The only conductor the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic has ever known has taken a few personal and musical cues from a passionate violinist.
Early in his career as the ensemble’s first and only music director, David Bowden occasionally sat in the office of J. Irwin Miller. The now-late, heralded Cummins executive and arts supporter also loved to play his Stradivarius violin when he wasn’t helping direct the fortunes of much of Columbus.
And when Miller wasn’t making music, he sometimes would compose pieces of life wisdom to share with Bowden, then in the first few years of leading the city’s first fullly professional orchestra — and one that would gain national attention via National Public Radio broadcasts, and top, national concert programming awards in its first 11 years.
“Mr. Miller had a profound influence on me,” said Bowden, 62, reminiscing at Columbus’ First Christian Church, one of his favorite concert venues, known for its clear acoustics. “In this very space in 1988, Mr. Miller, sitting right over there at the end of a (Bowden-led chamber orchestra) concert, led a standing ovation.”
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The following day, Miller asked the Indiana University doctoral music student and Philharmonic conductor straight to consider committing to Columbus for the next 10 years to escort a fledgling orchestra toward stability.
“So I took some time (to think),” Bowden said. “And then I made a commitment.”
In those days, Miller and Bowden had no way to know that the orchestra would grow beyond a local entertainment option to become a key educational component for young, local students and a quality-of-life recruiting tool for companies looking to impress job candidates with cultural depth in a small, Midwestern city.
Today, the music man is so known for commitment that he celebrates his marital anniversary with wife Donna on the 17th of every month. But his loyalty stretches beyond family and the Philharmonic, which begins its 30th season Sept. 17.
Bowden this month also launches into his nineteenth season as artistic director with the Terre Haute Symphony Orchestra, a year longer than his time as artistic director of the Carmel Symphony Orchestra, which will come to an end following a Nov. 12 concert as that orchestra goes in a different direction.
“I’m not driven by what many people think of as success,” Bowden said. “I want to be a part of a community and know the people in a community so that there’s relationship and connection.”
He has done that while living in Bloomington, where he once studied and also taught at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music.
Philharmonic principal harpist Wendy Muston, who also plays under Bowden with the Carmel Symphony Orchestra, has worked with a long list of musical directors. She is the second harpist with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, performs with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, and has toured or performed with artists ranging from Tony Bennett to Josh Groban.
She praises Bowden especially for creating a unified musical team.
“He pulls together area community talent, college and university talent, and professional talent to make a fabulous orchestra,” Muston said. “And each of his groups has a warm kind of feeling of family.”
Peter King, president of the 25-member Philharmonic board, has been impressed by Bowden’s intense commitment through the years, way beyond Miller’s wish.
“It’s the passion that he brings to our organization, even after 30 years,” said King, whose singer-daughter, Mary Claire King, has performed with the ensemble. “What an extraordinary tenure. And how really lucky we are that he and others had the foresight and the vision to create the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic.”
The music director’s success includes the orchestra’s out-of-the-gate success with the two-year-old Cabaret at The Commons series, which has recorded three 400-seat sellouts, and nearly a fourth last week with the original stars from Broadway’s “Rent.”
Bowden’s passion has been seen in his emphatic body language and energy during concerts to his generous use of superlatives when discussing musical works and his musicians’ artistry.
With all that’s on his plate, it’s no surprise that he gets an early start on what can be long days. King has taken calls from Bowden at 7 a.m. some days to find the conductor bursting with energy about a new idea to try.
Just recently, Bowden finished work related to seasonal auditions well past midnight — and was up working on the same matter early the next day.
Moreover, Margaret Powers, Philharmonic executive director, chuckles about getting late-night business emails and texts from Bowden even while he is on vacation.
“I don’t think the man ever takes a music vacation,” Powers said.
The maestro demonstrated much of that unbridled zeal as far back as 1988, when he launched the orchestra’s music education program through strings programs in the Edinburgh schools.
The same leader who selected music for concerts, rehearsed the orchestra, spoke to local service organizations and searched for ways to give the ensemble an identity also initially taught some of the after-school classes for students in grades 3-6 in cello and viola when other players had to miss.
“And I play just enough viola to be dangerous,” Bowden said with a laugh, adding that his instrument of choice has been piano.
Today, the music education program reaches about 600 young people, not counting the 2,500 annually who attend the orchestra’s Adventure Concerts performed before students who travel from as far away as Rising Sun.
In a field that Bowden acknowledged can be known for supersized egos, the music director in those early days had time only for a supersized task — embracing behind-the-scenes work to nurture tomorrow’s music players and music lovers.
“I am driven by mission,” he said. “After my commitment to God and family, my commitment is to my mission statement: Making music changes lives.”
He means helping others make music.
“My fundamental understanding of myself is as that of a teacher,” he said. “My own (two grown) kids will testify to that.”
Consequently, he swears he would survive and thrive even beyond conducting, were he ever to let it all go.
“The core of who I am first is a person of (Christian) faith,” said Bowden, known for sometimes seamlessly weaving composers’ spiritual fire into pre-concert discussions and pre-song intros from the stage. “I am one who desperately loves his family and desperately loves making music.
“But I don’t have to be a conductor, or even making money to be effective as a musician,” he said. “I don’t need applause.
“Actually, I consider what I do as an act of service. I consider myself a servant.
“I’m serving the musicians, serving the audience, and serving the community.”
Born: Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Lives: in Bloomington
Family: Wife Donna; daughters, Kirsten and Kristi; three grandchildren
Roles: Music director of the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic since 1987. Artistic director of the Terre Haute Symphony Orchestra since 1997. Artistic director of the Carmel Symphony Orchestra since 1999.
His first media comment when he was named Philharmonic conductor: “We’re going to be good. We’ll have something to be proud of.”
Education: Doctor of music in orchestral conducting, master of music in choral conducting, Indiana University Jacobs School of Music; bachelor of music in piano, Wheaton (Illinois) College Conservatory of Music.
Orchestra guest appearances: From San Diego, California, to Barcelona, Spain
Radio broadcasts: Many performances on public radio – “Performance Today,” “Pipedreams,” “With Heart and Voice”
Personal interests: Traveling, running, basketball, photography
Loves: His wife, his family, the mountains, the ocean
His funniest Facebook post (February 2015): “I was raised Southern Baptist. I now go to a non-denominational church, but for years I was in church music as a Baptist, both as a keyboardist and as a choir director (thx Dr. D. and Mrs. H! Everything I know about choral singing I learned from them.) Church music, like all music, has some works that are just plain bad! My particular favorite hymn to hate was page 20, Baptist Hymnal, 1975 ed. ‘God of Earth and Outer Space.’ The lyric was supposed to celebrate God and man’s exploration of the universe and actually had a line that said something about ‘Fling the spacecraft through the sky … . ‘ I had visions of God sitting on a cloud, playing with paper airplanes! Duke Ellington said it best. When asked what kind of music he liked, he said, ‘There are only two kinds of music, good and bad. I like the good, in whatever style, and despise the bad.’ I love good plainsongs, anthems, gospel sings, and the more modern contemporary music — when its good. The types and styles change; God’s message never does and it deserves good music to go with it.”