were high,” he said.
For DePonte, those decades of studying and practicing music have blossomed and matured. He considers his “trifecta” of highest accomplishments: conducting the Kennedy Center Orchestra while OBT dancers performed Rush and Almost Mozart at the Kennedy Center in 2009 and 2011; his 2003 Grammy nomination for a CD of Tomas Svoboda’s Concerto for Marimba and Orchestra performed with the Oregon Symphony; and Oregon Symphony’s 2011 Carnegie Hall concert, where he says, “we played our greatest performance ever.”
Since he arrived in Portland four decades ago in his mid-20s, he has seen orchestra maestros, ballet and dance directors, and opera and chamber music leaders come and go. “I might be the last man standing,” he jokes. Serving the Portland arts community in numerous ways has trumped his trifecta of triumphs. “My goal was always to serve the greatest number of people through my artistic efforts, whatever they might be. So, I got to make art, make change, and make a difference. That’s all I ever wanted to do … be creative.”
It’s always a vibrant scene here in Portland because we are never at a loss for creative, entrepreneurial leaders across the artistic disciplines.
What do you hope, fear, or expect will happen culturally in 2020 — in both Portland and the bigger world?
I always hope that political leadership will focus on the good work that artists and arts organizations do within our communities and across the nation, and reward that work with increased funding.
I expect that artists will reflect on the political divide within our nation and look to shine light on corruption and selfishness in government. I hope that artists and arts organizations fight to promote the message that the arts matter in education and in community service. Locally, I would like to see the Regional Arts and Culture Council spend less time on the politics of the arts and raise more money to give to artists and arts groups. And I would like to see a complete overhaul of the Arts Tax language so that there are more contact hours between arts teachers and kids, and (a return) to funding arts organizations in a larger way, as was promised initially. (DePonte explains his view: At one time the arts tax was advertised as being good for education and for the arts organizations. But the intergovernmental agreement that was signed at the last minute guarantees that arts tax money will go to teachers first, and anything left over will go to arts organizations. So school districts have stopped paying for arts teachers from their own budgets, and use the arts tax money to pay for arts teachers. This has limited the number of dollars that can flow to arts organizations, and does not address the issue of how many contact hours there should be between arts teachers and students at all. That number, he says, is approximately 30 minutes per week, and is wholly inadequate.)
If you could make one thing happen in the 2020s, what would it be?
I would spend billions on returning the arts to the schools, specifically focusing on what I call creativity education. Our students need to be taught how to be innovative thinkers and artistic problem-solvers, approaching societal challenges with the creative energy that making art can teach us.
How do big “heritage” organizations like the symphony and the ballet meet the challenges of the future?
By creating opportunities for artists to get out into the community to do community service work by presenting art in neighborhoods and facilities where people do not have access to the arts. Whether the lack of access is because of money, transportation issues, age, infirmity, or anything else, artists need to reach out to underserved communities and bring art to the people.
Do you have more or less faith than in the past in the big organizations such as the symphony and the ballet?
I have more faith than ever that larger organizations can marshal their artistic and financial resources to do more community outreach and to evolve with the changing tastes of the society.
Do you think smaller organizations can do a better job of changing with the times? Or is there just not enough money?
Smaller groups are often doing riskier and important and innovative work, but I am an arts capitalist and the marketplace has a way of telling a group whether their work is good or bad, their organizational infrastructure strong or weak, and the work either important or merely self-indulgent. That being said, there is never enough money, so fund the good work, and the groups that can do the greatest good, and for me, those are usually larger organizations.
In your 34 years as music director of the Oregon Ballet Theatre how did change evolve?
I have been directing ballet music since 1985 in Portland, first for Pacific Ballet Theatre and then for Oregon Ballet Theatre. Much of the change to which you refer has come in the area of improved quality of performances, and this is true of all the larger arts organizations. Better artists come to work here as we pay higher wages. In dance, better choreographers can be engaged and new and exciting work can be created when we grow through increased board and community support and we embrace the forward-thinking visions of artistic directors and executive directors as they come and go over time.
How does your work for MetroArts address the future (kids of course!)?
I started MetroArts Inc in 1993 when I saw schools cutting the arts on a regular basis. Its summer kids camp for 7-12-year-olds is based in the idea of teaching for creativity, as that is our mission. The future success of children depends on a holistic approach to knowing the world and developing innovative problem-solving strategies applied to complex questions. The arts teach ways of thinking that other subject areas do not. To take an artist’s approach to problem-solving includes creating multiple answers to any one problem. It’s this sort of out-of-the-box thinking that will enable children to address the world’s thorniest questions now that we have left the information age and entered the age of innovation.
When you served on the orchestra panel at the National Endowment for the Arts in 1992 and the executive committee of Portland’s Arts Plan 2000, do you think you had much influence?
I’d like to think I helped the review processes in both situations to address funding issues and determine what missions deserved more attention within and across arts organizations, and in our community at large. Change in the arts usually moves at a glacial pace. It takes dynamic leadership to transcend the political status quo in most situations. Money applied to succinct visionary efforts is the best we can do to make significant change over time. But a political leader must emerge to make the arts a more significant player in a community’s vision plan for the arts to truly thrive in ways that transcend their entertainment value. I see no such leader on the horizon either locally or nationally.
You are a guy with fingers in many artistic pies. What has driven you to alter your career several times?
I never changed my career path, actually. When people used to ask me what I did for a living I said, “agent of change via the arts.” I came here to join the Oregon Symphony in 1977. I just added things on to that as I went along. I started the West Coast Chamber Orchestra in 1980, which morphed into the Oregon Ballet Theatre Orchestra by 1990. Then I looked at the arts scene in 1993 and decided that there needed to be a satellite arts organization to support the dwindling arts offerings in the schools and be an advocacy group for arts education, so I started my second non-profit, MetroArts Inc.