Interviews / Los Angeles Philharmonic / Music News & Info: Classical

A chat with Joseph Young: the conductor discusses his LA Phil debut, his passion for music education, and a special moment at Peabody Conservatory at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic

The Los Angeles Philharmonic has a reputation for giving their audiences exposure to young conductors, particularly at the Hollywood Bowl. Gustavo Dudamel, the orchestra’s current Music and Artistic Director, famously made his debut there in his mid 20s.

The latest person to make a debut on the LA Phil’s podium is Joseph Young, Music Director of the Berkeley Symphony, Artistic Director of Ensembles for the Peabody Conservatory, and Resident Conductor of the National Youth Orchestra–USA at Carnegie Hall. While he hasn’t conducted the orchestra before, he is no stranger to the Bowl, having covered for Rafael De Burgos, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Bramwell Tovey.

I had the chance to talk to Mr. Young about how he got his start in conducting, his passion for music education, and his thoughts of tonight’s concert featuring a world premiere of Anthem, a concerto conceived by bass-baritone soloist Devóne Tines jointly written by three composers, plus works by Carlos Simon and Aaron Copland. He also shares the story of conducting the Peabody Symphony Orchestra in March 2020 the night before the school was shut down in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here is much of that conversation (edited for length and clarity).

CK Dexter Haven:  What’s going through your head as you’re getting a chance to finally conduct the LA Phil yourself after having covered for other conductors at the Bowl?

Joseph Young:  Oh, I just am excited about being in front of that amazing orchestra in that amazing setting. A chance to conduct that orchestra is one of those dreams of mine. So I’m just excited. It’s going to be a fun show.

CKDH:  So how do you approach being in front of a new orchestra and getting across your ideas?

JY:  I think part of it is for me is trusting the orchestra. I’m going into a well-developed family who know each other better than I do. And I trust a lot of the orchestra, but a lot of what I try to do on the podium is to really show them – rehearsal processes are for all of us to get comfortable. For me to instill an interpretation, as one would say, or invoke my presence with the orchestra. But for me, it’s being able to trust the orchestra and how to manipulate the sound by showing them in a very short time.

CKDH:  Do you have a standard way for how you do that? I have heard some conductors say, “Okay, the first time I go in front of a new orchestra I do X,” or, “I don’t do Y.” Do you have any sort of rules of thumb for yourself?

JY:  The first run through for me is always show, gesture what you want, and talk less. I try to make eye contact with as many people conducting a run-through or that first instance of playing a piece. And with something like the Hollywood Bowl and without a lot of rehearsals, you have to kind of trust that instinct even more.

I think that’s my MO all of the time, any orchestra, every time with a piece – trying to talk less and give as many gestural nods that I can to the orchestra. But I just try to make sure I stay calm. I’m still a young conductor who’s excited about working with all of these amazing orchestras. And I have to convince myself to stay calm. (Laughs)

CKDH:  You’ve had the chance to cover many conductors at the Bowl, and obviously in Atlanta or in some of the other places you’ve been and at Peabody through your studies, you’ve got a chance to see a lot of “big name” conductors do their thing. Is there anything that jumps out or sticks in your head about what you’ve learned from any particular person?

JY:  Marin Alsop was my initial teacher and someone I actually teach conducting with now at the Peabody Conservatory. And I have learned so much from her about how much a gesture can change a sound, etc. And for me, watching her teach and watching her perform kind of still jumps out and informs me of the kind of conductor that I’m turning into. Robert Spano was someone who told me that — how do I say this? — he taught me a little bit more about how to be in command of an orchestra through rehearsals. I don’t know if that makes sense, but those are two people that jump out at me right now.

CKDH:  Got it. I am very curious to hear about how got the conducting bug to begin with.

JY:  I wanted to be a conductor since I was 16 years old. Someone gave me a baton, and I had to do a 4/4 pattern, and he thought it was good, and I was hooked! And then I got the chance to stand in front of an orchestra for the first time and just having that sound in front of me, around 16.

I grew up in the South. And I grew up in mostly the band world. And so, I feel like I saw an orchestra quite later than some of our educational programs are doing. I saw someone holding a violin and a cello when I was 16 and became enthralled in the sound of an orchestra. So I always wanted to do it since I was 16 years old.

But I didn’t know what that meant and how to pursue that degree. I ended up going to school for music education. And had hopes to go to grad school one day to study conducting. But then I fell in love with teaching and I taught high school for three years while trying to figure out what — how to create a path towards the orchestral conducting world. I hope that answers the first part of your question.

CKDH:  Yeah, it totally does. It’s interesting that you hadn’t been exposed to an orchestra until you were 16, and you talk about band being more prevalent. How did you get into music before you discovered orchestras?

JY:  Yeah, I mean, my dad wanted me to do something to keep me out of trouble. And the band program was recruiting students. And it was something that I took an interest in. The only instrument that I could make a sound out of was the trumpet, but that was my exposure to organized music. I grew up going – never singing in the church choir. My mom sang in the church choir. Never wanting to participate musically in church, but I found some things in the organized – music education that got me interested in the idea of music.

And I wasn’t learning Mozart symphonies, Beethoven symphonies. Really, through middle school and high school, I knew more about the wind ensemble world. And when I went to a music camp — the Governor’s School for the Arts in South Carolina — that was the first time I saw my peers who were playing string instruments. This was my first time of getting exposed to what music history is, what music theory is. And that’s when I started wanting to explore the world of orchestral and the classic music “canon,” and understanding I wanted to learn more about that.

That was the first time I bought my first score at a Barnes and Noble; it was The Rite of Spring. I don’t know if I knew what any of that meant. I didn’t know at the time, but it was where my curiosity started to flourish.

CKDH:  And how old were you?

