Q: Why are you a conductor?
In short, conducting an orchestra is the most exhilarating feeling in the world. To stand on a stage and feel such a deep connection between you and 100 unbelievably talented musicians is almost indescribable. And I love it.
When I was little, music was always part of my life. My father continually had classical music on the stereo. I can’t remember a time when music was not there—and I ate it up. When one piece would end, I would stop what I was doing to hear what was coming next.
So my parents took this obsession with classical music and started me on the piano at the age of three. There was no question that I would make music a major part of my life, spending countless hours in a practice room, agonizing over the keyboard, practicing until my arms ached.
Yet, my heart always seemed to wander to the conducting greats—their technique and passion was truly inspiring. I can remember so clearly witnessing Sir Georg Solti leading the orchestra at the Eastman School of Music in Beethoven’s Symphony No.5. His immense power on the podium and the sound he pulled from the orchestra was so riveting; it is an image I still call on frequently when I conduct today.
So, while I loved the piano, and still do—I’m an active piano soloist as well as a conductor—I decided to embrace my own passion and started to study conducting. It was some of the hardest work I’ve ever done, but the most rewarding.
When I stand before an orchestra today, I am constantly in awe of the connection and partnership I get to experience as I take a remarkable journey through a score with an ensemble of musical travelers such as myself. I had my first official ‘I’ve made it moment’ when I was conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in Jennifer Hidgon’s Fanfare Ritmico. Stepping on to the podium and leading the orchestra was like driving the most amazing sports car; I was breathless with excitement. It was in that moment that I knew there was no place else for me but on the podium.
Q: What is your favorite music to conduct?
Now, this is a tough question. Asking which piece of music is my favorite or which repertoire I like to conduct best is like asking me to pick between my children: I can’t do it! However, if pressed, I would have to say I’m particularly fond of the Russians: Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Scriabin.
There is something so visceral about the way the music feels when I am conducting these composers’ works. I have a true connection to it rhythmically and emotionally. There is a unique quality of spirituality in their pieces, and they write such compelling and passionate music in a deep and meaningful harmonic language—a language I love speaking with the orchestra and sharing with the audience. It is a very powerful experience and I look forward to it every time I get an opportunity to dive into the Russian repertoire.
Q: Do you like to work with living composers?
I have the utmost respect for living composers—they should be celebrated like the rock stars that they are! I cannot convey strongly enough just how important they are to the survival of classical music, let alone securing our future audiences and the overall success of the orchestral industry as a whole.
Let me put it this way: without new works, our dialogue as musicians, between ourselves and our audiences, would eventually blend into the background, become almost white noise and, as artists, we cannot let that happen. Music of our time describes who we are as a society and places us in history. Much like poetry, dance, the visual and dramatic arts, music is a reflection of our culture.
So yes, I have a true passion for conducting the music of today’s composers, and I feel deeply that it is an intrinsic duty of all musicians to perform their music, not just once in a premiere, but continually programming it and presenting it. Providing an audience the opportunity to hear a new work multiple times educates their ears and opens their minds, perhaps creating a taste for something new and different.
And, on a personal note, there is nothing more artistically pleasing than collaborating with a living composer. Having him or her in the audience, working with you side-by-side, getting it ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’ it is something that I look forward every time I tackle a new work.
We are always looking for the newest and latest in technology, medicine, science and even pop culture, why not have that approach to music. To me, the excuse of it being too jarring or too difficult to digest is only because there is so little exposure to it. My view may sound naïve and I know contemporary works can be difficult to sell to subscribers, but so is Bruckner and Mahler in many cases. We should all do what we can—artists, audiences, presenters—to explore and promote new music, it is vitally important not only to prolonging the life of our art form, but for the growth of our society.
Q: What are your goals when conducting a family / education concert?
The thought of bringing classical music to fresh young ears and sharing the visual and emotional aspects of a seeing a live orchestra perform for the first time excites me to no end. I love hearing the gasp from these audiences as they experience the initial strains of music, the immediacy and excitement they exude is breathtaking. It’s an amazing feeling and I look forward to their reaction each time I take the podium.
Beyond making a student concert fun and engaging, I deeply believe that we as musicians need to invite young people in and challenge them to make classical music their own. Let them see that it doesn’t just belong to someone of their parents’ or grand parents’ generation. I want them to feel like it’s their music, and that their power of understanding is much deeper than they give themselves credit.
While I love to program works that are familiar to young audiences, I also invite them to hear new music. I find that many times this technique has makes more of an impact on them than Beethoven or Mozart, and to me that says a lot about their capacity to listen and understand.
Going beyond the music I want to talk about something that isn’t often discussed, but should be. We as musicians, whether you are on the podium or in the orchestra, have been given an awesome responsibility to act as role models. I can’t explain the feeling of joy I get when teachers bring their students up to meet me. Knowing that I might be shaking hands with the next Steve Jobs or Warren Buffet is a bit awe inspiring, and I am hopeful that I have made an impact on them in some way. My advice to all musicians is simple: be inspiring to others, our future depends on it.
Q: What are some of your favorite things to do when you are on the road?
When I travel, exploring the local dining scene is one of my passions. I love all kinds of food from Ethiopian to down-home BBQ. I can’t get enough. No matter where I am, I always make a point of checking in with the locals to get leads on the best and most eclectic places to sample the local cuisine.
One time I was introduced to this amazing little sushi restaurant in Las Vegas. Their food surpassed anything I have had anywhere. There was no sign advertising its location and it was conveniently tucked into a mini-mall, unassumingly wedged in between a nail salon and some bodegas.
When I entered the place, I was amazed! The mini-mall drifted away and I was ushered into what looked like a high-end sushi bar, much like one you might find in Japan—and having just returned from there and witnessing firsthand the infamous Tsukiji Fish Market, my standards where remarkably high. The restaurant was called Kabuto Edomae Sushi, it had about 15 seats total and the food was out of this world—I can’t recommend it strongly enough. Finding a gem like this is invaluable to my survival as a traveling conductor. Exploring the unknown and embracing an adventure is something I highly encourage, no matter if you are working through a score or trying to find a place to eat.