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Originally published October 3, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 3, 2007 at 2:00 AM

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Long musical path led to conductor's baton

Born in Detroit in 1951, Paul-Elliott Cobbs came from a family of ministers. "My mother's father was a minister, and both of my father's...

Times Snohomish County Bureau

Born in Detroit in 1951, Paul-Elliott Cobbs came from a family of ministers.

"My mother's father was a minister, and both of my father's brothers," he said. "School music and church is where I got my musical experience. My mother was a church musician, and I conducted the church choir at age 14 — Baptist church music. We'd do concerts, one-half classical, one-half gospel."

He started on violin and trumpet in the Detroit Public Schools.

"That's why I am such an advocate of public-school music," he said. "I never thought of myself as a conductor; I saw myself in an orchestra playing trumpet. We'd have substitute teachers who might ask someone to conduct the band and orchestra, and my friend said, 'Let Paul do it.' I waved my arms, and it was fun."

By the time he got to Lewis Cass Technical High School in Detroit, it had a music department of 500 students, with 10 periods a day of music as well as required academics.

That's where he got a chance to conduct, taking over for 10 minutes at a time while teachers watched. "They told me, 'You need to conduct.' That's why educators are so important to me."

While Cobbs was at Wayne State University, Elizabeth Green, the conducting teacher at the University of Michigan, invited him to come and take lessons. She was a big influence, he said, as was Walter Poole, associate conductor of the Detroit Symphony, who took him under his wing at age 21.

After auditioning for a resident-conductor position in Detroit and losing to a candidate who'd just gotten back from Europe, "I realized it was time to go to Europe," he said. "I started looking around for different conservatories to do graduate work, and the conducting professor in Vienna at the Academy of Music said, 'Come.' "

Cobbs studied with the professor, who had taught Zubin Mehta and Claudio Abbado, and he also took master classes with conductors.

That resulted in a memorable meeting with Leonard Bernstein, who had come to Vienna to conduct Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. "He was electric," recalled Cobbs, who was invited to the concert.

Bernstein took a flying leap to the podium, "and that was the downbeat. That's Bernstein. And it was perfect. His whole body was the downbeat."

The downbeat of the Fifth Symphony, he said, has to start with a "pushdown," a big hammer blow with the baton.

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"If you don't get the downbeat just right, the orchestra messes up." Everyone in the Vienna master class worked on their downbeat until their arms were sore. Cobbs compares it to lifting a small weight for 90 minutes.

"You can tell the conductor by the pacing," he said. "You have to pace a work. And some conductors pace it too fast — it sounds rushed. Too slow, and you go to sleep. If it's paced just right, you don't think about it, it's just exciting."

In 1995, Cobbs went back to Europe to conduct in Leipzig, Germany, and during the next two seasons he also was invited to conduct in the Czech Republic, Austria and Japan.

Cobbs forged ties with Polish orchestras in 2000. Over a six-year period, he conducted seven Polish orchestras around that country, drawn back over and over by the string playing.

Next year, Cobbs will conduct in England and South Korea as well as Washington, D.C., and do master classes abroad.

For him, all things come down to timing — in life and in music.

"Timing is most important," he said. "You have to have balance. Too much patience is not good. There's a moment when you can influence things and a moment you can't. You have to decide when you'll go along with it or leave it. You have to decide."

In 1984, when he started with the Everett Symphony, there was no mention of how long Cobbs would conduct it.

"I didn't even have a contract. They hired me, I got paid a little stipend from the college once a month. I thought, 'I'll stay for five years.' You work from year to year, and if nobody says 'You're fired,' you come back. It's only been the last decade I've had a contract."

Diane Wright: 425-745-7815 or dwright@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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