On Friday morning before the concert, at The Porch, a charming coffee place on North Montezuma Street, composer Henry Flurry and I met the man who would conduct the AZ PHIL inaugural concert in just two days…….PETER BAY, conductor of the Austin Symphony Orchestra. When when he and his wife walked in the door I could tell immediately that I would adore them both! Peter is a slender man with a broad smile and an open, easy manner, and his wife, classical soprano SarahJane is beautiful and vivacious, with a hearty laugh. As soon as we all got our coffees and sat down together, we fell into conversation like old friends.
I had so many questions I wanted to ask Peter, but I was very conscious of the fact that we had time constraints. He had to pull together a brand new orchestra, made up of professional musicians who had never played as an ensemble, and who would be playing newly-composed music they had never played before. And he had only four rehearsals (and one string sectional) to get it done!!!
The first question I asked Peter was, “When you work with an orchestra…especially a brand new orchestra that you have never conducted before, how do you approach it?”
“When I am conducting an orchestra for the first time…or even one I have conducted before….for the first 10 or 15 minutes I LISTEN. I don’t try to change their sound. I try to understand how the music applies to this particular orchestra. Most of the orchestras I have worked with are very fine ones, and all I have to do is ask for specific things like, ‘can you bring this phrase out a little more here?’
For example, if I am conducting a Beethoven piece, most of the musicians have already played it hundreds of times. I always enter the first rehearsal with a clear idea of how I think the piece should go. But then may I hear an Oboist play a solo line in a different way, and decide I like what I am hearing, and work with that sound. I might change my own interpretation because of what I hear at rehearsal.”
I said, “You seem like such a relaxed and easy-going guy….not at all like one of those stern and demanding maestros one occasionally sees.”
Peter replied, “I studied at the Peabody Conservatory, and there was a conductor there who could really dress down an orchestra. I don’t want to be that. Conductors like Toscanini would get the sound they wanted, but they got it through fear. I don’t believe in that approach. However, if an orchestra comes into the first rehearsal unprepared, I can get angry. If I feel they are letting down the composer, it upsets me. I always expect them to come prepared. One of the things that I love about this experience with Arizona Philharmonic is that Henry, the composer, will be there during rehearsals and that is not only great but it is very rare! I can check with him about whether he is happy with the interpretation as we work through the rehearsal. After all, we can’t text Beethoven to ask him if he is happy with the performance!”
I really wanted to hear what Peter had to say about how one LEARNS to become a conductor.
“Well,” he grinned, “you can’t take an orchestra home with you to practice! You learn a lot by watching other conductors…good ones and bad ones. We actually practice in front of the orchestra! There is really no other way to do it.”
“What instrument do you play?”, I asked.
“I was a flutist. But that came AFTER I decided I wanted to be a conductor. When I was nine years old, I saw one of Leonard Bernstein’s Young Peoples Concerts and knew right away that was what I wanted to do. Then I realized I had to learn an instrument before I could conduct, and that is when I chose the flute! I am still learning things every day, whether it is music, or dealing with Orchestra Boards and administrative issues.”
I asked him how he feels about audience members clapping at what some might consider an “inappropriate” time during a concert…say, between movements of a concerto?
“In Mozart’s day, audiences could be quite raucous in their appreciation of what they were hearing,” he said. “Mozart reportedly loved it.” And he went on to say that he wants an audience to feel they can express their emotional response to the music and not be constrained by any particular “audience rules and regulations.” We also agreed that there are SOME pieces that should be enjoyed by the audience without applause….until the end…..such as the FAURE REQUIEM, which I will be singing with Yavapai Master Chorale in Cottonwood AZ on October 7th. It is a piece of quiet beauty and spiritual majesty, which can take the audience on a deeply emotional journey, and really should not be interrupted by applause.
Throughout weekend I attended a couple of the rehearsals for our premiere concert, and watched Peter bring these fine musicians together into the beautiful ensemble they became with the very first note of the concert! Everybody agreed we want to bring Peter back next season if we possibly can!!!
Peter and SarahJane, who live in Austin, Texas, have been together 14 years, and have a 10 year old son, Colin. Here are a couple of fun things I learned about about them during our time together. SarahJane, a critically acclaimed soprano whose professional name is Mela Dailey, rides a motorcycle! That is not what you usually expect from a professional classical soprano!! And Peter has a huge collection of over 10,000 CDs and 10,000 LPs. The collection is so heavy, they had to reinforce their house with steel beams to make it strong enough to hold the weight!!!
You can find all sorts of fascinating biographical info on Peter at PeterBayConductor.com and I encourage you to go there to learn even more about this brilliant musician. Let’s hope we can bring him back to conduct for us again in Season 2 of AZ PHIL!