10 years in, Peabody-BSO Conducting Fellowship has seen great success — and a full-circle journey for one
Ten years ago, a tall, slim man with a ready smile left his job as director of a South Carolina high school band to enter the Peabody Institute as the first recipient of the newly formed BSO-Peabody Conducting Fellowship — a program of extensive skill-honing with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and its music director, Marin Alsop.
Now, at 35, looking as slim, youthful and amiable as he did in 2007, Joseph Young has just returned to Peabody — this time in a key leadership role as the Ruth Blaustein Rosenberg artistic director of ensembles. He oversees orchestral activities at the conservatory and mentors students aiming for a career on the podium.
“I did a concert here last October and had a good time with the orchestra,” Young says. “Marin once told me that, as a conductor, you’ll know how well you did when they invite you back.”
That Young was invited not just to conduct more concerts but join the faculty represents a neat arc — the first fellow returning to lend a hand in the development of future fellows — and an affirmation of the fellowship itself.
The program gives participants the opportunity to supplement their studies at Peabody with what is a kind of apprenticeship at the BSO for a year or two. They study scores with Alsop, attend rehearsals and concerts, interact with guest conductors, sit in on administrative staff meetings, and more.
“They really treat you like an assistant conductor, to help you be prepared to step in like an assistant would if there is a need,” says former fellow Michael Repper, who has just started his tenure as music director of the New York Youth Symphony.
All five former BSO-Peabody fellows have been building careers, some in this country, some in Europe or South America. It’s a substantial track record for the first decade of the project, one that, in a way, got its start thanks to Young.
Alsop first encountered the South Carolina native when he took a conductor workshop she led in California at the Cabrillo Festival, where she was music director for 25 years.
“He hadn’t conducted an orchestra, only a high school band,” Alsop says. “His technique was bad. But he brought such a beautiful sound to the orchestra with natural gestural language and his musicality. I had wanted to create a fellowship [in Baltimore], and I thought, ‘What better person to build it around?’ He could get a great education here and also work with a great orchestra.”
That experience paid off for Young. After his two years as the inaugural BSO-Peabody fellow, he served as the League of American Orchestras Conducting Fellow at the Buffalo Philharmonic (the league was an initial partner in the BSO-Peabody collaboration) and resident conductor of the Phoenix Symphony.
In addition to guest-conducting engagements with American orchestras and ensembles abroad, Young just finished up three seasons as assistant conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and music director of the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra.
Alsop stayed in touch with Young over the years and, in 2016, asked him to conduct a rarely heard work, Alan Shulman’s “A Laurentian Overture,” on a program for the BSO’s centennial season.
“When Joey stepped up — I still call him Joey; he says I’m the only one who can — he had such confidence and such assurance,” Alsop says. “I thought, wow.”
That impression led Alsop, who is chair of the graduate conducting program at Peabody, to suggest Young for that orchestral concert last year at Peabody.
Peabody dean Fred Bronstein liked what he heard.
“I was very impressed with the way he connected with the students last year, and what he got out of the orchestra,” Bronstein says. “So we invited him to put his name in for the director of ensembles job. We had some very good candidates, but he emerged as the one. I couldn’t be happier.”
Alsop is just as pleased.
“I think it’s cool that he’s at Peabody,” she says. “I know I sound a little Pollyanna, but I really find it to be a beautiful thing.”
The accomplishments of the other BSO-Peabody Fellows she mentored likewise brings a smile to Alsop’s face.
The roster of fellows includes Ilyich Rivas, the Venezuelan-American conductor whose credits include concerts with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and, streamed from the Sydney Opera House, the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble assembled via worldwide open auditions on YouTube.
After his BSO-Peabody Fellowship, Michael Repper continued to work in the area, lending his talents to the Concert Artists of Baltimore, Chamber Music Society of Maryland and Baltimore Basilica. He recently moved to take up his duties as music director of the much-heralded New York Youth Symphony, which performs at Carnegie Hall and other major venues in the city.
“The fellowship was invaluable for me,” says the California-born Repper, 26. “I remember walking into the BSO the first few weeks, new to Baltimore, wondering, ‘Do I really belong here?’ But I felt unbelievably welcomed by all the musicians. Marin takes a huge interest in the fellowship. Watching her rehearse every day has helped me in my own rehearsal planning. Learning the frantic pace and what is required of a music director has been very helpful.”
In addition to all the musical activity, the fellowship has a practical side.
“You get a real overview of how an orchestra runs,” Repper says. “You learn what the librarians are doing, what the staff is doing, things most students don’t get to see. And I learned the importance of community engagement from what the BSO does. At the New York Youth Symphony, we’re planning to reach out to underserved communities.”
Former fellow Lee Mills, who has led educational concerts with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and National Symphony Orchestra in recent seasons, finds his BSO experiences particularly useful in his current job. He’s resident conductor of the Orquestra Sinfonica Brasileira (Brazilian Symphony Orchestra), which has been struggling with funding.
“Brazil has just gone through its largest recession ever, which is very difficult for all of our orchestras,” says the 30-year-old Montana native. “I was at the BSO in 2011, at a crucial period when they were still dealing with the effects of the financial downturn. I got to work with the administrative team and development team, which gave me a lot of perspective on what it takes to make an orchestra successful financially.”
But, ultimately, musical matters are always at the forefront for BSO-Peabody fellows.
“Without an orchestra, we don’t make sound,” says Brazilian-born Alexandra Arrieche, 36. “It would be like being a chef who only has ingredients in his head, but never cooks. We need to be in front of an orchestra. To have an opportunity to work with a fantastic mentor like Marin and with the fantastic musicians of the Baltimore Symphony, it completely changed my life. It opened the door to the conducting world.”
That world includes Nevada’s Henderson Symphony Orchestra, where Arrieche is music director (“Its a volunteer orchestra, but being in Vegas, it has many professional musicians from the Strip”). She is also principal conductor of a large-scale orchestral enterprise based in Belgium called Night of the Proms.
“We embrace all kinds of music,” Arrieche says. “The mix is now half-classical, half-pop. We play in arenas for 20,000 people and tour around Europe. The same people who cheer Sting at our concerts cheer Tchaikovsky.”
Developing attractive programming formats is among the goals the current BSO-Peabody conducting fellow, Gonzalo Farias, intends to pursue as his career unfolds.
“My biggest dream and hope is to work with a professional orchestra, but it’s not always easy for immigrants, especially in the climate right now,” says Farias, 32, a native of Chile. “I have ideas about getting away from outdated concerts. Organizations often need new air to refresh.”
Meanwhile, Farias, who led the Joliet Symphony Orchestra at the University of St. Francis in Illinois before starting his graduate studies at Peabody, is savoring his fellowship, and working with Alsop.
“Marin’s greatest strength is that she allows us to be ourselves,” Farias says. “She is not looking to create cookie-cutter students.”
Young is a prime example of that, a distinct musical personality who is likely to make a mark at Peabody. His arrival coincides with the start of expanded orchestral activities at the campus.
In addition to the Peabody Symphony Orchestra, there is now a Peabody Chamber Orchestra (Young conducts its debut program on Tuesday); Peabody Modern Orchestra, specializing in contemporary repertoire; and the Peabody Studio Orchestra, which will explore film scores, pop music and more. Students will rotate through the ensembles to gain wider experience for their careers.
“The groundwork for this was done before I got here,” Young says. “Now they need someone to run it and make something out of it. That’s my job. I have a deep desire to do big things.”