‘No greater experience’: Alumnus performs his concerto with Boston Symphony Orchestra
Jeff Midkiff earned his degree in music education in the School of Performing Arts in 1985.
Jeff Midkiff ’85 — a celebrated composer, conductor, musician, and educator — performed his mandolin concerto “From the Blue Ridge” with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) at Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, Massachusetts, on July 23.
Performing with one of the world’s greatest orchestras and collaborating with Maestro Thomas Wilkins, principal conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and the Boston Symphony’s artistic advisor, are not merely additional accolades on Midkiff's extensive bio, but a “wonderful dream” finally realized. Midkiff, a Roanoke native, earned his degree in music education from what is now the College of Architecture, Arts, and Design's School of Performing Arts.
“You can imagine how humbling it must be standing with him [Wilkins] in front of the Boston Symphony. … As a composer, there could be no greater experience,” Midkiff said. “As a soloist, it was thrilling!”
Wilkins, a native of Norfolk, has conducted orchestras throughout the United States and abroad, including the New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and the National Symphony Orchestra.
“Jeff is a terrific and consummate artist and a wonderful human being,” said Wilkins. “It was a joy to have him here with the BSO, and Tanglewood is the perfect setting for his music.”
As a self-producer, Midkiff has sent emails to conductors of orchestras all over the country, asking them to consider playing his compositions. He rarely receives a response. However, in December 2022 while checking email from his car outside the hardware store, Midkiff noticed an email from the Boston Symphony Orchestra in his inbox.
“It was from the artistic administrator of the Boston Symphony saying that the conductor, Thomas Wilkins, would like to have me play my mandolin concerto with the Boston Symphony on July 23 at Tanglewood. Would I be interested?” Midkiff said.
At a loss for words and overcome by “shock and panic,” Midkiff ran to his wife who was perusing paint samples and wordlessly thrust his phone in her face. He used the drive home from the hardware store to figure out how to professionally craft a response that said, “YES!”
“As a kid or young person, if you were to say, ‘Imagine the greatest thing that could ever happen to you professionally’ … I doubt I could have come up with anything better than this, being able to, as a composer and as a soloist, to have my music played by the Boston Symphony … it’s very difficult to put into words, but [I’m] humbled to say the least,” said Midkiff.
“From the Blue Ridge,” a three-movement mandolin concerto, was composed for the Roanoke Symphony and Music Director David Stewart Wiley, who commissioned the piece after Midkiff approached him with the idea in 2010.
The concerto premiered in 2011, and since then, Midkiff has performed it more than 20 times across the United States with several symphonies, including the Rochester Philharmonic, Jacksonville Symphony, Boulder Philharmonic, and Knoxville Symphony.
“Jeff’s masterful mandolin concerto ‘From the Blue Ridge’ continues to resonate with audiences for several reasons. First, it uses mountain-inspired themes within the concerto framework of the great classical traditions that lovers of great symphonic music appreciate. It is both new and timeless at the same time,” said Wiley. “The work also features the mandolin both as a lyrical presence and with its great virtuosic capabilities. I and we at the Roanoke Symphony are proud to have commissioned it, and I have been so pleased to conduct it on several occasions, always to great audience and orchestra response.”
“From the Blue Ridge” blends music from the region with Midkiff’s classical music education from Virginia Tech, where he received a bachelor’s degree in music education, and Northern Illinois University, where he received a master’s degree in clarinet performance. The concerto reverberates influences that Midkiff said are part of his DNA: “The piece, as a composer, is everything I am musically.”
Living in the mountains of Appalachia and listening to his parents’ bluegrass and folk music records shaped Midkiff’s ear for the genre, but it was a neighbor — Sherman Poff — who handed him his first mandolin.
“I saw him playing his mandolin and I must have said something to the 1970s version of, ‘Hey, that’s cool,’ and he said that he would give me the mandolin if I learned how to play it — and that was pretty much the rest of my life in a sentence,” Midkiff said.
His parents supported his passion with lessons at the local music store, where he learned to read music from Mabel Musalino, who knew how to play a little mandolin because her husband played the instrument in classical Italian style. She nurtured the musical talent of 7-year-old Midkiff, who then went on to study by ear from Dempsey Young, an established bluegrass mandolin player.
One year later, Midkiff was playing in his own bands and competing in fiddlers’ conventions throughout the area. By middle school, he was “a pretty seasoned veteran” with string instruments, but Roanoke County did not offer orchestra, only band and choir. Midkiff would have to choose a new instrument.
“I went to the beginning band orientation, and they said, ‘What do you want to play?’ and I didn’t know. Drums, trumpet, saxophone maybe? And the fine arts person there said, ‘I think you look like you maybe want to play trombone or maybe clarinet.’ And I didn’t know any better. Of course, they needed trombones and clarinets and they had too many trumpets and drums, so I said, ‘Sure, clarinet.’”
Luckily, the instrument of choice matched the fast notes Midkiff enjoyed playing on the mandolin and fiddle. That, along with dedicated teachers, opened his world up to a new performing experience.
“I learned the classical repertoire through great teachers in middle school and high school, and then when I went to Virginia Tech, there were great professors there,” said Midkiff.
Midkiff’s career path was tuned to performing. While in college, he took summers and any free time during the semester to tour with the Lonesome River Band. However, on the advice of his clarinet instructor, David Widder, Midkiff pursued a degree in music education. Widder pointed out that the degree was the same amount of time, classwork, and money, adding, “It’s a long life. You never know.” This advice would resonate throughout Midkiff’s career.
After graduating from Virginia Tech in 1985, Midkiff stopped touring and continued his education at Northern Illinois, a difficult decision but one that was more conducive to the “adult things in life, like health insurance, retirement, and sanity.”
“I think that going on with further education and learning more about clarinet, classical music, and that world, all of that gets me to where I am now,” Midkiff said.
After spending much of his adult life performing and teaching in Chicago, Midkiff returned to his roots in the Roanoke Valley in 2007.
He accepted a position teaching orchestra in Roanoke City Public Schools. He is currently the orchestra director at Patrick Henry High school. In addition, Midkiff received the Yale Distinguished Music Educator award in 2017.
“I’ve got the greatest job,” said Midkiff. “Roanoke City is a great place to teach and be part of the music education in the Roanoke Valley.”
Performing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra is perhaps the crown jewel in Jeff Midkiff’s career and having Widder, his mentor, in the audience with so many other family, friends and colleagues only made the moment more meaningful.
“It’s wonderful that so many people have been supportive and helpful to me to be able to get to this point,” said Midkiff. “I’ve been very fortunate to have a varied career. … I wouldn’t trade anything as a performer or as an educator. I’ve had a very full, rewarding life doing it all.”