Conducting Culture

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Published in FirstMonday magazine, By Sarah Sekula

John V. Sinclair claims to be just like anyone else, with one distinct difference — he waves his arms for a living.

As the artistic director and conductor of the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park, he is anything but typical. For starters, he is responsible for transporting classical masterworks from one generation to the next. A hefty mission indeed. His schedule of about 100 performances a year — sometimes in far-off locations like St. Peter’s Basilica or London’s Royal Albert Hall, other times at Knowles Memorial Chapel at Rollins College and elsewhere — leaves little time for sleep.

“I get about four to five hours a night,” says Sinclair. “It’s the life of a musician. It’s one big musical pie, and each slice feeds off of the other.” A large portion of the pie is devoted to Rollins, where he directs the choirs and orchestra, teaches classes and chairs the department of music.

During the holiday season, he’s a conductor of the Walt Disney World Candlelight Processionals at Epcot. And he can also be found directing the Moravian Music Festival in other states or the annual Bach Festival on the Rollins campus.

The list goes on and on. And none of this comes without arduous preparation. He reserves 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. at home to rehearse for upcoming performances and spends many hours rehearsing his choirs. His dedication to the Central Florida cultural community and his string of successes could certainly land him an ego the size of Texas. Sinclair, however, doesn’t take himself too seriously. Under his leadership, the Bach Festival Choir has been compared to the likes of the London Symphony Orchestra, and The New York Times has recognized the annual Winter Park Bach Festival as one of the outstanding choral events in the country.

Yet, deep down, Sinclair shows signs of being an everyday person. His roots are planted in the small Missouri farmingcommunity of his childhood, which explains his love for gardening. And much of his free time is spent enjoying the great American pastime, baseball. When he was a child, his hopes of becoming the next Brooks Robinson were trumped by his newfound love for trumpet playing.

These days, Sinclair is busy preparing for the annual Bach Festival, a multiweek program of events running Feb. 15 through March 9. The festival includes world-class lecturers, soloists and ensembles, and features the work of renowned pianist Leon Fleisher, among others, in addition to performances by the Bach Festival Choir and Orchestra.

Although Bach Festival performances date back to 1935, organizers say it remains one of Central Florida’s bestkept secrets. “Central Florida is not aware of the gem they have,” says Sinclair. “A great Bach song is equivalent to the Mona Lisa.” There is a reason why this music lasts today, he adds: These works travel well through time. “When I go to a museum and see artwork, I’m a better person,” says Sinclair. He aims for his audience to feel the same way as they leave any Bach Festival performance.

“There’s nothing more wonderful than hearing live music in the [Knowles Memorial] chapel,” he comments. “It’s like being in a surround sound theater.” As for the folks who imagine classical music to be pretentious or stuffy, Sinclair challenges them to sample the music and learn more. In an effort to bring in a new crowd of classical music enthusiasts, this year’s Bach Festival will include its first Classical Music 101 event, a casual, free, hourlong demonstration session designed to help new audiences feel more comfortable and knowledgeable when attending a performance.

“It’s a challenge in our ever-changing, fast-paced world with shorter attention spans,” he says. “How do you keep masterworks profound to the next generation?” Sinclair says his organization is perfectly poised to achieve that objective. With Sinclair’s round-the-clock ambition and goal of teaching music for 50 years, he has another 18 years to go before he sees a full night’s rest.