Christopher Dozoryst never set out to be a classical musician.
Many people can say that, of course, but it’s an odd admission for the principal violist for the Madison Symphony Orchestra to make — especially as he celebrates his 10th season in the position.
The confession notwithstanding, Dozoryst has excelled in his role and will serve as “guest” soloist during MSO’s performance of Hector Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, part of the orchestra’s opening salvo that kicks off its 2017–18 season Sept. 15–17 at Overture Center for the Arts.
The concert’s playlist also includes Bach’s famous “Toccata and Fugue in D minor,” arranged for orchestra by Leopold Stokowski, and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5, better known as the Reformation Symphony.
Dozoryst’s performance, as well as the Berlioz selection, is part of a musical career that appears to be unfolding as it should, the Waukesha native admits.
“I always knew I wanted to be a professional musician, but I decided early on to follow my muse wherever it takes me,” Dozoryst says. “In the case of Berlioz, his music is exciting and never gets old for me, giving listeners the sense that it will go off the rails at any moment.”
Youth symphony tour
Dozoryst’s seeming spontaneity is born of a solid musical background and education. He received his undergraduate degree from what is now the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music and earned his master’s degree at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University.
But it was during a much earlier period that the musician’s muse first showed its face.
Dozoryst was a member of the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra in the summer of 1991 when the ensemble spent three weeks touring Scotland, performing alongside other youth orchestras from around the world. The experience created a deeply positive impression on the young artist.
“In 1991, a lot was happening in the world and the Soviet Union was crumbling,” he remembers. “It was a heavy mix of world events and nightly onstage performances. I think we may have heard one of the very last performances of the Soviet national anthem while we were there.”
Freelancing for Tony Bennett
The experience galvanized Dozoryst’s resolve to pursue music professionally, a drive that eventually propelled him into the role of freelance performer in Chicago. His experiences included gigs with Smokey Robinson, Ray Charles and Tony Bennett.
“Those are luck-of-the-draw moments in a freelancer’s career,” Dozoryst says. “Gigs like that come about on short notice, and I was very lucky to get to play with those artists.”
The violist played backup for Ray Charles just months before Charles’ death in 2004. But it may have been performing with Tony Bennett that provided his most memorable moments.
The musicians hired for the engagement had instructions taped to their music stands advising them not to approach “Mr. Bennett,” attempt to shake his hand or ask for an autograph. It was all strictly business, Dozoryst thought, at least until the star took the stage during rehearsal.
“The band was rehearsing when we all heard a familiar voice shout, ‘Hey, do you guys need a singer?’” Dozoryst says. “Tony Bennett came onstage, slapping everyone on the back or shaking hands with us. After the performance that night, he stood at the only exit door and shook everyone’s hands as we left and thanked us for our performance.
“Tony Bennett will be one of my favorite gig stories until I am old and toothless,” he adds. “These people appear larger than life, but when you actually meet them they’re just 5’ 7” and you have to adjust to reality.”
The MSO’s season-opening program features Berlioz’ symphony Harold in Italy. Dozoryst’s viola will play the voice of Harold throughout the composition, which was inspired by Lord Byron’s “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.” As the main “character” in the symphony, the soloist will find himself in the musical spotlight throughout much of the performance.
“You can’t help but experience some nerves, but you learn to channel it into the performance itself,” Dozoryst says. “You’re in a zone of sorts, but its like being part of a really large basketball squad in that you’re contributing to plays, but you don’t have time to analyze every step.
“There’s also a component of theater in how you stand, how you hold the instrument, and what peripheral eye contact you make with the other performers and conductor John DeMain,” he adds. “When everything falls into sync is when the rush really kicks in. Beyond that, you just live in the moment.”
Engaging the community
Dozoryst’s muse will next lead the musician a little closer to home, as he performs as part of MSO’s offshoot Rhapsodie Quartet for senior audiences in Fort Atkinson. That’s where Dozoryst lives with his wife, who serves as assistant manager for UW-Whitewater’s Young Auditorium.
The quartet — which also includes MSO violinists Suzanne Beia and Laura Burns and cellist Karl Lavine — is part of the orchestra’s HeartStrings Community Engagement Program. Although not technically music therapy, the program finds the musicians performing interactive concerts in senior living centers, bringing music to older fans who cannot make the trip to Overture Hall.
“The program encourages participation and we see audience members playing the tambourine, singing along with familiar numbers and even getting up and dancing if they are able,” Dozoryst says.
MSO officials, along with music therapists, have said that such programs have proven helpful for those suffering from physical impairment and memory issues.
And even though he may not be ready for it, it’s a program that Tony Bennett, at 91 years young, would no doubt appreciate. It might even lead to a second handshake.
The Madison Symphony Orchestra will open its 2017–18 season Sept. 15–17 with Orchestral Brilliance, featuring violist Christopher Dozoryst, at Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State St., Madison. Tickets are $18–$90 and can be purchased at the Overture Center box office by calling 608-258-4141 or online at tickets.overture.org/single/EventListing.aspx