When BW called James Ogle a few weeks ago, he was studying the score for his final performance with Boise Philharmonic. He was memorizing each and every instrument's part, internalizing the piece in its entirety so that, in his words, the musical questions—and therefore the beginnings of a search for the musical answers—start to emerge.
This weekend, Ogle leads Boise Philharmonic for the last time, putting an end to his 20-year career as the orchestra's conductor. In addition to Stravinsky's Firebird Suite and Ravel's orchestral arrangement of Mussorgsky's piano pieces that make up Pictures at an Exhibition, Ogle conducts the world premiere performance of An Idaho Symphony, a piece written by Idaho composer James Cockey and commissioned by Paul Collins in celebration of Ogle's two decades at the helm of Boise Philharmonic.
"When you do your last concert—your swan song—it would be nice if you could relax and enjoy it. But when you're doing a world premiere, there's really nothing that could put more pressure on you," said Ogle. But the conductor thrives on challenge, setting a higher bar for not only Boise Philharmonic, but for himself as well. His tendency to lead the philharmonic by example—especially when it comes to rising to a challenge—is a characteristic orchestra members appreciate in him.
John Cochrane, a violist who's been with Boise Philharmonic for more than 40 years, describes Ogle as the most consummately prepared artist he's ever met.
"He knows the score so thoroughly he could conduct without a score in front of him," said Cochrane. "I couldn't expect to know my viola part that thoroughly. When I asked how he could memorize all the instruments and he said, 'You deserve nothing less.'" Some find it difficult to work with Ogle, said Cochrane, simply because he is so demanding, expecting the same commitment from the musicians he gives to them.
In the two decades Ogle spent with Boise Philharmonic, the orchestra came into its own. Ogle boosted the level of the orchestra from semiprofessional to having a national reputation. However, when he took the position in 1987, he said he was absolutely certain he would stay only three years, seeing Boise Philharmonic, for what it was at the time—as a career stepping stone to a larger orchestra. For the first five years of his tenure, Ogle pulled double duty, acting not only as Boise Philharmonic's conductor, but also as the associate conductor for the full-time North Carolina Symphony, where he spent 15 years.
"In my mind, I was headed to being the music conductor of a major orchestra," said Ogle. "But like so many people, I was totally surprised by what I found here in Boise."
In addition to having what Ogle said are wonderfully talented and dedicated musicians, Boise Philharmonic offered an incredible concert hall and, most importantly, a community that supported the arts. Throughout his time at the philharmonic, said Ogle, the community has continued to step forward not only with financial support but also through attendance, making it possible for the orchestra to continue to grow bigger and better.
"I enjoyed the challenge. I liked the teaching aspect, of bringing my experience with a bigger orchestra here. You could literally hear, from concert to concert, us becoming more sophisticated and more capable of playing challenging repertoire."
In fact, Ogle said one of the milestones of his career was tackling difficult material—Mahler's first symphony. Known as bold and emotional works, Mahler's symphonies require huge orchestras, something the Boise Philharmonic is not.
"When we played Mahler's first symphony for the first time, nobody thought we could do it. I'm not sure we thought we could do it either, and it was artistically stunning," he said. "We really took a step back and said we're creating something; we're part of something that's really special here."
Cochrane was with Ogle for that performance and he said that for Boise Philharmonic, it was one of many moves forward that helped develop the philharmonic's confidence.
"There are steps you take when suddenly you realize you can hold your own with the big boys" said Cochrane. "Maestro Ogle took us through many milestones like that."
Another of those defining artistic moments in his career, said Ogle, was when Gladys Langroise endowed the Langroise Trio at College of Idaho. The trio resides in the Canyon County college with the caveat that they maintain permanent positions at Boise Philharmonic.
Among the things Ogle said he's most proud of is orchestra's financial record.
"The fact that the orchestra has done all that growing and has maintained a balanced budget for 20 years in a row is unheard of. It's an anomaly in the world of professional orchestras," said Ogle.
As conductor, Ogle spent a great deal of his time and energy fundraising. That experience, he said, has prepared him for his current position at Boise State as the special assistant to the president, which has him promoting and fundraising for the arts at the university. In May 2006, Ogle stepped down as conductor of the philharmonic following a stroke, and a two-year search was launched to find his replacement.
"While I didn't really see it at the time, the orchestra was absolutely ready for a change in artistic leadership. They knew that," said Ogle. "What I didn't know was that I was absolutely ready for a new challenge in my life." Ogle said Boise Philharmonic was not just chapters in his life, but volumes. However, he said he's actually come full circle.
"When I came here 20 years ago, there was untapped potential and the process of diving into that was exhilarating. In many ways, I'm back to that same point here at the university."
In the future, Ogle suspects that he'll expand his involvement at Boise State to include teaching, sharing his 36 years of experience with students. He'll also return to the North Carolina Symphony to conduct The Messiah and will continue to host clinics at Louisiana State University, where he's been a regular guest over the years.
As for what audiences can expect at this weekend's shows, Mahler's second symphony is not on the program. It's the one piece Ogle wishes he'd had the opportunity to lead Boise Philharmonic in, were it not for the cost-prohibitive budget.
"I think it's going to be a rousing conclusion to 19 outstanding years [with Ogle] as the music director of this orchestra," said Tony Boatman, executive director of Boise Philharmonic.
And that's exactly the kind of show Ogle is aiming to put on.
"The thing that will be the most meaningful for me is that it will give me a chance to show my appreciation to the community—to the audience—because without them, the orchestra simply would not have become what it is today."
April 11, 8 p.m., $16-$30, Swayne Auditorium. April 12, 8:15 p.m., $16-$54, Morrison Center. For information, call 208-344-7849 or visit BoisePhilharmonic.org.