When Raymond Chobaz waved his baton in the air, the symphony followed suit.
His experienced right hand never faltered.
Chobaz was standing in front of 80 or so students during a Wednesday evening rehearsal. It’s where he’s stood for 33 years. The sound of violins and cellos rose dramatically as his arm movements became more erratic. The room was alive.
Without his direction, music notes would clash. Instruments would scream. The students would play too fast, and the ballet dancers would trip.
“It’s chaos,” Chobaz said. “And then it falls together on performance night. It’s magic.”
Chobaz, 68, reigns as music director and conductor of the UF Symphony Orchestra.
But at the end of this semester, Chobaz, who also has a physics and math background, is taking a research leave to work with Nobel Prize-winning Swiss chemist, Richard Ernst.
His absence will be noted by those he’s encountered over the last three decades.
Loved by students and highly regarded by faculty, Chobaz has become a known fixture in the music school. When he accepted the offer, he knew running an orchestra within an academic institution wouldn’t be easy.
But with confidence, Chobaz took on the UF orchestra before grandiose ballet and opera productions were in his job description.
“Now, we do the whole gamut,” he said.
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Al Zhang, a 20-year-old engineering junior, described Chobaz as a kid in a candy store when it comes to music.
The son of a ballerina and an actor, Chobaz always knew what he wanted to do.
“I feel like a fish in water,” Chobaz said about conducting. “I’m in my element.”
At 24, he left his birthplace of Switzerland to pursue music education in the U.S., traveling with nothing more than a tiny suitcase packed with pairs of pajamas and some socks.
His resume now displays four degrees ranging from a bachelor’s degree in physics and math to a doctorate in music composition from the University of Utah.
A nationally and internationally recognized musician, Chobaz hopes to inspire his students as his professors once inspired him.
“To see that these kids grow from the first rehearsal to the last — it’s such a difference — that process makes you happy,” he said.
* * *
The orchestra’s primary job is to put on symphony concerts. It puts on between four and six a year. Each concert involves 80 to 100 orchestra students and can also include up to 200 choir singers or 50 ballet dancers.
“I can give you my job description, but it’s about two pages,” Chobaz said, laughing.
Rehearsals are held twice a week, and it takes eight to 12 rehearsals to prepare for a show. Some productions, like the world premiere of a new opera in April last year, require 16- to 18-hour days, seven days a week.
But it’s not the long hours that keep Chobaz up at night. Budget cuts have caused the art programs to collapse since Gov. Rick Scott took office, Chobaz said.
“They expect champagne from us,” he said, “and we don’t have the ingredients for the cheapest beer.”
The UF Symphony Orchestra is given $18,000 to $20,000 per year to be used for hall rental, music purchase and rental, personnel hires and student scholarships, John Duff, UF School of Music director, said.
If Chobaz were to set a budget, he said he would ask for $30,000. But even that wouldn’t be enough.
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Chobaz’s home has a museum feel to it, with ancient Navajo Indian artifacts adorning the walls. His office walls are covered from floor to ceiling with abstract music posters.
He grimaces when politics are mentioned, and his eyes light up when asked about his students. When conducting, he thrashes his body forward and shakes his shoulder-length wispy grey hair from side to side. He’s theatrical.
Chobaz sat in his dimly lit living room on a rainy Monday evening, lost in his own train of thought. His voice isn’t what one would expect from a man who stands just below 6 feet tall with a large build; it’s soft and almost childlike.
In a distinct Swiss accent, he spoke of spirituality, of finding one’s calling and of how art is an activity of the soul. He was reminiscent of a modern-day Beethoven.
But in his office in the Music Building, Chobaz showed his humorous side. He joked. He smiled often. Students reciprocated, poking fun at his accent.
A single father of three, he’s the kind of professor students want to eat their lunch with.
“He’s really warm and inviting,” said Hannah Feldman, a 19-year-old music and finance freshman. “We hug here.”
But until he returns in August 2016, the hugs will be scarce and the orchestra will be a little less in sync.
Because without his direction, music notes would clash, instruments would scream, the students would play too fast and the ballet dancers would trip.
“I’m with them on that stage,” he said. “We fall or win together.”
[A version of this story ran on page 1 on 4/16/2015]