HATTIESBURG – When
you're on a mountaintop, the spectacular view often obscures the
path that got you there. But without that path, worn by determination
and littered, as always, with at least a little luck, there would
be no view to behold.
Dr. Jay Dean, despite taking the Southern Miss Symphony
Orchestra to the highest professional peaks, has not lost sight
of the path.
Less than 20 years ago, when the conductor from Manchester,
Ga., first arrived in Hattiesburg, the symphony was much smaller
and played sporadically, often to half-empty halls - at no charge.
On April 2, The University of Southern Mississippi,
in association with the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino in Biloxi,
will present the "concert event of a lifetime," as it
is being billed, starring the most famous tenor in the world, Placido
The transformation is hard to justify with words.
It is not, however, lost on Dean.
"When you talk about raising the bar here, I
wouldn't say we raised it. I don't know if that's dramatic enough.
I think we created the bar," Dean says.
To understand how the Southern Miss Symphony Orchestra
went from playing free concerts to becoming one of the nation's
premier symphonies, playing to sold-out audiences and commanding
the highest ticket prices in the state, you must first understand
Dean, the driving force behind it.
A tireless promoter of Southern Miss and the community
that fosters it, Dean is the embodiment of the "little engine
who could," or in this case, "the little conductor who
To Dean, the word "no" is - to paraphrase
Winston Churchill - "something up with which he will not put."
When Dean first started entertaining the idea of bringing
the world's leading violinist, Itzhak Perlman, to Southern Miss,
few considered it anything more than mere musing, a conductor's
wishful folly. After all, Perlman, who is based in New York, is
one of the most sought-after instrumentalists of all time.
"When I started that whole process," Dean
says, "everyone laughed at me, both here and in New York."
As you might expect, the response Dean got when he
approached Perlman's people was one of polite disregard.
"No one thought that an orchestra in Mississippi
had the wherewithal to bring in an artist that big. The answer from
New York was just 'No, no, no.' Our track record was such that,
at that time, we'd never done anything that big."
Dispirited but undeterred, Dean refused to accept
"no" for an answer. He kept "pestering them,"
sending information about the symphony at Southern Miss, where,
up to that point, the most famous artist it had worked with was
former Tonight Show trumpeter Doc Severinsen.
Dean knew getting Perlman to agree to a concert was
a long shot. One brilliantly played move proved fateful, however.
"I specifically requested that before he could
turn us down, he must at least listen to the CDs I sent him."
Several months went by, the phones silent, the dream
still just nothing more than that.
Finally, Dean got his wish. Apparently, Perlman had
heard something he liked.
"Getting him was critical for us," Dean
says. "That gave us a credibility we had not had before and
made things a little easier after that."
Although Dean was able to change Perlman's mind about
his symphony, there were other misperceptions. At a meeting in Texas
several months before Perlman first appeared at Southern Miss in
1996, Dean introduced himself to the famed violinist.
"I told him who I was, and he said, 'Oh, yes.
I remember now
Mississippi. Why did I agree to that?' But he
came here and had a great experience. He even wrote us a letter,
complimenting us on our level of professionalism."
The experience led to another joint performance in
2001, and Dean says it won't be the last collaboration between Perlman
and Southern Miss. "We're already talking about a third time,"
Naturally, getting Perlman opened other doors.
In 1998, the Southern Miss orchestra had the honor
of playing with one of the greatest American musical legends, the
late Ray Charles.
Although it was "like a dream," senior percussionist
John Purser of New Orleans remembers the experience well. It was
his first semester at Southern Miss, and he was asked to perform
alongside Charles in concert.
"He had to walk right by where I was standing
to get on stage, and I couldn't believe it was happening. I knew
it would be an experience like no other. You can't imagine what
it felt like," Purser says.
With a hot hand that would make a Vegas veteran jealous,
Dean kept rolling the dice and coming up a winner.
In 1999, Dean landed the most widely known cellist
in the world, Yo-Yo Ma.
There was Jean Pierre Rampal, the premier French flutist,
then Denyce Graves, the leading Carmen in the world today.
This year, the Symphony Orchestra opened its 2004-05
season with Sir James Galway, whom Dean calls "the world's
greatest flutist," and Galway's wife, Lady Jeanne Galway, also
an accomplished flutist.
"When you look at the artists who've performed
with us, they are the same names you see performing at the Met (in
New York) or with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. There are no
bigger names on the planet," Dean says.
Except, maybe one. And it's no surprise that Dean
set his mind about getting him, too.
A native of Spain, Placido Domingo is known the world
over. Even people who've never heard a note of opera usually recognize
the name. He has sung in every major opera house in the world and
has made more than 100 recordings - 97 of which are full-length
operas - often recording the same role more than once. He has won
almost a dozen Grammy awards, including two in the newly created
Domingo has made more than 50 videos and three theatrically
released films, Zeffirelli's La Traviata, Otello, and Rosi's Carmen.
One billion people in 117 different countries watched his telecast
of Tosca from the authentic settings in Rome.
