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Maestro in the making

Lee Mills conductsLee Mills ’09 conducts the Divertimento Chamber Orchestra during a concert in Chism Recital Hall. Mills formed the orchestra from Whitman’s talented pool of musicians to provide himself with conducting experience.

Robert Bode, the Alma Meisnest Endowed Chair of the Humanities, teaches classes and directs Whitman’s choirs, as well as Seattle’s professional chamber choir, CHORAL ARTS.

Yet in spite of his already hectic schedule, Bode — who wanted to be a conductor when he grew up and remembers “demanding successfully that my elementary school band director teach me how to conduct” — couldn’t resist the opportunity to work with a student with the talent and passion that Lee Mills has to be a conductor.

Mills and Bode

With each Divertimento concert Lee Mills has grown. I told him a year ago, he’s changed our department. His impact has been enormous.

— Robert Bode

“With each Divertimento concert he has grown. I told him a year ago, he’s changed our department,” said the professor, who has been at Whitman since 1986. “His impact has been enormous.”

Mills assembled some of Whitman’s best musicians for the year-old Divertimento orchestra. The members practice every Sunday, sometimes Saturday afternoons, and with each concert have pushed themselves to another level of difficulty, Bode said. Music for a recent concert included pieces risky and complicated enough, such as Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella Suite,” that Bode questions whether he would have tackled them. But so far the young orchestra has met the challenge.

And so has Mills. Although, as he looks to the future, he knows his pathway into the world of professional conductors may be a long one. Most of today’s conductors were raised in the music world, he said. They have parents who were musicians or were conductors, and sometimes doors open more easily for them. He came from a different world — the son of a Montana mechanic. His father supports his son’s aspirations, and Mills will add that asset to his own commitment and persistence to succeed.

Mills refuses to give himself a fall-back plan, although he has many skills: The licensed airplane pilot (he’s a tango dancer and skier, too) not so long ago had serious intentions of becoming a roller coaster designer. He even penned an essay arguing that the invention of the launching system for roller coasters was the most important technological development of the 20th century.

Mills works with BodeMills works with music professor Robert Bode.

Mills also studied piano since age 4 and formed a children’s marching band for a hometown parade at age 5, but he didn’t think majoring in music would be practical because he didn’t want to teach. All that changed when he took a conducting class his sophomore year that pushed other hobbies to the side so he could devote his days to this passion.

And his credentials in the field are growing. He was one of a handful picked to work last summer in Santa Cruz, Calif., with two of the top conductors in the nation — Baltimore Symphony Conductor Marin Alsop and Gustav Meier of the music conservatory at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University. Mills also has spent time in Romania as a guest conductor of Synfonia Bucresti, an opportunity gained through a colleague of Bode’s.

Mills selects his orchestra’s music, which Bode then uses as class material for Mills’ independent study conducting classes. Bode also sits through the orchestra’s rehearsals, then gives input. As Mills’ ability increases, “we work more and more at a truly collaborative level,” Bode said, adding that he even “steals” some of Mills’ conducting techniques.

The Divertimento musicians, who work without pay and most for no credit, feel free to tell Mills when they think he doesn’t know what he’s doing, the young conductor said with a laugh. It’s a casual, “fun dynamic.”

And Mills believes that Bode, after observing that atmosphere, has changed the environment in his own classes a bit, making them more collegial, “still more controlled, but a little less formal,” Mills said.

“It makes class really fun.” Bode agreed.

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