Joseph Young officially starts his tenure as music director of the Berkeley Symphony this week, but he already has a feel for the city. In January, he stepped in on short notice to lead the orchestra in a program of works by Beethoven, Britten and British composer Hannah Kendall. His appearance was a hit, and in April, he was officially named to the music director post.
Young, who resides in Baltimore and teaches at the Peabody Conservatory, has another Bay Area connection. Born in South Carolina, he studied music (trumpet was his principal instrument) at Peabody. That’s where he met Marin Alsop, the former music director of the Santa Cruz-based Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music and longtime conductor of the Baltimore Symphony. She became a mentor, and when she established a joint fellowship between Peabody and the Baltimore Symphony, Young became its first fellow.
Since then, Young has been a guest conductor at the Detroit and St. Louis symphonies, the Buffalo Philharmonic, and the New World Orchestra. Speaking by phone from Baltimore last week, he said he was eager to start his first season in Berkeley. The program features Olly Wilson’s “Shango Memory,” Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor, and Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, with Conrad Tao as soloist.
Q: How are you feeling as opening night approaches?
A: I’m excited. For me, being on that podium with the Berkeley Symphony is what really piqued my interest when I was there. The chemistry with the orchestra was pretty immediate, and from that point I became more curious about the town. I started feeling confident that there was something I could do for the orchestra as well as for the community. I can’t wait to get started.
Q: You started conducting fairly early. What was the attraction?
A: I knew I wanted to be a conductor since I was 16 years old. That was the first time I saw an orchestra. I was hooked. It wasn’t about being in control. It was just standing in front of that sound and the music. Being curious about that got me interested in the craft of conducting. When I was younger, I was a much more reserved person. I thought being a conductor was a way for me to express myself without saying a word, and that was very exciting to me.
Q: How did you make the leap from playing to conducting?
A: I went on and studied trumpet and music education at University of South Carolina, but during my last year there, I fell in love with teaching. So I decided to teach high school and I did that for three years. During the summers I would go to orchestra conducting workshops. The one that hit home was the one with the Cabrillo Music Festival. That’s where I met Marin Alsop. I went up to her and said ‘I really want to go to grad school for conducting.’ She said ‘why don’t you come study with me?’ She created the fellowship with the Baltimore Symphony and the Peabody Conservatory, and that changed my life. I stopped teaching and I began to focus on my dream of being a conductor.
Q: What was Marin’s influence as a conductor?
A: Before that time, I had no mentor, no real example. I just wanted to be a conductor. When I met Marin, she became an example and a mentor. I had a special situation where I got to see her work with an orchestra. But she also gave me one-on-one time on how to work with an orchestra myself. She would come to Peabody for lab sessions with a student orchestra, and she would talk about what I could do to achieve my goals. It was a very special time, to have someone who was so passionate about music. Watching her as a music director and a leader, someone who believes in the community and who has such a deep love for the music: that balance became a very strong example for me. Meeting her came out of nowhere and it went fast, but it’s been one of those relationships with someone I’ll always look up to. And we now teach conducting together at Peabody.
Q: You conducted one Berkeley Symphony program already, making your debut here in January. What were your impressions of the orchestra then, and how do you begin building a deeper rapport with these players?
A: My impression was that they were very curious, and they wanted to work. That’s a simple way of saying it. They were ready to dive into the business of music-making. It could have been a situation with someone coming in last minute, where they’re just wanting to put on the concert. But we really decided to make music together. They wanted to try new things. With Berkeley, I’m drawn to their energy onstage, but also their adventurous way of programming. Nothing is too difficult to tackle with this orchestra. We do it together. That’s how I felt from the beginning. For me, it’s a collaboration between me and the musicians. And that’s how you start building a rapport. We are all in this process together.
Q: This program includes music by Beethoven, Ravel, and someone who’s beloved in Berkeley, the late Olly Wilson. What can you tell us about it?
A: My approach to programming this season was all about that curiosity I had when I first came to guest conduct in January. I saw an opportunity then, to conduct repertoire that I’d never done before. The program then was Bernstein’s ‘Age of Anxiety,’ Britten’s ‘Four Sea Interludes,’ and the world premiere. It was also an opportunity for me to be in an area that I’ve always wanted to visit. It all happened so fast.
This season, my goal is to really get to know the orchestra, get to know Berkeley, and get to know the Bay Area. I hope the audience will see what Berkeley has to offer. The late Olly Wilson was one of the composers in my early orchestral listening training adventures. When I learned that he was a member of the Berkeley faculty, I thought it was a fitting tribute to put one of his pieces at the top of the program. This piece is such a force in itself, about the Nigerian god of thunder and lightning. It will start the season off with a big bang. We also want to feature friends of the symphony, and Conrad Tao has been with the orchestra before. The Ravel will be a showcase for him. Everyone knows Beethoven Five. It’s an iconic piece, it’s our Mona Lisa. But I think giving the audience a fresh listen with the Berkeley Symphony is a good idea, a good choice for a new era.
Q: What do you envision in Berkeley going forward?
A: You know, part of what I want is for the Berkeley Symphony to be seen as part of Berkeley, and part of the larger Bay Area scene. I want to make sure we find an access point to more people in Berkeley. One of the symphony’s missions is to keep their audience curious, but I want to instill that in the whole community. Last Sunday, we did a free community event in the Downtown Berkeley Plaza. I wanted to make sure that my first foray in Berkeley was something in the community, for people who don’t have to have a ticket, who may not be able to afford a ticket, so they can experience what the Berkeley Symphony does. I want to be sure we’re seen as that orchestra. I believe we have a responsibility to serve the community, not just through concerts, and I want to explore different ways to do that.
Q: This is something that many orchestras and arts organizations are thinking about today: striving for diversity, and finding ways to engage younger audiences. What are your thoughts about this?
A: One of the things I’m proudest of is that 35 percent of our composers this season are from under-represented backgrounds in classical music. We have diverse guest artists, way over the national average. Another thing I’m proud of is asking composers to write about what they believe in, not giving them a box to write under. Giving them the opportunity to write what they want is an important thing for a music organization to do.
In this first year, I want to experience music in the schools. Having been a classroom teacher in the past, I want to see what I can bring to the table there as well. Developing community partnerships is important. Since working with the Downtown Berkeley Association, we’re already bubbling with new ideas to bring music to different access points. Berkeley is so eclectic, so exciting, every time I’m there I learn something new and think of new ways to collaborate. It’s such a great place for the arts.
* The Berkeley Symphony’s new season kicks off Oct. 24 at Zellerbach Hall at UC Berkeley.