“So, you’re music director in Jacksonville. How can you be in New York as well?”
Oh yes, that question. It’s time to set the record straight. Conductor’s schedules can be pretty confusing since many of us have several jobs at once. Basically it’s all down to weeks. In my case, the year is divided up into weeks in Jacksonville, weeks in New York, weeks guest conducting, and weeks collapsing on the couch watching Netflix. Once I take up the reins full time in September, I’ll be spending around twenty weeks conducting in Jacksonville, and the same amount of time with the New York Philharmonic.
New York City is unlike any other place I’ve lived. Even compared to London the sheer speed and volume of activity is dizzying. Musically, it’s thrilling. On a typical night one can choose between attending the New York Phil, a guest orchestra at Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera, chamber music at Julliard’s Alice Tully Hall, chamber orchestras, vocal recitals…the list goes on an on! Obviously for me, the centre of all this activity is the New York Philharmonic, where I am assistant conductor.
So what exactly does an assistant conductor do? There are two main parts. The first is called “covering”. When you’re the cover conductor, it’s your job to be ready to jump in if the main conductor is ill, stranded on a runway, or more likely in New York City, stuck in traffic. During five years at the Minnesota Orchestra, I never had to do this, but at the New York Phil, things are a little different. Both my predecessors had to go on stage last minute, and some very famous conductors have had their careers launched by stepping in like this. In 1943, Leonard Bernstein made history (and his name) by replacing an indisposed Bruno Walter and conducting the Philharmonic. So sometimes when there’s an especially juicy program, I have to resist the temptation to slip something into the maestro’s water at 7.00pm.
The rewarding part of covering is spending time with that week’s conductor. Watching a master of his trade inspire and rehearse the orchestra is like manna from heaven. I will spend time with him backstage and ask questions about the music or how he deals with particular issues in the score. And I’m also in the hall during rehearsals acting as a pair of satellite ears, answering any questions he has about balance (it’s notoriously difficult to get a clear sense of what the audience can hear from the podium). So far this season I’ve assisted conductors Esa-Pekka Salonen, Leonard Slatkin, Jaap van Zweden, Christoph von Dohnányi, and of course, music director Alan Gilbert.
Working with Alan Gilbert is an especially rewarding part of the job, because he has been the music director of several major orchestras. As I begin my music directorship in Jacksonville, I have questions about everything from planning the season and hiring guest artists, to taking musician auditions and organizing my own time. Conducting can be a lonely business, so being able to ask an experienced colleague who’s been there and done that is really helpful.
The other side of the job is conducting the orchestra. In my case, this involves leading Young People’s Concerts, portions of the new music series CONTACT!, and a weekend of subscription concerts next season. This is where the excitement really begins! Last Saturday afternoon I made my debut conducting a Young People’s Concert called Melody Transformed. The concert focused on Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony. It was wonderful to introduce so many kids to this incredible masterpiece, which was one of the first pieces I conducted, nearly ten years ago to the day as a student at Cambridge. I co-hosted the concert with the Philharmonic’s director of education. We worked with an incredible dancer and director to come up with a concert that would both excite the kids and open their ears to this great music. Many of these ideas can be brought back to Jacksonville and incorporated into our own young people’s concerts and education programs.
It’s fantastic working simultaneously with the New York Philharmonic and the Jacksonville Symphony because the jobs complement each other perfectly. The virtuosic musicians of the Jacksonville Symphony teach me as much about conducting as the Philharmonic does about running a twenty-first century orchestra. Roll on next season when we start putting our new plans into place!