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Living the Dream: My Experience Conducting the Dallas Symphony Orchestra

It was all part of the DSO’s C-Suite Christmas program, which will air Dec. 24 on Bloomberg TV.
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(Sylvia Elzafon)
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Living the Dream: My Experience Conducting the Dallas Symphony Orchestra

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A few months back, I was asked to be a guest conductor for a special Dallas Symphony Orchestra performance. My musical experience is limited—piano lessons as a child and a couple of years playing the French horn in my high school’s band. But I was assured by Kim Noltemy and her team at the DSO that I wouldn’t have to read music or actually, you know, conduct.

When I learned the holiday concert would raise funds for the symphony’s Young Musicians program and Southern Dallas Residency, which provide free instruments and music lessons to hundreds of students each year, I pushed aside my fears and said yes. Also on the lineup were EarthX Founder Trammell S. Crow, philanthropist Lynn McBee, Bishop T.D. Jakes, and Chad Houser of Café Momentum.

Despite my lack of musical expertise, I did have an advantage: Billingsley Co.’s Lucy Billingsley. She had conducted the songs I was assigned—“March” and “Trepak” from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker—in a 2019 C-Suite Christmas program, and she agreed to be my coach.

I got expert coaching from Lucy Billingsley, who loaned me her beautiful baton.

I met her at her home a couple of weeks before the Dec. 8 performance for lessons. She was, in a word, prepared—with highlighted sheet music, notes, and links to YouTube videos of various conductor performances. “The DSO will teach you the mechanics of conducting, but you need to find your muse,” Billingsley advised.

She went through where different orchestra members would sit on stage and when to focus on various string and horn sections. She also loaned me her beautifully crafted baton. Later that night, I watched a video of her 2019 performance and realized I had a lot of work to do if I wanted to get up to her level.

Next came a lesson with Maurice Cohn, assistant conductor for the DSO. He explained that “March” had a 4/4 count and that “Trepak” was 2-count. Starting at the top, the baton movement for the 4/4 was down, left, right, and back up. “Floor, window, door, ceiling,” he said.

I told him I had three priorities: stepping up to the conductor stand without tripping, getting everyone to start on time, and nailing the landing (i.e., ending when the orchestra did). Cohn did an exceptional job of teaching me the conducting basics and also got me up to speed on protocol, such as when to bow and the ritual of shaking the hand of the concertmaster (first chair violinist) at the start of the performance.

I created a Tchaikovsky playlist on Spotify and found my YouTube muse—Volker Hartung of the Cologne New Philharmonic Orchestra—and practiced, practiced, practiced. On the morning of the concert, the other members of the cast and I met with Lawrence Loh, music director of Symphoria in Syracuse, N.Y., and the West Virginia Symphony, who was joining as a special lead conductor. We did a run-through of the program; I learned I’d be up first.

Stepping up to the conductor platform in the beautiful Meyerson Symphony Center that evening and standing before the DSO’s amazing musicians took my breath away. In the hours leading up to that moment, I went over all the things I had been taught—”Floor, window, door, ceiling.”

But as I raised the baton, I just let the music take me and gave into the thrill and joy of the experience. (My sister would later tell me she was afraid someone would have to drag me off the stage, as I looked like I was having so much fun and didn’t want to leave…She wasn’t wrong.)

One of the great things about being first was that I was able to sit back and relax and enjoy the rest of the program once I was finished. Bishop Jakes did a phenomenal job of narrating “The Night Before Christmas,” set to music arranged by Anthony DiLorenzo. Crow and McBee did a fun baton hand-off, track-meet style, as they co-conducted “Sleigh Ride” by Leroy Anderson. And Houser joined Soprano Ava Pine and Baritone Reginald Smith Jr. to lead a singalong of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” to close the show. The moment was made even more magical with a gentle cascade of indoor “snow” that fell from above.

I’ll be forever grateful to the DSO for giving me this bucket-list opportunity. If you’d like to watch the full holiday concert, it will air on Bloomberg TV at 7 p.m. on Christmas Eve. Read on to learn the story behind the couple that stepped up to chair the 2021 program.

Meet C-Suite Christmas Event Chairs: Kim and Greg Hext

Kim Hext began studying classical ballet at the age of 4. By the time she was in middle school, her dance teacher, recognizing her talent, suggested that she move on from her small Texas hometown and take classes in Dallas, nearly two hours away. Hext’s family made the commitment, and she excelled. “I owe the arts a lot,” Hext says. “Studying ballet taught me discipline and how to work in a group and it created so many opportunities. The ballet studio was my football field.”

Dance led to involvement with the Miss America program; scholarships earned through that funded Hext’s college education. Today, as a Dallas philanthropist, she especially loves giving back to the arts because she saw the doors it opened for her.

Greg and Kim Hext, C-Suite Christmas event chairs for 2021 (Sylvia Elzafon)

She has long been familiar with classical music because it plays such a prominent role in ballet. So, aligning with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra made perfect sense. Hext is a member of the organization’s board of directors and development committee. Stepping up with her husband, Greg, to chair the 2021 C-Suite Christmas aligned with the couple’s four philanthropic priorities: education, healthcare, children’s charities, and the arts.

The Hexts also liked that it included a collaboration of nonprofits, with a scholarship for the DSO’s educational program being named in honor of Café Momentum’s Chad Houser. (In the past, The couple chaired a Dallas Opera performance of The Magic Flute and collaborated with the Dallas Zoo.)

For Greg, CEO of Hext Financial, the business tie of C-Suite Christmas was appealing, too. “To have a strong, growing, thriving business community, you have to have a strong arts community,” he says. “It’s a big part of what it takes to attract the kind of people and talent we want in Dallas, people and professionals at all levels and in all different industries are interested in the arts.”

The educational tie gave the Hexts even more of a reason to get involved. At this point, about 500 students are involved in the DSOs young musician programs. The goal is to get to 750, and then 1,000, Kim says. “For these children in southern Dallas to get connected to an instrument and have a mentor they work with every week, the impact is profound,” she says. “Research shows the graduation rates of these kids are not just a single-digit higher but double-digit. That impact isn’t just on the child; it impacts generations down the road.

“C-Suite Christmas touches the arts, education, and a partnership between nonprofits,” Kim continues. “It’s innovative and showcases the collaborative spirit of people in Dallas. When we’re able to bring people together, we end up with a more vibrant city.”

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