Paul Bhasin ready to lead first season as DeKalb Symphony’s music director

The Dekalb Symphony Orchestra’s 2022 spring concert series ran under the umbrella title “Masterworks” and showcased a smorgasbord of crowd-pleasing favorites and a who’s who of notable guest soloists including pianist Julie Coucheron and cellist Barney Culver. The shows were largely a success — playing to enthusiastic capacity crowds who, like the players themselves, had clearly yearned for the return of live music after nearly two years of pandemic restrictions.

There was, however, a more significant underpinning to the concert series: the Dekalb Symphony Orchestra was in the final stages of selecting their new musical director and afforded each finalist the opportunity to lead the orchestra through a rehearsal and performance cycle. The impressive roster of finalists included Sean Vogt, Clayton State University’s director of choral activities and conductor of the Spivey Hall Masterworks Chorus; Michael Giel, Dunwoody High School director of orchestras and Capitol City Opera conductor; and freelancer John Clayton.

Credit: DeKalb Symphony Orchestra

Credit: DeKalb Symphony Orchestra

Each of those conductors brought an admirable level of accomplishment and skill to the table but in the end the job was given to Paul Bhasin, conductor of the Emory University Chamber Orchestra. Bhasin made his debut Sept. 20 in the orchestra’s season opening concert that featured Hanson’s Symphony No. 2 and Sait Saens’ Cello Concerto No. 1 with soloist Roee Harrán on cello.

The Dekalb Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1964. Most of the 80 musicians are volunteers, although a handful receive a stipend. It is based at Perimeter College of Georgia State University’s Clarkston Campus.

“I had known about the orchestra and its storied history from right when I got to Atlanta about seven or eight years ago,” says Bhasin. “It’s not just the programming and the community outreach that they have successfully engaged in over the years. They also have a record of collaborating with top soloists over the last five plus decades.”

Bhasin is quick to observe that his enthusiasm for the orchestra goes well beyond its repertoire and into its larger impact on Dekalb County. “I believe that communities like metro Atlanta, like DeKalb County, need cultural institutions within a community-based framework that prioritizes accessibility alongside artistic quality,” he says. “Those are the things that interest me most in this phase of my career.”

Born in New York City to a Puerto Rican mother and Indian father, Bhasin grew up in a home that, while music centric, focused less on the Western classical tradition and more on the diverse offerings of his parents’ homelands. “It wasn’t exactly Beethoven or Brahms or Mahler,” he says. “Rather it was more Punjabi devotionals, salsa music and traditional Latin music.”

The multiculturalism of Bhasin’s home went beyond music and into the realms of language and spirituality to become an all-encompassing experience fundamental to shaping his course in life. “I think that imprinted on me as a child,” he says. “It imprinted on me that there are many different paths to careers, to connecting with your community around you, to language, even the arts.”

Bhasin took up the trumpet in middle school, where he developed an affinity for the instrument’s capacities for jazz and classical. Following a high school music career full of competitions and educational opportunities, Bhasin found himself studying orchestral trumpet at the University of Michigan and Northwestern University. It was during this time that he first began to study conducting.

As much as Bhasin grew to love conducting, he also felt a calling to education. “As much as I loved orchestral performance and conducting at festivals and some of the more traditional pathways of classical orchestral musicians, I also discovered that I loved teaching and creating knowledge through research, through composing, through arranging,” he says.

Bhasin came to realize that all of his diverse interests were best explored and applied as an educator, a realization that would lead him to his first professorship at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

That career emphasis on higher education eventually saw Bhasin arrive at his current position as director of orchestral studies and director of undergraduate research in Emory’s Department of Music.

The DeKalb Symphony Orchestra joins Bhasin’s already crowded plate with the Emory Youth Symphony Orchestra, the Emory University Symphony Orchestra, and his work as musical director for the Atlanta Chamber Music Festival as well as an array of composing and arranging work.

Bhasin selected Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43, for his audition with the Dekalb orchestra, finding that its history and tonality paralleled the current moment of cautious optimism in which the world finds itself coming out of the pandemic. “Sibelius’ first symphony was exceedingly dark and he was going through a very difficult period personally,” says Bhasin. “You can hear in his writing that he was taking a 180 degree turn away from the first symphony in terms of the lightness of the second symphony.”

Still, Bhasin points to a more intimate reason for making Sibelius’ second symphony his first performance piece with the DeKalb Symphony Orchestra. “It’s pleasurable and challenging to conduct, sure, but it’s also really rewarding to play for the musicians,” he says. “It’s idiomatically enjoyable and rewarding to play on all the instruments. And it’s also pleasurable for the audience — the pacing of it, the duration of it, the solos, the melody, the rhythm. It’s the kind of piece that really sticks with you long after you’ve heard it and a lot of people that I know that aren’t big symphony lovers will have more than one recording of it.”

That eye towards selections that reward all parties involved is clearly borne out of Bhasin’s keen awareness of the intellectual and spiritual needs of those he educates. He speaks with a measured and thoughtful though always cheerful tone that conveys just how important that balancing of interests really is to him. His appointment as director bodes well for the DeKalb Symphony Orchestra and for its increasingly enthusiastic fanbase.


Credit: ArtsATL

Credit: ArtsATL

MEET OUR PARTNER

ArtsATL (www.artsatl.org), is a nonprofit organization that plays a critical role in educating and informing audiences about metro Atlanta’s arts and culture. Founded in 2009, ArtsATL’s goal is to help build a sustainable arts community contributing to the economic and cultural health of the city.

If you have any questions about this partnership or others, please contact Senior Manager of Partnerships Nicole Williams at nicole.williams@ajc.com.