P. E. I Symphony conductor James Mark reflects on his fascinating career
James Mark says the short answer, if a stranger were to ask him what he does, would be: “I am a musician.’’
If that same stranger were to be sitting next to Mark on a very lengthy flight, he might have enough time to learn a portion of the diverse and interesting details of a career that has ranged from jazz to classical, from playing clarinet in symphonies to blowing the saxophone in jazz clubs, and from teaching music to conducting symphonies.
Mark, who is retiring at the end of this season after more than a dozen years as music director of the P. E. I. Symphony Orchestra, was set in his mind fairly early in life that he would travel down a musical path.
How it all progressed was far from, well, orchestrated. Rather, the course of his career work has proved more musically meandering, like a lively, improvisational jazz solo.
Born in Battle Creek, Mich., Mark grew up with regular exposure to operas and symphonies.
The family was musical. Mark’s father, James, sang baritone in the church choir. His grandfather was a church organist and grandmother had a wonderful soprano voice.
Mark listened to plenty of classical music from the family record collection.
He was three when he went to his first symphony concert. Around that time, he also began piano lessons. He says he regrets not having practiced more than he did.
In Grade 6, he started to learn how to play clarinet, an instrument he would embrace, going on to earn his master of music degree in clarinet performance at the Hartt College of Music in Hartford.
In London, England, he was principal clarinet in the Royal College of Music First Orchestra under Sir Adrian Boult and the chamber orchestra under Harvey Phillips.
He played the instrument in the U. S. Air Force Band and in 1984 became principal clarinet of the P. E. I. Symphony under Brian Ellard.
“I really like it, I think probably because it has a vocal sound,’’ he said of the wind instrument that has a single- reed mouthpiece that requires challenging embouchure to play properly.
“Playing a musical instrument,’’ he added, “is an athletic thing . . . mastering technical difficulties, successfully doing things under pressure.’’
Mark also picked up the saxophone in junior high school, started listening to jazz legend Charlie Parker as he progressed in high school to the jazz band, which typically attracts the more talented and serious music students.
He would later find himself playing with the likes of famed flugelhorn player Chuck Mangione, who is best known for the monster jazz- pop single Feels So Good. He recalls taking to the stage with his sax in a black jazz club in Rochester, N. Y. — a very, very friendly place with a marvelous atmosphere.
He met Penelope, his future wife and fellow musician, while he was performing jazz in England.
While passionately interested in jazz, Mark chose to focus on being a classical clarinetist.
Mark came to New Brunswick in 1979 as an assistant professor of music at Mount Allison University. He taught clarinet, saxophone,
music education, and conducting.
Ever since his arrival in Canada, he has been sought after an adjudicator, guest conductor and clinician. He has adjudicated festivals in all the Atlantic Provinces and has guest conducted Symphony New Brunswick, the Scotia Winds and the Toronto Wind Orchestra.
Mark started making his notable musical mark on Prince Edward Island in 1984 when he became principal clarinet of the P. E. I. Symphony. The following year he joined the Charlottetown Festival Orchestra as a member of the stage band and was a soloist for the production Swing.
In 2000, he was appointed to conductor of the Prince Edward Island Symphony.
Margo Connors, a long- time violinist with the orchestra, lauds Mark’s approach and impact on what she terms a semi- professional orchestra consisting of students, university music professor, jazz musicians, classical recording artists, bus drivers and dentists.
“Dr. Mark is a good combination of succinct and human,’’ said Connors, now in her 32nd season with the symphony.
“He hones in on what is needed, but we still get to ask questions and learn the history and the why of things.’’
Connors adds that Mark is “ruthless’’ in his choice of tempos: the faster the better.
Jen Clement, also a long- time violinist with the orchestra, says Mark always sets a high standard for the musicians.
“He works with the whole group more than individuals,’’ she said. “He doesn’t single anyone out. He just expects the same thing from everybody.’’
Mark, though, tempers his demanding professional side with a soft personal demeanor.
“Oh, he’s a very warm, lovely person,’’ said Clement, who along with husband John founded the Singing Strings program, which teaches string instruments to P. E. I. children.
“He’s brilliant. I certainly enjoy working with him a lot.’’
Mark has written arrangements for numerous artists for performance with the P. E. I. Symphony, including The Barra MacNeils, Paper Lion, Measha Bruggersgosman and Matt Anderson.
He adds that he is a fan of Stompin’ Tom Connors, whose work could not be in sharper contrast to Mark’s favorite composer, Johannes Brahms.
“I would love him to perform with the symphony,’’ he said.
Mark loves to perform with his wife, pianist Penelope. The couple has done numerous recitals together.
At 73 years of age, Mark feels he has plenty of performing left.
“I don’t think either of us want to stop being musicians any time soon,’’ he said. “We are very fortunate to be able to do music together.
The pair, who lives in Sackville, N. B., has enjoyed a summer home in Charlottetown for almost 30 years.
“We can’t bear not to be here in the summer,’’ he said.
He hones in on what is needed, but we still get
to ask questions and learn the history and the
why of things.