The tenor reached the pinnacle of fame when he teamed
with two fellow world-renowned tenors, Jose Carreras and Luciano
Pavarotti, on July 7, 1990, in Rome, and a phenomenon known as "The
Three Tenors" was born.
"Domingo adds another level of prestige to our
orchestra program and to the credibility we are constantly building
with each passing season. It gets no bigger or better than this,"
So, just how prestigious is Domingo's collaboration
with Southern Miss? The school's coup can't be overstated. To put
it in perspective, consider this: Domingo's Web site lists six cities
in the United States - only six - that the Spanish crooner will
perform in this year. One of those cities is in South Mississippi.
For recruiting purposes, Southern Miss' music program
couldn't ask for more.
Purser said, "As a student, working with famous
musicians like the ones we've had the opportunity to work with gives
me so much faith in the program here at (Southern Miss).
"But I always knew that I was part of something
special when I joined. You could tell Dr. Dean was going to take
the symphony to new heights because he had such a passion (for the
Dean says the value of these types of musical partnerships
for students is "immeasurable."
"Members of our orchestra have rare opportunities
that many musicians around the world never get. Most musicians will
never get to say they've played with Placido Domingo.
"Students in the best music schools in the world
might get to do master's classes with names like these, but few
rarely have the opportunity to perform in concert with them. For
students, this can be a life-changing experience."
The students aren't the only beneficiaries.
Concert-goers at Southern Miss over the last couple
of decades have been treated to a steady fare of musical delicacies
covering all musical boundaries.
This season alone, sandwiched by performances from
Galway and Domingo, the Southern Miss symphony season included a
concert featuring faculty members Lois Levanthal, piano, and Richard
Perry, tuba, in a program called "Twice as Grand"; a Christmas
holiday spectacular at the Saenger Theater in downtown Hattiesburg;
the William T. Gower Awards concert (named after Dean's predecessor)
on Jan. 27; "A Royal Romance" concert on Valentine's Day,
featuring The King's Violins; and Carlisle Floyd's opera Susannah
in a 50th-anniversary celebration production Feb. 23, 26 and 27.
An evening of "Organ and Choral Masterworks" rounds out
the season on May 5, featuring Jackson Borges on organ.
While Dean has been the central figure in the symphony's
rise to international prominence over the last dozen years, he credits
two others in particular, former university president Dr. Aubrey
K. Lucas and current president Dr. Shelby Thames, for understanding,
sharing and encouraging his musical vision.
"I credit Dr. Lucas for helping us take that
first step (with Perlman). If it was not for his support, belief
and passion, we would not be where we are today.
"And Dr. Thames also understands the quality
of what we do and its importance. It's because of him that the orchestra
program has been able to take some new steps in professionalism
and outreach. The support from the president's office and the belief
in what we're trying to achieve is critical to our future."
The irony of Dean's success is that he is now pressured
to maintain and even exceed it. But how do you keep topping yourself
when you've already landed four of the world's most famous musicians
in a span of less than 10 years?
"There is some concern about what to do next,"
Dean says, half-jokingly.
Never one to rest on his laurels, Dean is already
plotting future coups, in arenas that may surprise some.
Without showing his hand, Dean says, "We're going
to venture into more popular artists, and maybe do some more coliseum
shows. Right now, we're just very focused on Mr. Domingo and making
sure our first experience with the Beau Rivage goes well. If it
does--which we expect it will--we might pursue other things with
As he's shown time and time again, once Dean gets
an idea in his mind, he stays with it until it is realized. But
that doesn't mean he can't see the forest for the trees. Dean understands
how the orchestra - and the music program altogether - adds to the
cultural opportunities in both Hattiesburg and the state of Mississippi.
"As we become more prominent on an international
level, our reputation is growing. I think we are an important part
of what makes this community so attractive, and furthermore, the
work we do is important for improving the national reputation of
"It is important to the quality of life in Hattiesburg,
and it is important to the distinction of this university. One of
the things Southern Miss has always been known for is its music
program and music education. It's been a part of our fabric since
our beginning," Dean says.
On a community level, the Southern Miss Symphony Orchestra
is important, Dean says, because when people look to cities in which
to retire, relocate or study, they look at places that have wonderful
"When this institution can say that it has world
class orchestral events, that gets people's attention," he
"The musicians we have performed with get more
offers than they can handle; they don't just play with anyone. But
our reputation and our quality make us attractive. They continue
coming here, and when they leave, their perception of Mississippi
is often very different than what it was before they came. Each
one has had a positive experience here."
Dean says that if he's been able to bring anything
to Southern Miss and its orchestra, it is the desire to "do
more than has ever been done before and the realization that the
unattainable is possible."
"You have to remember, when I first talked about
bringing Itzhak Perlman here, people laughed at me."
After Dean conducts the world's greatest tenor later
this spring and the curtain falls on the biggest musical event in
Southern Miss history, don't be the least bit surprised if you hear
giggles coming from the conductor's stand. That would be the sound
of someone getting the last laugh.