The vision of a conductor, the relevance of classical music, and why Marin Alsop is the “pinnacle of perseverance and change,” according to Joseph Young by Mai Sennaar
I first saw Cyrus Chestnut perform live at the concert of an excellent young bassist named Kris Funn, who were both Baltimore natives. Chestnut, who had been sitting in the audience, came to the stage at the insistence of Funn to join in during their last song. It was a riveting, spontaneous performance that captured my emotions in ways that few other musical performances ever have. It was also a sad day for live music lovers in the DMV, as it marked the closing of Bohemian Caverns, a cultural landmark in Washington, DC.
My sister and I joined a small group of locals desperately in search of live music in the DMV of equal quality to the world class performances at the Caverns. We quickly became regulars at Peabody’s diverse array of programming: operas, dance concerts and orchestral performances. Among the concerts that we enjoyed the most were two performances of the Peabody Symphony Orchestra, conducted by emerging conductor Joseph Young.
When I asked him for an interview, my first question was what exactly do conductors do? Young’s answer is surprising and open-ended. “With conducting,” he says, “everything is on the page.”
Conducting, for Young, is a discipline and an art form. His role as the BSO-Peabody Conducting Fellow, he explains, is not to affect his own interpretation of the score but to guide his orchestra into actualizing what he believes to be the original intention of the composer. This is one of many challenging tasks for conductors of classical music, whose biggest adversary might be the hands of time. “The younger these musicians get, the further [they will be] from the history of [the music],” he says.
Young becomes a historian, constantly immersing himself in the social, political, and emotional world of composers through intense research. For young orchestras, like the one at Peabody’s Conservatory, Young will often draw parallels for the young musicians between their experiences and those of their composers. For example, to help a group of young musicians connect to the intention of Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 5, Young connected it to the contemporary activism of youth in the Baltimore-DC area in response to police brutality.
Time also factors heavily into his process of preparation. Young is typically obliged to get to know a lot of pieces simultaneously. To prepare, he does “A lot of listening. A lot of listening in silence. Going over the score, figuring out how everything works together.”
Sometimes he goes to the piano, he says, gesturing across from us to the one in his office, to help him gain a clearer understanding of a work’s structure. Then the biography and world of the composer comes in. He also considers the context in which the music was composed. Was it part of an opera? A ballet? And what did that moment mean? He then becomes a conduit for his orchestra, intent on showing them the truest meaning of the piece.
What seems to intrigue him the most is that he conducts people, a thought that fills him with a palpable sense of wonder and responsibility. “I was a shy person, music used to be a protection for me,” he says. “But now, as I’ve grown I’ve realized that I’m conducting this music through people and for me connecting to those people makes the music even better. Having a rapport with your musicians is like that sweet spot in connecting with the audience.”
Connecting with musicians, especially the students that he works with, means that he sometimes also can find himself acting as a coach and a therapist. This factors heavily into his choices of physical movement–those hand signals that we observe from conductors. He calls them a sort of sign language, and while there are some standard movements that all conductors will employ to communicate with their musicians, he points out that what may be effective for some musicians may be completely ineffective for others. This requires him to maintain a certain level of sensitivity toward each individual even as he guides what may be several hundred people to work in consonance with one another on one piece of music. This is an interesting remark about his own personal sign language as a conductor and he practices his movements in the mirror. It is one of many that allude to Young’s reverence for his profession, his regard and gratitude for a dream come true.
His ultimate fantasy came true in a single moment, when he convinced himself to approach Marin Alsop for advice on professional conducting practices. He was nearing the end of his time at the Cabrillo Music Festival’s Conducting Workshop in Santa Cruz, California. Attending the workshop was an opportunity that he almost passed on, because of his prior obligations to teach at band camp in Charleston, South Carolina where he’d been working as a high school band teacher. He’d only decided to attend the workshop after a friend’s insistence that he would be a fool to miss the opportunity to learn from Marin Alsop.
Not only did he learn from her but he also discovered his personal passion for conducting through her instruction and guidance. He asked her the question, that, in his own words, would change his life forever. “I said to her, I really want to do this for the rest of my life, what should I do?”
“Why don’t you come study with me?” she replied. The timing was perfect, as Alsop was in the process of developing a fellowship between the Peabody Conservatory and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Young would become the first-ever BSO-Peabody Conducting Fellow. Alsop would continue to be what Young refers to as one of his most supportive and impactful mentors. When I ask him to describe Alsop in one sentence he calls her the “pinnacle of perseverance and change.” With a quick glance at her bio, or even in a passing conservation with anyone who’s familiar with her innovations and strides in classical music, it is not difficult to understand why.
As Young now describes the excitement of living his dream and teaching alongside his mentor, I’m certain that he does not regret forfeiting his summer job at band camp in Charleston, although the three years he spent teaching high school band may have a lot to do with the style, discipline and effectiveness of his work today. It was ultimately the band culture of the South that would introduce Young to music. He grew up in a military family and started out playing trumpet at the insistence of his father. He didn’t see an orchestra until he was sixteen. On the trumpet he was often complimented for his beautiful vibrato.
“That was actually just nerves. My whole body shaking,” he says. In bands, Young was first satisfied by the discipline of the music, the structure and organization of the band. “It wasn’t until I first heard more orchestral music that I heard more passion… There’s something about the sound of an orchestra that just made me more passionate about music.”
I do not ask directly about his experience as an African-American man in a profession where he is a minority, but we do discuss how he has approached and conquered the reality of many glass ceilings as he continues to progress. He learned from Alsop, who, as a woman, is also a minority in the field. “I’ll always remember, she said… If the front door’s not open, go through the window. I always keep that in the back of my head because she is like the pinnacle of perseverance, of change.”
Even in the midst of his role as coach, therapist, historian, and guide to unfold the mystery of a composer’s original vision, Young does often find his own connection to the music. This usually occurs when he has an extensive amount of time with a particular piece that it may start to speak to him in a deeply personal and transformative way. Young recalls an instance of developing a strong connection with Dvořák’s 9th Symphony, which is also referred to as the New World Symphony. A Czech composer, Dvořák wrote the piece in 1893 during his tenor as the director of the National Conservatory of Music of America. The piece was influenced by Dvořák’s experience in America and his encounters with African American spirituals and Native American music.
“I was conducting [the 9th Symphony] for the Atlanta Symphony,” Young says. “For some reason that second performance hit me. It was like, this means something to me… And it can mean something to someone else.”
For more information go to: http://www.josephfyoung.com
Photos courtesy of the author, with header image courtesy of Joseph Young’s website.