When Claudia Simpson-Jones takes the stage at Yelm’s Triad Theater this Sunday, it will be her first time conducting the Olympia Chamber Orchestra in the town she’s lived in for more than 20 years.
It’s Simpson-Jones’ ninth year conducting the orchestra, but she said the orchestra has never before ventured outside South Puget Sound Community College’s Minnaert Center for the Arts.
If Sunday’s event is successful, it may pave the way for other traveling performances, she said.
At 40 members, the Olympia Chamber Orchestra is a full orchestra, just smaller than a symphony orchestra, Simpson-Jones said. They play the same music as symphonies, as well as baroque chamber music and everything between, she said.
Simpson-Jones has been a musician since the age of 5, when she took up piano, she said. She grew up in a musical household with a father who played instruments by ear. She played clarinet and other instruments in school and majored in music in college.
In the 1960s, she headed to Las Vegas where she eventually teamed up with a partner, Carol, to form a twin piano group called The Livin’ Dolls.
“We played for the champagne hour where the buses brought the people in and gave them champagne in plastic glasses and we’d play old tunes that were popular at the time, you know, the hit parade,” she said.
A 1968 article in The Milwaukee Journal reviewing a recent performance said the pair offers “plenty of charm and talent” and “serve up a melodic melange that’s tasteful and zesty.”
As the band traveled to play gigs, someone suggested Simpson-Jones learn to pilot a plane to fly the band around. She ended up taking flying lessons.
“I was really enjoying the flying,” she said. “I could hardly wait for the show to be over so I could get in the airplane and fly to the next place.”
The group disbanded when Carol left to focus on starting a family, and Simpson-Jones turned her attention to flying. She opened a flight school in Las Vegas, then landed a job as a pilot for Continental Airlines in the 1970s, where she worked for seven years. In the 1980s she took a job with Southwest Airlines and worked there for 17 years before retiring as a senior captain.
Simpson-Jones said her career as a pilot just “fell into her lap” and her years working for the airlines were wonderful. But retirement allowed her to focus on her first passion again: music.
Her first forays into conducting were during Christmas time, when she’d conduct performances of pieces such as Handel’s “Messiah.” She studied conducting in China, which involved a lot of opera music. When she saw her first opera performance as a child, she fell in love. The thrill of hearing a live orchestra and the booming, magnificent voices of operatic singers struck a chord with her.
She went on to lead many musical ventures in Yelm, from dinner theater at Mr. Doug’s to musicals at the Drew Harvey Theater, which used to occupy the building now housed by The Triad Arts Theater.
The first part of conducting is all prep work, she said: listening to the music, going through the score, seeing which instruments come in where.
Once on the podium, the conductor faces more immediate challenges: how to get everyone started on time and how to convey how fast the music will be played. That’s why conductors begin by establishing a preparatory downbeat, she said.
While some conductors use their hands, most conductors use a baton, because it’s more exact, she said.
The left hand keeps the beat, while the right hand conveys expression — a kind of nonverbal language that conveys how the conductor wants the music played.
“I went to China to conduct,” the said. “The musicians did not know a word of English and we managed to have several concerts and record an album, without speaking the language, because it (conducting) is a language.”