Photo: Joseph Young (top), Joshua Hong (bottom), Jacob Joyce, Ankush Bahl and Noam Aviel
An orchestra’s search for a music director is a challenging undertaking.
For Symphony in C, the Mid-Atlantic region’s nationally recognized Young Professionals Orchestra, the process was complicated by having to shift gears when the pandemic put on pause a series of performances showcasing five guest conductors, each a candidate for the position of Music Director, that was originally scheduled for the 2020-21 season.
Pamela Brant, the orchestra’s president, said the decision to postpone the series was difficult. But there was no other choice. “We weren’t able to perform indoors with a full orchestra,” she said. “And many venues, like the Gordon Theater (Rutgers-Camden Center for the Arts), where we perform, did not reopen completely until January of 2022.”
The flip side of that coin, however, was that presenting fewer live concerts resulted in reduced expenses. “We didn’t need a Music Director at that time, for example,” Brant said.” And when the orchestra was ready to resume their performance schedule and present the guest conductors series, the candidates were still available.”
Two years on, the Guest Conductor Series has gotten underway with the season opener held on September 24 and upcoming performances on December 3, January 21, March 4, and May 6.
Finding the right person for an orchestra like Symphony in C, whose mission is to identify and nurture up-and-coming musicians and help launch them into professional careers, is “like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack,” Brant said.
“The person has to be a rising young conductor, with enough experience to provide a meaningful learning experience for the young musicians.”
“They need be inspired,” she said, “and be able to inspire others.”
The position also requires maturity and self-assurance. “She or he is the public face of the orchestra,” Brant said. “They are who people want to talk to after a concert or at a gala. If a community organization is looking for someone from the orchestra to speak to their group, the Music Director is who they want.”
And that person also must understand what it takes to be a successful fundraiser. “They need to know what that means and how to do it,” Brant said.
In the five concerts, the candidates – Jacob Joyce, Joshua Hong, Noam Aviel, Ankush Kumar, and Joseph Young – each bring their personality and perspective to the podium, and some have contributed repertoire suggestions.
“One of the guest conductors chose Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4, Op. 29, “The Inextinguishable,” for his signature piece,” Brant said. “It’s a work that no one in the orchestra had played previously.”
“I love it,” that candidate said about the Nielsen. “I wanted to bring something that might be less familiar to the orchestra, along with a standard like the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto.”
Another selected “Entr’acte,” a piece by the American composer, violinist and singer, Caroline Shaw. “I discovered it during the pandemic,” he said. “I listened to it almost every day. It helped get me through.” This conductor will conclude with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3. “It’s a pillar in the standard repertoire,” he said, “and I think it is a good piece to introduce myself to the orchestra with.”
Another candidate said that her program, which includes Liszt’s “Mephisto” Waltz No. 1 and Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” Opus 14, was suggested to her by Symphony in C. “The music is wonderful,” she said. “I have always wanted to conduct the Berlioz piece. It is an imaginative masterpiece. And the soloist chose the “Vieuxtemps” Violin Concerto No. 5, which fits beautifully between Liszt and Berlioz.”
This sentiment is seconded by another of the guest composers. “Symphony in C proposed this all-Mozart program, and I went with it,” he said. “I love the variety of the three pieces and the way the whole thing is paced. It should be a lot of fun to work with.”
And the last candidate commented “My primary pick for the concert was the Mendelsohn Symphony No. 4 in A Major, Op. 90, “Italian.” I think it is a great piece to showcase the virtuosity and style of the orchestra.”
While these young conductors have rich and varied backgrounds in the musical world, each one of them told me that they are extremely enthusiastic about the opportunity to work with Symphony in C.
“For a young, early-career conductor like myself, this is a great privilege, and quite a surprise,” one said. “I am tremendously excited and grateful.”
Another said, “I am humbled. I know this orchestra and think of it as a group that will be receptive to innovations and fantastic concert experiences.”
“I have known about the group for several years and know friends and colleagues who have played with the orchestra in the past,” another said. “The reputation of Symphony in C throughout the classical music world is phenomenal. I am delighted.”
Another told me, “I am thrilled that the chance to collaborate has come together. I have heard wonderful things about the talent and passionate nature of the musicians at Symphony in C and am honored to be chosen as a guest conductor with the orchestra.”
And the last of the five said, “I am always excited to conduct young people, and Symphony in C has a strong reputation as a pre-professional orchestra.”
I asked the conductors to talk about their favorite composers and musical works. The answers, not surprisingly, were all over the musical map.
“It’s difficult to choose,” one told me. “I always end up falling in love with the music I am currently studying.”
“My favorite composer is Mahler,” another said. “My favorite piece, at the moment, is Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5. “This changes daily. It was Elgar’s “Falstaff” yesterday.”
In that vein, one said, “I can't settle on a single favorite composer or piece, but a few of my favorite composers that I feel are somewhat underrated are Schumann, Nielsen, and Britten. But it changes daily.”
“I almost always feel like whatever piece I am conducting at the moment is the one I love the most,” another said.
And the fifth candidate told me, “Every conductor at some point has to worship the greats– Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms–but my favorites these days are Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, “Age of Anxiety” and Mahler’s Symphony No. 7,” he said. “Oh, and Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra.” I know it’s a movie cliché, but just listen to the rest of the piece. There is nothing like it.”
I learned about the music these five people like, and I heard their thoughts about the individual concert programs, but I also wanted to know what each conductor thought they could contribute to the orchestra.
One said, “I host a podcast designed to provide listening tools for people with little experience with classical music, and I enjoy designing concerts with new formats that are more welcoming to audiences of all backgrounds,” she said. “I have worked my entire career to be the best ambassador I can be for classical music, and I have a great passion for bringing it to new audiences. That is something I would like to continue to emphasize at Symphony in C.”
Another said that his experience with a professional training orchestra would be an asset. “I have had many opportunities to work with young musicians who are incredibly talented and headed toward successful careers in the professional world,” he said. “I was Music Director for a start-up orchestra that had a small staff and limited resources, and my vision was to provide unique experiences for the audience.
“There is a huge amount of orchestral repertoire out and I think I can bring it together and produce and program concerts that I think will be fresh and exciting and still fit with what an orchestra like Symphony in C is going for.”
The third candidate told me, “I consider myself of a conduit to the music and the composers, and an advocate of the orchestra musicians. The only reason I am a conductor is because I think I can be helpful,” he said “I would try to make their experience productive, but we would have fun doing it. I consider myself just another member of the orchestra.”
And another said, “I collaborate with orchestras from all around the world and can help develop a unique network for Symphony in C locally and on an international level. And my musical background is diverse, spanning from jazz to opera to symphonic music.
“I feel that my experience performing in many styles and genres helps me to attract new and different audience members to classical music.”
With this wide range of experiences, interests, and talent, Symphony in C will undoubtedly have a difficult time making the final choice about who will be the next Music Director.
“We are seeing and auditioning some great candidates,” Brant said, “and we would like to choose someone by the end of the year, though it can take longer.”
“We will know when we find the right person.”