Dunner, Leslie B. 1956–

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Leslie B. Dunner 1956

Symphony director, conductor

At a Glance

Selected works


Among the most acclaimed conductors of his generation, Leslie B. Dunner has held positions with several major municipal orchestras in the United States, including the New York Philharmonic. He is known for energetic and insightful performances both in the concert setting and in theater, and he has toured internationally with great success. Dunner has acquired a reputation for rejuvenating orchestras in need of new energy and artistic direction, and is also known as a popularizer of classical music. He has been praised especially for his work with the Annapolis (Maryland) Symphony Orchestra and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. In 2003 he became the conductor and musical director of the celebrated Joffrey Ballet of Chicago.

Leslie Byron Dunner was born on January 5, 1956, in New York City to parents Lloyd Bertram Dunner and Audrey (Hemmings) Dunner. His father worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and later for the Brooklyn Department of Sanitation, while his mother was a social worker. Dunner grew up in Harlem and the South Bronx and developed an interest in jazz that was disapproved of by his high school teachers. He learned to play the clarinet and also acquired from his older sister a passion for African dance, a talent that led to him becoming the youngest performer at the 1964 New York Worlds Fair. He went on to the University of Rochesters Eastman School of Music, where he was awarded his bachelors degree in 1978. He later attended Queens College in New York, where he was awarded a masters degree in 1979, and the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, where he was awarded a Ph.D. in 1982.

Dunners first professional appointment was an academic one. He became a professor of music at Carle-ton College in Northfield, Minnesota, in 1982. He remained there until 1986, when he became the principal guest conductor at the Dance Theatre of Harlem and, in 1987, the resident conductor at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO). Dunners residency at the Detroit Symphony lasted until 1999 and provided the platform on which he built his subsequent career.

Dunners reputation as a conductor rests on his ability to communicate with the audience through a wide variety of musical styles, and through his willingness to

At a Glance

Born on January 5, 1956, in New York City Education: Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester, BA, 1978; Queens College, New York, MA, 1979; College Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati, Ohio, PhD, 1982,

Career: Carleton College, Northfield, MN, assistant professor, 1982-86; Dance Theatre of Harlem, New York, NY, principal guest conductor, 1986-99; Chicago Symphony Orchestra, cover conductor, 1987-94; Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Detroit, Ml, resident conductor, 1987-99; New York Philharmonic, assistant conductor 1994-2001; Symphony Nova Scotia, Canada, music director, 1996-99; Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, music director, 1998-2003; Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, principal conductor, 2003-.

Memberships: American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers; American Music Center, board of directors, 1991, and music director, 1998.

Awards: Colorado Philharmonic National Conducting Competition, Denver, First Prize, 1986; Arturo Toscanini International Conducting Competition, Parma, Italy, Third Prize 1986; Spirit of Detroit award, 1988; Leslie Dunner Day/ Annapolis, MD, 1998; Delta Phi Beta, Detroit, named Man of the Year, 1988; NAACP, James Weldon Johnson Award, 1991; University of Cincinnati, Distinguished Young Alumnus Award, 1996.

Addresses: Office Joffrey Ballet, 70 East Lake Street, Suite 1300, Chicago, Illinois 60601.

experiment with tempo and presentation. He is a flamboyant performer whose conducting style owes almost as much to dance as to the more conservative classical music tradition. While he was with the Detroit Symphony, first as resident, then associate, and finally as assistant conductor, Dunner performed in concerts ranging from Pops to the major classical repertoire. He also led the DSO in developing their educational programs, concerts for young people, and touring programs. Above all, as Dunner told the New Bay Times (Annapolis) in 1998, he is interested in having his audiences feel the music as well as experience it intellectually.

During his time with the DSO, Dunners reputation as a charismatic and popular conductor grew quickly. In 1994 he was invited to work as assistant to veteran conductor Kurt Masur with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, joining them on their 1995 European tour. His association with the New York Philharmonic ended in 2001. Also in the 1990s Dunner was involved with the Detroit Symphony Civic and Dearborn Symphony Orchestras and toured Europe, South America, and the United States with the Dance Theatre of Harlem. In 1992 he performed with the Dance Theatre of Harlem for Nelson Mandela, the South African leader who had been released from prison two years earlier. Dunner also took the Dance Theatre of Harlem to world-famous festivals, including the Salzburg Festival in Austria and the Tivoli Festival in Denmark.

In 1998 Dunner took up the post of music director of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra with a promise to rejuvenate the orchestra with his own brand of flamboyant conducting and varied musical programming. He explained to the New Bay Times shortly before taking up the post that he hoped to make the audience react to the music: I think the only promise I can make at this point is things wont be boring. People have to make up their own minds as to whether they like something or not. Although he began his residence at Annapolis with the conservative program inherited from his predecessor, in the five years he worked in Annapolis the orchestra developed a reputation for the accessibility of its concerts and the dynamism of its performances.

Dunner left Annapolis in 2003 under difficult circumstances. At the time there was speculation about racial prejudice being a factor in his leaving, though he was supported by many in the orchestra and in the city itself. He moved to Chicago and took up the post of musical director at the renowned Joffrey Ballet Company, pledging to ensure that the dancers never performed without live musical accompaniment. By the end of 2003 he had already made his mark on the ballet orchestra, the Chicago Sinfonietta. Hedy Weiss, dance critic of the Chicago Sun Times, called his Christmas 2003 performance of The Nutcracker masterful, praising the way he adjusted rhythm and tempo to support, even inspire, the performers perfect balance.

Besides his long-term posts Dunner has performed as guest conductor with major orchestras around the world. These include the New York Philharmonic, the San Francisco and Seattle Symphony orchestras, the Symphony Orchestra of Madrid (Spain), and the Warsaw Sinfonia (Poland). Dunner makes regular trips to South Africa, where he has performed with that countrys major orchestras. He has also performed with chamber orchestras, and with prestigious international dance companies, including the American Ballet Theatre, the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden (London, England), and the Birmingham Royal Ballet (Birmingham, England). Dunner has also received many awards and honors, including the Detroit Man of the Year and Spirit of Detroit awards, and commendations from the National Association of Negro Musicians. He was the first American winner of the Arturo Toscanini International Conducting Competition in 1986, and the recipient of the Distinguished Young Alumnus award from the University of Cincinnati in 1996. He was also honored by the NAACP in 1991 with the James Weldon Johnson Award.

Selected works


The Motherless Child Songs, 1989.


Open Boundaries, 1994.

The Magical, Mystical Mouse, 1994.

Ellington and the Modern Masters: Music of African-American Composers, 2000.



Handy, Antoinette, Black Conductors, Scarecrow Press, 1995.

Smith, Eric Ledell, Blacks in Opera. An Encyclopedia of People and Companies, 1873-1993, McFarland and Company, 1995.


American Visions, February-March 1993, p. 44.

Chicago Sun Times, September 24, 2003; December 8, 2003.

Detroit News, November 2, 1998.

New Bay Times (Annapolis), August 22, 1998; September 2, 1998.

Washington Post, May 15, 2000.


Leslie B. Dunner, Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com.servlet/BioRC (April 6, 2004).

Leslie B. Dunner, Conductor, Parker Artists, www.parkerartists.com/NewPages/dunner.html (April 6, 2004).

Chris Routledge

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