Conducting for life: Emory's new director of orchestral studies builds student talent
By April Hunt | Emory Report | Feb. 28, 2020
As Paul Bhasin completes his first season as Emory’s orchestral studies director, he appreciates the students' talents and plans to expand connections on campus and beyond. Emory Photo/Video
March 13, 2020
Editor's note: All events at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts have been canceled through April 30 in accordance with current university policy on the COVID-19 outbreak. Visit the Schwartz Center website for more details. Visit the Coronavirus Updates for the Emory Community website to learn more about how Emory is responding to COVID-19.
A passion for performance and teaching – and building a talented community of young musicians – drives the work of Paul Bhasin as the newest conductor of the flagship Emory University Symphony Orchestra and Emory Youth Symphony Orchestra, both renowned for their stellar musical performances for the campus and Atlanta communities.
Bhasin was appointed Emory’s director of orchestra studies at the start of the 2019/2020 academic year after a national search. He is finishing up his first full season conducting the two orchestras, providing space for creative risk-taking and musical discipline for students who take those experiences in multiple academic and career directions.
“To study musical performance in a serious way requires the same willingness to commit yourself to practice, to learn how to challenge yourself and to understand connections as preparing for a career in law or business or medicine,” Bhasin says.
“What I love about our students is they aren’t afraid to take risks,” he adds. “That makes them fantastic performers but allows them to be incredible in whatever discipline they choose.”
Many of the undergraduates in the Emory University Symphony Orchestra (EUSO) are double majors, showcasing Emory College’s commitment to music as an important component of liberal arts excellence.
The talented high school students from the Atlanta area in the Emory Youth Symphony Orchestra (EYSO), meanwhile, reflect the university’s outreach to the community as well to as potential undergraduates. About one in five members of the EUSO are EYSO alumni.
“Paul Bhasin is a dream of a director of orchestral studies at Emory,” says Kevin Karnes, chair of the Department of Music, who was recently appointed vice provost for the arts.
“His amazing artistry is fully matched by his profound dedication to teaching,” Karnes says. “Our students – and our faculty – are incredibly lucky to have him.”
Bhasin had previously served a year as the interim director of the ensembles, deepening their connections to one another and to the broader university and Atlanta community.
He has worked closely with students since joining the Emory faculty in 2015 as a senior lecturer in conducting and as director of wind studies, conducting the Emory Wind Ensemble.
From performer to conductor
Bhasin relates to students in part because he began his own musical career in youth orchestras before winning the Yamaha Young Performing Artist Competition in 1998.
He spent the first part of his career as an orchestral trumpeter, performing with the likes of the Milwaukee Ballet, Columbus Symphony, Chicago Chamber Orchestra and the New World Symphony in Miami. He also has recorded for both Centaur and Interscope records.
His move into conducting came gradually, after Bhasin earned opportunities to lead professional and academic ensembles. Watching a university orchestra rehearse 30 hours for a single-hour performance, Bhasin says he realized the process gives students the opportunity to reveal more about the music, its composer and the time and place from which it comes.
“At the university level, rehearsal is an experimental lab for all kinds of styles and techniques,” he says. “Conducting means you have a broad vision for how it sounds but also how you want to make the audience feel.”
Trevor Chun played violin in the youth orchestra before joining the EUSO under Bhasin. A senior with a double major in business and music performance, Chun says the director has created a welcoming atmosphere for musicians in both organizations.
“Dr. Bhasin makes sure that we aren’t just playing the notes on our stands, but rather that each member is going beyond that and making music,” Chun says. “Under his directorship, both the EYSO and EUSO have become a community in which anyone can come and enrich their lives in the art.”
Bhasin’s vision also has strengthened partnerships with arts groups on campus and into the broader community. In 2016, for instance, he led the Emory Wind Ensemble as it performed the score from the film “Henry V” while Theatre Emory acted out scenes.
That same year he launched an annual chamber music component to the EYSO – which has since expanded to include string, wind and percussion programming – while also composing and conducting an original score for the movie “Hogtown,” named one of the top 10 films of 2016 by the New York Times.
His efforts to highlight Emory’s music program also extend to faculty. He co-founded the Emory Percussion Symposium with instructors Scott Pollard and Mark Yancich, which has featured musicians including Rashid Williams, the drummer for Grammy-winning artist John Legend.
Bhasin’s next steps include further deepening his connections on campus and in the community. He is working on a CD of compositions featuring Atlanta Symphony principal musicians with Emory musicians.
He also is composing another film score, this time for the feature film “Sister Carrie.”
He is, of course, continuing to guide the EUSO for its three remaining concerts this spring. He conducts the musicians – who will tackle Beethoven, Bruch Mahler and Tchaikovsky in March and April – in at least four hours of rehearsal each week.
“Performing requires incredible discipline, risk taking and originality, with massive preparation and little room for error,” Bhasin says. “What I love the most about my job is showing how that helps students overcome any obstacles to their highest potential.”