Symphony wizard

Like he was pulling fire down from the sky—
     Like a demon billowed from his palms—
       Like he was resurrecting a mountain—
Look at me, he said. Play what you see.
And a great sound seared through the silence: a sharp, inexorable rupture.
So sharp, you almost wondered...
     If silence could restore itself.

The fabric of humanity is spun infinitely by the handiwork of its people: hands that build empires, pitch curveballs, sow seeds. When Maestro Christian Baldini summons his hands, he spawns a cosmic rhapsody, a torrent of a thousand sounds wed to perfection. His arms sweep with the unmistakable pulse of vitality.

Baldini conducts the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra, a body of musicians from all walks of life—college students who find a comforting constant in music as they hold the chisels to unsculpted futures for the first time, university faculty who’ve read enough in their lives to know there are some voids words alone can’t fill, and members of the Davis community drawn to this treasure chest not of visible riches, but of riches to the ear.

If you circled just above UC Davis on an early Tuesday or Thursday evening, you would see an ant-like migration of these orchestra members trickling toward the Mondavi Center with big black instrument cases on their backs. They arrive by foot or by bike or by skateboard. For two and a half hours they make themselves at home on the very stage where classical superstars like Yo-Yo Ma and the London Philharmonic have mesmerized audiences. On these nights, the concert hall is empty, but like a museum sprung to life after hours, the stage teems with musicians freed of concert formalities. A light lurch of the conductor’s hands sweeps the orchestra in sync, and rehearsal begins.

He draws sound out from the depths of silence, rousing melodies from their slumber. Bolder, brighter—he fans out his arms, palms outstretched, fingers curling toward himself as if beckoning music out of a wormhole. And there it is, like a glowing Patronus charm: a flowing elixir of the harp, a riveting call of trumpets.

It is like witnessing a thundering anthem to the genesis of a sun.

Baldini, born and raised in Mar Del Plata, Argentina, is a petite man of about 5’5” who greets you with a twinkling elfin smile. It is the smile of an inspired man: Baldini’s love for music first emerged as an infatuation with Mozart at the early age of four, and by the time he graduated from high school, he had mastered the piano, picked up the viola, dabbled with the cello, and pursued the punkish lure of a rock band as the electric guitarist. On the side, he was constantly composing. So in his last year of high school, Baldini began a seven year training program that would eventually lead to a degree in composition. Two years into the program, he found himself conducting a choir at a year-end concert for his composition class.

It’s like wizardry, almost. From nothing a conductor can extract a beautiful paean, an extraordinary uprooting of stillness. He will plunge a fist into the core of the orchestra and coax out a blazing tonality that rages like the earth was just cleaved open.

The air quakes in his hands.

Baldini was hooked. But a conductor is nothing without musicians, so while he was still an undergraduate at the Catholic University of Argentina, Baldini founded an orchestra entirely from scratch. He named it Camerata Exaudi. Camerata is an Italian term for a body of intellectuals united by their common goal to perform works together—either in poetry or in music. Exaudi in Latin means to “listen clearly and favorably.” Together, the phrase embodies what Baldini most aspires to accomplish: to be a ministry of good music, and to make those who listen fall in love with the spirit that empowers such music. In two years, Camerata Exaudi grew from a 15-member chamber group to a full symphony orchestra, complete with a wind ensemble and choir. Though Baldini left the orchestra after three years to pursue an education abroad, the orchestra—now in its eleventh year—continues to perform.

“We need to let music breathe,” he said. “To kill sound before it has completely evaporated would be a real crime. It’s important, having this appreciation of sound as nature, like letting water flow naturally—even if we have to wait for it.”

Since coming to the States for his graduate studies in conducting at Pennsylvania State University and the University of Buffalo, Baldini has also studied in Italy, Germany, and the United Kingdom. His exposure to various cultures has influenced his conducting and perspective of music, he says, though he can’t pinpoint precisely how.

“There has not been a single time where I’ve had the same piece in front of me and I’ve done the same with it,” Baldini said. “Because you change, you go through different experiences, you age, you fall in love, you have a child—all these things influence who you are—and the next time you’re in front of the same piece, you can’t look at it from the same perspective.”

When Baldini was offered the opportunity to conduct the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra after Maestro Kern Holoman retired from the position three years ago, he was thrilled because he admired the rich history of the orchestra—which had toured Canada, Australia, and France in the 50 years since it was founded—and saw great potential in its future. The evolving nature of a university symphony appealed to Baldini because different players bring new things to the table, and with waves of graduating and incoming students constantly eroding and reshaping the orchestra, the tides of musical expression are never quite the same year after year.

He moves like he is commanding an ocean with his bare hands. His baton leaps like a wand with a life of its own—striking gashes in the air, gliding in tandem with the music. His hands swim like the undulating bells of jellyfish, and in the next second they caress an invisible sash of fine silk.

During rehearsal, Baldini sits at the podium elevated above the orchestra. But the respect between all parties is palpable and sincere. Baldini describes the role of a conductor with the Latin expression Primus Inter Pares, first among equals. In this respect, conducting is an especially humbling profession because the leader’s power perpetually hinges on the work of his followers. Baldini emphasizes the importance of trusting the players, because only with unwavering trust can a conductor truly raise an orchestra’s capacity. With experience, Baldini has developed a strong sense of the qualities that he believes define a good conductor.

“There must be integrity,” said Baldini. “If there is integrity, there will be preparation, a love for the music, and doing things well. One must have the approach of thinking, ‘What is important? What do they need from me?’ Just questioning yourself more about what can you do and what can you add. You’re here for a reason—not just to stand there and look cool. You’re there to do something.”

When the orchestra rehearses Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf for the very first time, the horn—characterizing the fierce and antagonistic wolf—debuts with a meek purr.

“I am telling you now: our wolf is not vegetarian,” Baldini jokes in an Argentinian accent, his t’s dribbling in a curious limbo between the “t” and “d” sounds, his r’s riding the trace remnants of a roll.

Everyone laughs, because they know Baldini means well. He never mocks the players. He looks them in the eye—not superficially—but with a candid communication: I have faith in what you can do.

If you watch closely, you can almost see string puppets dancing in his hands as he steers the music. When Baldini conducts, he is so absorbed in making the magic that unfurls before him—hurdling, seducing, and roaring—it’s as if the entire world is contained within the breadth of the orchestra.

His hands—the heart and helm of the orchestra—throb in suspension over the podium. They pump life into a body of 120 musicians, a body whose every breath expels penetrating music. It is this life that conjures a supernatural eruption of sound so perfect and powerful it swells in your veins. It is a life so restless and relentless it ignites a volcanic harmony that resounds with the unshakable force of gods. As a deafening squall of cymbals peals through the hall and the pummeling kettledrums detonate their last battle cry, Baldini’s pouncing hands clasp the sound to a close.

A jarring silence rings crisp in the air.

Close your eyes, and it would feel as if the world had halted so abruptly that even the stars quivered in their places.

“Not bad,” he murmurs. “Not bad...”

And so concludes rehearsal. The musicians file out of the Mondavi Center and disperse every which way, swallowed into the night. Now, if you circled above UC Davis, you wouldn’t see a thing in the hungry darkness. But if you dipped closer, you might hear them humming, humming into the silent air as if they’d just tumbled out of an enchanted world.