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 endeavor.
To the Symphony in Cthe nationally acclaimed Young Professionals Orchestra of the Mid-Atlantic region, the process was complicated by having to change gears when the pandemic disrupted a series of performances with five guest conductors, each of whom was a candidate for the originally planned position of music director 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 couldn’t perform indoors with a full orchestra,” she said. “And many venues, like the Gordon Theater (Rutgers-Camden Center for the Arts) where we perform, only fully reopened in January 2022.”
However, the downside of this coin was that fewer live concerts resulted in lower costs. “We didn’t need a music director at the time, for example,” Brant said. “And when the orchestra was ready to resume its schedule and present the guest conductor series, the candidates were still available.”
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Two years later, the Guest Conductor Series has begun with the season opening on September 24th and upcoming performances on December 3rd, January 21st, March 4th and May 6th.
Finding the right person for an orchestra like Symphony in C, whose mission is to identify and nurture emerging musicians and help them launch a professional career, is “like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack,” he said Brant.
“The person must be an aspiring young conductor with enough experience to provide a meaningful learning experience for the young musicians.”
“You need to be inspired,” she said, “and be able to inspire others.”
The position also requires maturity and confidence. “She or he is the public face of the orchestra,” Brant said. “They are the people to talk to after a concert or a gala. If a community organization is looking for someone from the orchestra to speak to their group, the music director is the right person for them.”
And that person also needs to understand what it takes to be a successful fundraiser. “You 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 Kumarand Joseph Jung – each bringing 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 indelible,” for his trademark,” Brant said. “It’s a work that no one has ever played in an orchestra before.”
“I love it,” this contestant said of the Nielsen. “I wanted to bring something that might be less familiar to the orchestra along with a standard like Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto.”
Another select “Entr’acte”, a piece by American composer, violinist and singer Caroline Shaw. “I discovered it during the pandemic,” he said. “I heard it almost every day. It helped me get through.” This conductor will close with Beethoven’s Third Symphony. “It’s a pillar in the standard repertoire,” he said, “and I think it’s a good piece to introduce myself to the orchestra.”
Another contestant said that her programme, which includes Liszt’s “Mephisto” Waltz No. 1 and Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique”, Symphony in C suggested Opus 14 to her. “The music is wonderful,” she said. “I always wanted to conduct the Berlioz play. It is an imaginative masterpiece. And the soloist chose the “Vieuxtemps” Violin Concerto No. 5, which fits wonderfully between Liszt and Berlioz.”
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This opinion is supported by another of the guest composers. “Symphony in C suggested this all-Mozart program and I went along with it,” he said. “I love the variety of the three pieces and the tempo of the whole. It should be a lot of fun to work with.”
And the last candidate commented: “My first choice for the concerto was the Mendelsohn Symphony No. 4 in A major, Op. 90, “Italian.” I think it’s a great piece to demonstrate the virtuosity and style of the orchestra.”
Although these young conductors come from a rich and diverse background in the music world, each of them told me that they were extremely excited about the opportunity to work with Symphony in C.
“For a young conductor like me at the beginning of his career, this is a great privilege and quite a surprise,” said one. “I’m incredibly excited and grateful.”
Another said: “I feel humiliated. I know this orchestra and see it as a group that will be open to innovation and fantastic concert experiences.”
“I have known the group for several years and know friends and colleagues who have played with the orchestra in the past,” said another. “The reputation of Symphony in C in the classical music world is phenomenal. I am pleased.”
Another told me, “I’m thrilled that the opportunity to work together has arisen. I have heard wonderful things about the talent and passion of the musicians at Symphony in C and am honored to have been chosen to guest conduct the orchestra.”
And the last of the five said: “I’m always happy to conduct young people and Symphony in C has a good reputation as a pre-professional orchestra.”
I asked the conductors to talk about their favorite composers and musical works. The answers, unsurprisingly, were all over the musical map.
“It’s difficult to choose,” one told me. “I always end up falling in love with whatever music I’m studying.”
“My favorite composer is Mahler,” said another. “My favorite piece at the moment is Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5. “That changes every day. Yesterday it was Elgar’s “Falstaff”.
On that note, one said: ‘I can’t pin down a single favorite composer or piece, but some of my favorite composers that I feel are a bit underrated are Schumann, Nielsen and Britten. But it changes every day.”
“I almost always feel like the piece I’m conducting is the one I love the most,” said another.
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’ “Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I know it’s a movie cliché, but just listen to the rest of the play. There’s nothing quite like it.”
I found out what music these five people like and I heard their thoughts on each concert program, but I also wanted to know what they think each conductor can bring to the orchestra.
One said, “I host a podcast designed to provide listening tools for people with little classical music experience, and I enjoy creating concerts with new formats that are more welcoming to listeners of all backgrounds,” she said. “I have worked throughout my career to be the best ambassador I can be for classical music and I have a great passion for bringing it to new audiences. I would like to emphasize this further with Symphony in C.”
Another said that his experience with a professional training orchestra would be an advantage. “I’ve had many opportunities to work with young musicians who are incredibly talented and poised for success in the professional world,” he said. “I was music director for a start-up orchestra with few staff and limited resources, and my vision was to offer audiences unique experiences.
“There is a huge amount of orchestral repertoire and I think I can bring it together and produce and program concertos that I think will be fresh and exciting and still fit what an orchestra like Symphony in C is aiming for. “
The third candidate told me: “I see myself as a mediator to the music and to the composers and as an advocate for the orchestra musicians. The only reason I’m a conductor is because I think I can be helpful,” he said. “I would try to make their experience productive, but we would enjoy it. I consider myself another member of the orchestra.”
And another said: “I work with orchestras from all over the world and can help build a unique network for symphony in C locally and internationally. And my musical background is diverse, ranging from jazz to opera to symphonic music.
“I feel that my experience of performing in many styles and genres helps me to attract new and diverse audiences to classical music.”
With this wide range of experiences, interests and talents, Symphony in C will no doubt find it difficult to make the final decision on who will be the next Music Director.
“We’ve seen and auditioned some great candidates,” Brant said, “and we’d love to select someone by the end of the year, although it may take longer.”
“We’ll know when we find the right person.”
About the author: Jersey girl, music lover and culture freak – Shen Shellenberger has turned her lifelong love of art into a career. From her jobs at WXPN-FM and the Philadelphia Museum of Art to her 25 years as a freelance writer, she brings her Jersey-born roots to life in everything she does. Whether it’s the beauty of a classical painting, the dynamism of contemporary dance, or the raw energy of rock ‘n’ roll, Shen brings her perspective to everything she covers.