A dream realized through the love of music and the Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra
Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra Associate Conductor Nickolai Podvin is only a few short months away from realizing a lifelong dream — studying conducting at a prestigious school in Europe. This September, he will be attending the Royal Academy of Music and Drama in London. It is a dream that might not have come true without the love and support from family, friends and the Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra.
WILLMAR — When Nickolai Podvin, Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra associate conductor, takes the stage to conduct the orchestra through its rendition of Arturo Marquez's "Conga del Fuego Nuevo" at its May 21 concert, it will mark the start of his final bow with the orchestra.
"It is a little surreal, exciting but sad at the same time," Podvin said. "I have not really thought about it. I am just trying to enjoy every moment I can."
Podvin is leaving the orchestra with which he has played since 2016 because he is about to embark on a grand musical adventure.
Starting in September, Podvin will be enrolled at the Royal Academy of Music in London, England. He will be earning his artist diploma in conducting from the prestigious school, often ranked as one of the best music schools in the world. He was the only candidate accepted out of 360 applicants.
"The Royal Academy has something really major to teach me and show me before I become a professional," Podvin said.
One of the loves of Podvin's life, music has been his passion since he was a small boy. His family immigrated to the United States from Bulgaria when he was 5, and even back then Podvin knew he loved music and conducting. He started learning the piano when he was 5, picked up the trumpet in elementary school, the clarinet around fifth or sixth grade and then was introduced to his favorite instrument in seventh grade.
"Then I found the bassoon. I remember that day so perfectly," as he put the instrument together and attempted to play it for the first time. That first squawk wasn't the most auspicious beginning, but Podvin said he picked it up rather quickly and continues to play, including for the Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra.
Over the years, he has participated in many different orchestras and music programs, both as a musician and as a conductor.
There was no doubt Podvin would study music in college and train to become a professional conductor. He started his undergraduate studies in 2008 at North Park University in Chicago.
Then life turned everything on its head.
Before Podvin finished his bachelor's degree, his father was diagnosed with leukemia and Podvin transferred to Augsburg University in Minneapolis, where he finished his undergraduate studies.
It would be a dark time in Podvin's life, and it nearly ended his musical career.
The last memory Podvin has of his father is listening to Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 together. The bassoon Podvin plays was a gift from his father toward the end of his life, marking Podvin's graduation from Augsburg.
For some time later, music and his bassoon were connected in Podvin's mind to the illness and death of his father.
"After he died, every single time I looked at my instrument, picked up my bassoon, played the piano — I just kept breaking down, because it kept reminding me," Podvin said. He thought at the time that he may leave music behind, perhaps become a restaurant manager or a full-time car salesperson, both jobs at which he had success.
It wasn't until Podvin got a call out of the blue one day from Robert Whitney, owner of Whitney Music in Willmar and member of the Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra, asking if Podvin would be willing to be a substitute bassoon player for an upcoming concert, that Podvin found the love and passion for music once again.
After that first concert, Podvin was invited to remain with the orchestra, which he accepted. He traveled weekly from the Twin Cities to participate in practices and, under orchestra conductor Stephen Ramsey's tutelage, Podvin again took up the conductor's baton.
He has been the associate conductor for the group since 2018.
"This orchestra — the Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra, and Maestro Stephen Ramsey — they are the reason I got out of my rut," Podvin said. "They actually gave me that spark that started everything over."
Podvin went back to school, earning his double master's degree in bassoon and conducting from Illinois State University.
After graduation, Podvin started to question his future again, this time wondering if he should become a music teacher instead of pursuing a professional conducting career. It was his longtime friend Anna Koczandon who helped persuade him to apply to international music schools to pursue his artist diploma.
"'You are a conductor, what is holding you back?'" Podvin said Koczandon asked him. "(The) very next day, I was looking at schools."
He applied to three schools in the United Kingdom, including the Royal Academy and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. He also applied to several schools in the United States, including the University of Minnesota, University of Miami and University of Colorado in Boulder.
"No matter what, I was going someplace," Podvin said.
As he waited for word about his school applications, Podvin attended the International Conductors Workshop and Competition in mid-January 2022 near Atlanta. Despite some challenges, including learning an entirely new piece of music in just 48 hours, Podvin was one of the competition's three winners.
"That was when I realized something was happening," Podvin said.
A few weeks later, he got word that the Royal Academy was inviting him to London for a final audition.
Following his audition, Podvin worried he had thrown away his chance. He had to stop the orchestra a few times for verbal direction, and he was unable to get through all the pieces the audition committee wanted him to conduct.
Instead, Podvin greatly impressed the committee, enough that he was accepted into the school's comprehensive conducting program.
"Sian Edwards, the leader of the program for conducting, literally told me I was the only one to produce the best sound in the orchestra. I was absolutely flabbergasted," Podvin said.
Podvin will arrive in London on Sept. 2, with classes starting Sept. 5. After completing the course in summer 2023, Podvin will follow where his muse takes him, though the dream is to one day be a professional conductor.
"I am at the mercy of music. Wherever it tells me to go, whatever it tells me to do, I do," Podvin said.
No matter where Podvin ends up, he will keep the Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra close to his heart, because without them, who knows where he would be today.
"This orchestra will always have a very special place in my life," Podvin said. "This group of amazing, passionate people, they are the ones that pulled me out from the pit I found myself in that was lifeless. They brought life back to me."