“None of it comes easy to me,” he says of both composing and conducting. “What a conductor’s trying to do in any circumstance is to communicate a specific idea about phrasing, about articulation, about dynamics, so that it makes a particular kind of musical sense.”
With nearly 30 years with the Alabama School of Fine Arts, where his experiences included arranging and conducting for Arthur Fiedler of the storied Boston Pops; and as an oboist, French horn and saxophonist with the Air Force Academy band before that, Fillmer has many years of musical experience.
The Birmingham native was a student in Ohio at Baldwin Wallace University’s Conservatory of Music when he received a draft notice from the U.S. Army to serve during the Vietnam War. At 19, he was nearly out of college money anyway and was preparing to transfer schools — but after mulling things over, decided the best way to combine his love of music with serving his country was to fill a vacant spot in a military band. His hope of flying high with the Air Force had been dashed years before due to poor vision, he said, so he seized the opportunity.
He spent the next four years learning and playing music with men in their mid-20s who, like Fillmer, signed up in order to avoid fighting in Vietnam, and were members of major ensembles. The woodwind quintet he was a part of had players from the Boston Pops, New Orleans Philharmonic, the Oklahoma Symphony and the Detroit Symphony.
“I was the baby of the group. I learned a lot of what I know about playing from just being around these guys who were all 25, 26 and had master’s degrees,” he said.
After his stint was up, Fillmer returned to school and, after seven seasons with the Alabama Symphony, embarked on his career in education with the Alabama School of Fine Arts. He retired in 2006 after 28 years, serving as chairman of the music department for the last 10. In 1988 while still with ASFA, he began an eight-year stint as the conductor and music director for the Alabama Youth Symphony, and was named music director and conductor for the Alabama Ballet in 1995.
Fillmer takes care to make the experience a treat for the kids. When the ballet performs at Samford, for instance, they often peek down into the music pit and ask questions during warm-up. “It’s like a musical zoo,” he said.
Most recently, when he composed music for “Alice In Wonderland,” Fillmer made sure to keep in mind that he was composing for children’s eyes — and adult’s ears, writing short vignettes which held elements of contemporary music.
“I was absorbed by both the story and trying to depict that musically,” he said. “I really approached it as though I were writing music for a big cartoon. I felt like we didn’t ever really lose anybody.”
When he started with the Gadsden Symphony Orchestra in 2001, he wanted to find out how he could best meet the musical needs of the community, and what the community’s expectations of him were.
“Gadsden is a small city, and there are not as many opportunities to experience art music,” he says. “I didn’t want to come in and try to tell the community what it should have.”
The orchestra serves as not only entertainment, but as an educational resource, says Fillmer.
“We have young people who come, and we want to teach them something about the classics of symphonic literature. We have adults who already know some of the big pieces that we play, and we want them to enjoy the music, hearing it live instead of just on a recording.”
Of the three concerts that the orchestra does for the year, the second one typically falls around Valentine’s Day, which Fillmer keeps in mind when curating his music.
Years past have borne romantic-themed music of Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet,” Brahms’ “Liebslieder,” or “love song” waltzes. This year’s February performance is themed for Baroque music with selections from Bach, Telemann and Pachibel. Baroque music is known for having a polyphonic tone of “vertical harmony,” which first debuted around the 15th century, says Fillmer.
“There’s nothing mysterious about it, but you have to be open and just let it in, and when you do, then you’ll see that ‘Oh, there really is something there; that it’s going to … either uplift me or it’s going to make me thoughtful’,” he explained. “That’s what great art does — it does something to touch us in an interior way — put us in touch with ourselves and our humanity. And I hope that’s what they get from this.”
The Gadsden Symphony Orchestra performs “Going For Baroque” today at 2:30 p.m. at Gadsden City High School. Tickets are $20.