Winter Arts Guide: Young Conductors Shake Up Regional Music Scene

Dan Bassett, director of Pride Wind Ensemble, and Brett Karlin, artistic director of the Master Chorale of South Florida

Two dynamic young South Florida musicians are challenging the stereotype of the stoic, seasoned classical conductor.

At 28, artistic director Brett Karlin is among the youngest musicians in the Master Chorale of South Florida, a semi-professional chorus that performs the great standards of the repertoire in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach Counties.

But don’t let his age deceive you; he is a serious—and equally accomplished—musician, who is also in his first year as the chorus master of the Florida Grand Opera and an instructor at the Miami Choral Academy.

“It works for me and against me,” he says of his relative youth. “In the beginning stages of anyone’s career there is a little trepidation. Do I know what I’m doing? But it also works to my advantage being the youngest guy in the room,” especially when most of the 90 singers are at least 40-45 years old and several have had professional musical careers from 20 to 50 years.

He cites the opportunity to offer “new perspectives from the way we’ve always done things. That’s the most dangerous phrase for any organization, particularly in the arts.”

Karlin auditioned for the position after teaching at Hillsborough Community College in the Tampa Bay region. Education remains one of his professional priorities, especially on the faculty at the Miami Choral Academy.

“I love to get young people excited by music,” Karlin said, “but there is nothing like conducting a professional chorus.”

In two seasons, Karlin has expanded the chorus repertoire to include pop works—the Chorale will accompany tenor Andrea Bocelli at Hard Rock Live in February—as well as an incredibly popular “Messiah” sing-a-long that attracted nearly 800 participants last December.

“Master Chorale is a world-class ensemble of stellar musicians, but we are also South Florida’s voice. It’s made up of our audience members’ friends and families, their realtors and their doctors. Together we make the experience that is the Master Chorale,” he explained.

Tim Peterson, a board member of the chorale, thinks Karlin is a natural talent, “Clearly he is such a gifted musician and when you see him conduct, you recognize it immediately. I just hope we can keep him.”

When he’s not conducting or teaching, Karlin has the same interests as many other 20-somethings: The Sailboat Bend resident loves to kayak around the Middle River and spot manatees, runs regularly, reads sci-fi and fantasy novels and also enjoys an occasional glass of wine at the Naked Grape. (“In my ongoing quest for husband material,” he says.) Oh, and he likes to tune and repair harpsichords, too, maybe not the most popular hobby for most gay 28-year-olds.

If the last two years are any indication, Karlin, who discovered the classics as a boy in Boca Raton, will be making music in South Florida for a long time to come.

With nearly 10 years under his belt as artistic director of the South Florida Pride Wind Ensemble, Dan Bassett has not only raised the profile of his organization but brought national attention from the LGBT band movement.

As a youngster growing up in upstate New York near the Canadian border, Bassett was selected for a highly competitive band program in his community and took up the trumpet.

He recalled, “It was a small town with an abnormally good music program, so in fifth grade I started in band, it went from there and by middle school it was something I wanted to pursue.”

He completed a bachelor’s degree in music education and trumpet performance at Ithaca College, graduating mid-year. Bassett decided to accept a position with the summer music camp where he worked as a counselor during the summers and wound up in the company’s office in Coral Springs, setting his South Florida musical career in motion.

Bassett served as the band director at Boca Raton High School for seven years before moving to St. Mark’s Episcopal School in Fort Lauderdale. Today, he is the head of the music department and assistant principal for the K-8 school.

During this time, he began performing with the Flamingo Freedom Band, South Florida’s LGBT marching and concert band. In 2005, he was asked to audition to be the director, and after being selected, he initiated sweeping changes.

At his suggestion, the name was changed to the South Florida Pride Wind Ensemble and Marching Band, an effort to emphasize the artistic nature of the organization, beyond marching in local Pride parades. Bassett also revolutionized the concert programming, adding guest performers, dancers and gymnasts and introducing innovative lighting and video effects to accentuate the music.

“I did have a pretty clear vision of what I wanted to see on stage. The other was the freedom to change from a more serious concert to a more visual and entertaining approach to meet our audiences where they are,” Bassett explained.

“The feedback has been great from audiences,” he added. “I think it’s worked.”

The band has grown and even attracted straight musicians.

“We’re getting more straight friends in the band because it’s becoming a great ensemble. Our audiences have also changed because of this. I think it’s reflective of society in general—accepting, inclusive and mixed,” explained Bassett, who noted their concerts have been regularly selling out.

“Dan has really elevated the performance level of the band,” said former band president Adam DeRosa, who also served as president of the Lesbian and Gay Band Association, “and more importantly, he’s led us to national recognition in the LGBT band movement.”

Bassett likes to unwind after a long rehearsal, enjoying cross-fit workouts (“It clears my brain from everything in the day and reenergizes me.”) and quiet evenings at home with his longtime partner Francis Lyn. (“Francis likes to cook, so I get to eat.”)

The South Florida Pride Wind Ensemble takes the stage next at the Broward Center, Feb. 15, with the Youth Pride Band, a high school honor band and anti-bullying initiative started by the ensemble four years ago.

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