This Thursday, Roderick Cox will reach a milestone in his music career. At just 29, he'll conduct the Minnesota Orchestra in his subscription-series debut.
Cox didn't set out to be an orchestra leader.
"Unlike other conductors, who may have had a moment when they were 10 years old when they saw a magnificent performance and knew they had to conduct, that wasn't the case for me," he said.
He grew up in Macon, Ga. He was interested in a music career, but his expectations were limited.
"At first, I thought the height of what I could do was be a band director," he said. "That continued to evolve where I felt like the height of what I could do was being a college professor."
But then, when he was getting his master's in music at Northwestern, an instructor told him he should consider orchestral conducting.
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"At first I didn't take him very seriously," Cox said.
But now he does. Cox joined the Minnesota Orchestra in 2015 as an assistant conductor, leading Young People's concerts and also serving as "cover" for concerts, as they call understudying in the orchestra. In 2016 he was promoted to associate conductor, and has been guest conducting at major orchestras around the country.
As he prepared to lead his first subscription concerts, he said he sees this step as a continuation in a long process of change.
"Just me walking on stage is a sense of change that I don't always think about," he said, "You know, since I am an African-American and sometimes the only person of color on the stage."
Classical music is a conservative art form, he said, but orchestras know they need to adjust to changing and diverse audiences while maintaining traditions of artistic excellence.
He's focusing on doing his job well, and with his debut concerts on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, he's immersed in the music.
"It's a fine balance to know when you're prepared, and trying not to over-prepare to a way you are not at peace in your mind," he said.
Cox will conduct a program of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky as well as Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun." He says the work is known as a conductor's piece.
"When you watch, it looks like the conductor is not doing very much," he said. "However, it requires such finesse and such refined technique to navigate through the score in a way where you are not muscling through the music, but you can get this sort of light, beautiful French texture."
Minnesota Orchestra Music Director Osmo Vanska describes the orchestra as his instrument. It's an idea Cox understands.
"It is my instrument for the week of my subscription," he said. "But I don't own the instrument. So that means I can use the instrument as I please for that week, but let's just make sure I give it back in one piece, and don't cause too much trouble. Hopefully make the instrument better and not worse."
Cox spent time talking to the musicians, some of them veterans who have been playing these pieces since before he was born, with some of the world's great conductors. He said it's been some of the best education he could get.
He'll rehearse this week with the orchestra and tie up loose ends. These include his choice of clothing. He needs to be able to move a lot. So, like many conductors, he has his clothes specially tailored to free up his arms.
"On at least two occasions, my jacket has split open onstage. And thank God I had a backup," he said.
For this week's concert, he's trying a new tuxedo shirt made with stretch material, originally designed for athletic use.