Christopher Dragon's hair was striking. Think "Edward Scissorhands" without the makeup and costume. But this season, the associate conductor for the Colorado Symphony has a dramatic new look. His wild mane has been shaved off -- but don't expect him to have any less fun on the podium.
"Any opportunity I get, I will be in a costume," said the 28-year-old.
Dragon turned heads a couple of years ago when he conducted the theme to "Jurassic Park" at the Colorado Symphony’s Comic Con concert. Dragon had the audience and the orchestra in stitches when he came out on stage in an inflatable T-Rex costume.
“I didn’t actually tell the orchestra that I was going to be wearing this T-Rex costume, so the first concert we did, the whole orchestra lost it,” he said.
Video of the performance became a sensation online. But as it turns out, conducting in costume comes with some occupational hazards.
"What actually happened the first night is that everything fogged up and I couldn’t see my score. Also, the hands I was wearing were plastic so I couldn’t turn the pages,” recounts Dragon.
His solution was to memorize the score for future performances in case of any costume malfunctions.
Dragon was just 25 when he became the associate conductor of the Colorado Symphony, making him the youngest associate in the orchestra's history. He is now in his fourth season.
Dragon grew up in Perth, Australia, and saw the ad for the Denver job online. He said not only was the job audition in Colorado a long way from home, it was intense. Of the 200-plus applicants, 10 were chosen to audition during a grueling three-day process.
"By far, it was the hardest thing I ever had to do," he said. "Usually these things happen in one day but this process was quite intense. At the end of each day, you would basically get a phone call around 5 p.m., 6 p.m., telling you whether you’ve made it to the next round. So each day it would be cut down. I think it was 10 people, and then six people, and then three," he said.
His strategy for winning the job? Show up just in the nick of time.
"They told us we had to arrive like 20 minutes early, or 30 minutes early, but they put all of the conductors in the same room. So I wasn’t really keen on being psyched out by all the other conductors, so I was a bit naughty and I arrived just before I had to go onto the podium each time, so I skipped the whole waiting-room thing, so that was one of my tricks to it," Dragon said.
Dragon didn’t study conducting in Australia because there was no conducting track there so he majored in clarinet performance. So how did a clarinetist from a faraway music school land a conducting job with a prestigious symphony in the U.S.? Dragon said it might be in large part to his "learning on the job" experience as a conductor in Australia.
"I basically conducted everything from wind bands to brass bands," he said. "I had two community orchestras, youth orchestras... I did quite a lot of actual hands-on conducting."
Dragon added that there’s only so much about conducting you can learn from a book. Podium time in front of musicians is key to learning.
"So for me to have that exposure to so many different ensembles so regularly, that was the best sort of training that I could get."
Being able to conduct just about anything is a requirement for any conductor with the Colorado Symphony. The symphony's strategy for filling the hall has the orchestra playing a movie soundtrack one night and Benjamin Britten's War Requiem a few nights later. Versatility is key for the players and conductors, and Dragon loves the variety.
"I don’t want to be pigeonholed just doing pop concerts or just doing classical music or just doing films," he says. "I love doing it all. And I want to continue conducting it all."
Dragon conducts the Colorado Symphony this week in two sold out shows of Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and two nights of a "Rocky Horror Show" singalong.