CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — On a Thursday morning in a booth at First Watch on Summers Street in Charleston, conductor Scott Woodard remarked that he’d been around the Kanawha Valley so long he could barely go anywhere without running into somebody he knew.
“There’s always a waiter,” he said and pointed to a man across the room. “That kid over there — they’re always kids to me, no matter how old they get — he’s one.”
Moments later, Christopher Rasmussen, came from the kitchen and stopped in to say hello.
Rasmussen was one of Woodard’s conducting students.
“I’ve got my tickets,” the 20-something said. “I got some extras to hand out.”
Woodard beamed, clearly pleased. He’d been promoting his Nov. 19 concert with the West Virginia Symphony almost since the conductor search was announced months ago.
The upcoming concert with the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra is a big moment for Woodard, a culmination of a music career largely centered around the state.
The performance is the West Virginia State University professor’s shot at becoming the symphony’s next conductor and music director. Woodard is one of six candidates “auditioning” for the job — and the only West Virginia native in the running.
“It’s very much a dream come true,” he said.
Woodard was born in Huntington, but almost wasn’t. His father was a paratrooper and career Army. His parents moved around and Woodard imagined that he could’ve been born and raised in Texas, if things had gone differently.
“But Dad broke his leg in a night jump,” the conductor said. “So, he had to retire from the Army and start a whole new career.”
He became a teacher and raised a family in Cabell County.
“He taught middle school and some elementary. He runs into former students all the time, too,” Woodard said.
Music wasn’t his first love. The first musical instrument he played was a flutophone, a shrill sounding, white plastic wind instrument often doled out in elementary schools to budding music students.
Few people stick with it. Woodard didn’t, but by sixth grade, he found the trumpet. That, he loved.
“Little known fact about Scott Woodard,” he said. “If not for the trumpet, I probably would’ve been a professional tap dancer.”
He took seven years of lessons, but music became a passion that led his life.
The trumpet took him through high school and into college. He studied at Marshall University, where he earned a bachelor’s and then a master’s degree.
“When I came back for my master’s, I began studying conducting under Dr. Paul Balshaw — just a genius gentleman. He was a great conductor, a great singer, great violinist and studied astrophysics,” Woodard said. “He gave me the opportunity to conduct the Marshall Orchestra, which I thought was just awesome.”
Balshaw pushed him to develop his skills and talents as a conductor. Woodard said he had to be prodded a bit.
“He told me if I wanted to do this, I needed to do competitions and workshops, things like that,” Woodard said. “I didn’t want to do that. I was conducting this orchestra and just so happy with everything.”
Balshaw entered him in International Conductors Workshop Competition in Macon, Georgia. He paid the fees and sent off the application without his student knowing.
“I come home one day and there’s this envelope in the mail from Georgia,” Woodard said.
He went. Then, he won.
Because of that, Woodard was invited to study in Russia, where he got to conduct orchestras in St. Petersburg.
“The Russia thing has led to a lot of opportunities and friendships,” he said. “That’s been amazing.”
Woodard eventually earned his doctorate in musical arts from Boston University and has taught either in the public schools or at West Virginia State University for more than 30 years.
That kind of career has given him a broad view of what should and shouldn’t be played. Woodard didn’t see himself as a champion of new music or a defender of the classics.
“I just don’t want to play any stinkers,” he said. “I just want good quality music.”
Along with conducting the orchestra at West Virginia State Philharmonic Orchestra of Charleston and the Butler Philharmonic Orchestra in Hamilton, Ohio, Woodard was the former cover conductor for the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra under Grant Cooper.
He filled in for Cooper and conducted the orchestra in some shows.
Woodard is married. His wife, Nafi, is a family physician who practices in Sissonville. They have two children together, including a daughter who was born over the summer, which was a little bit of a surprise.
Their son is 13 years older, but Woodard smiled and shrugged. She might’ve been unexpected, but they’re delighted to have her.
Making a life conducting orchestras isn’t easy, even if you’re from a part of the country that can support several. Most conductors piece out a living working with several groups. Some teach or compose music, but most move around, following one job or another.
Woodard really hasn’t. He said he’s never really wanted to. West Virginia has always been good to him. It’s home.
“West Virginia is a great place to raise a family,” he said. “I love it here.”
But he gets some travel in. Woodard has his orchestra in Ohio. He’s the principal guest conductor for the Rimini Orchestra in Rimini, Italy, a seaside resort in Italy that’s roughly three times the size of Charleston.
Woodard is also a frequent guest conductor and said he and his family do go on vacation every once in a while.
Becoming the next music director and conductor for the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra would be a dream come true for Woodard. It wasn’t the dream he started with, nothing he thought about when he first picked up the trumpet or the flutophone.
He grew into it.
After Woodard’s student Rasmussen went back to the kitchen, his teacher said, “Chris is a very talented conductor.”
Woodard said a few years back, he convinced the young man to apply to the International Conductors Workshop Competition in Georgia, the same workshop and competition he’d won in 2006.
“I told Chris it was good experience,” he said. “I told him he could learn some things from the workshop, make some connections — maybe a few friends.”
Because it was his first time at one of these events, Woodard said the stakes were low. Rasmussen was just going to participate.
“But damned if he didn’t win it,” Woodard laughed.