JY:  This is all starting at that 16-year-old exploration. From that point on, I was like, “I want to know what this music is?” As a kid, and you look back, of course you heard the Star Wars movie soundtracks. Of course, you heard the Bugs Bunny cartoons. But it wasn’t in the forefront when you heard those as a kid. And now looking back, exposure was always there, but never live. I never got to experience it live and live was what sparked that interest and this joy in this music.

CKDH:  You talk about obviously your exposure at 16, compared to stories you hear of some parents putting violins in kids’ hands at 3 years old, right?

JY:      Yeah.

CKDH:  The Suzuki Method and all of that stuff. And then you went into music education.

I would love to hear a little bit about how you approached music education; kind of what you did after you got your degree. What you did, but also, like I said, how you approached it. Your views on music education if you want to pontificate with regards to – it could be about classical music, it could be about music in general.

JY:  I think one of the reasons I fell in love with teaching at that time was there was this – I didn’t realize how eager kids were. I was that eager kid, but it didn’t translate until I started being someone up there and really trying to influence children, how eager a lot of kids were when I was student teaching.

I said, “I be that for someone, to be that for a school district.” . . . And so, when I approached teaching, it was just so amazing that – it was always about music to me and how to connect these students. Showing my passion for music really connected with students. I didn’t have to dumb down anything. I didn’t have to make anything too rudimentary. They wanted to rise to my challenges. . . .

That challenged me to creatively think about how to conduct these kids as if this is their Carnegie Hall experience; this is their moment. So it was always a challenge to me to try to figure out how to continually inspire students ten months out of the year

When I left teaching public schools, I got a job as a conducting fellow with an orchestra and then I became assistant. We did all of these education shows. I really loved doing it, but always in the back of my head I said, “I just don’t want to go back to the classroom. . . . I can do 45 minutes with these kids, inspire them, and then give them back to the teachers.”

But in the back of my head, I started to understand this is the magnitude of what I did receive. I didn’t get to theorize – I didn’t get to experience someone inspired on the podium. I always hear all of the generation older than mine talking about Bernstein’s Young People’s Concert and how much they inspired them and how he changed the whole world. It’s amazing! I didn’t get that. And so, it’s my joy – it turned into my joy of being that for someone in the audience.

Of course, every assistant can do that, but in the back of my head I always said I don’t want to do the teaching per se long term anymore. And every time, fate keeps taking me back. I became the Music Director of the Atlanta Youth Orchestra, which I thought was a weird step. Going back to the teaching. But it was one of the best joys of my life again. And then Peabody, full time position inspiring young people at a different level – and working with Carnegie Hall! And so, it’s something that I didn’t realize how deep in my DNA it was and it always keeps me humble when going to work with high school kids and then college kids and then professionals. It just keeps me very humble. I don’t know if I answered your question! (Laughs)

CKDH:  No, I think that’s great. I appreciate it. And let me get to something specific that happened at Peabody. Right as the pandemic was shutting everything down, they abruptly decided to cancel classes and send all of the conservatory students home the next morning.  Then, all of a sudden, you’re conducting the Peabody orchestra in an impromptu concert of Tchaikovsky 4th or Tchaikovsky 5th Symphony; their concert was going to get canceled because of the shutdown, but the students wanted to do it and I don’t know exactly how it happened, but that night I saw some very grainy cellphone video of you conducting in the cafeteria to thunderous applause right before everyone got sent home. I would love to hear your point of view on that whole situation. And whatever you’re willing to share.

JY:  Yeah, it was a beautiful moment for me at Peabody. I’ll just give you my perspective.

I probably came back to Peabody after guest conducting somewhere. And I get calls that after one of our rehearsals that we’re going to close the school because of the pandemic. I am sad to say that my knowledge of the news at that time was such that it took me being home after they said we’re closing the school for me to really, really, really see where this was going magnitude wise, because I was so busy with other things.

At the same time, they told me after my rehearsal that we’re going to close the school at midnight and we’re going to inform the students. And I had just finished a rehearsal. The students don’t know that the email was coming through. We just did a really good rehearsal and I just found out that we’re closing the school.

I’m going home and I think I was somewhere having a bite to eat, and I get these emails and then text messages from my students saying we really want to do Tchaikovsky in concert one last time. And I said I can’t be involved — if you guys plan it, I will come. And so, it was all of these students planning how to create this last moment for themselves as musicians. And I would get updates saying, “Oh, we’re in – we have to do it in this room. So meet me here at this time.” “Oh . . . it’s finally in the cafeteria.

So it was just one of those things where I sat and waited to see what could happen. Administration got involved and approved it. And so I said, “I will make sure that all of the chairs and stands are put away. But if it’s a go, I’ll be there.” So I just waited at a restaurant until one of the students said, “We’re waiting for you,” and I walked over. And I didn’t realize how big this turned into until I walked into that cafeteria.

CKDH:  Amazing.

JY:   That was great. There was also an opera that was canceled. And all of the singers and orchestras, their rehearsal – they just decided to use their last rehearsal before the school was actually going to be shut down because we had – they were already in rehearsal. They decided to just do the whole opera for the student body, so it was just amazing to watch this community that I’ve been hoping to see at Peabody to just flourish.

CKDH:  Let’s segue to the concert that you’re going to be conducting at the Bowl. It’s laden with new music. Tell me about the program that you’re conducting. A great mix of composers that are collaborating on this piece and not only do you get to conduct the LA Phil, but you get to conduct them in a world premiere, so your name is always going to be associated with them. Tell me everything you want to tell me about the concerto and just about the program in general. How much influence you had on the programming and what are your thoughts about what’s on tap that night?

JY:      Oh, one of the things, I was just open to new ideas. And when they paired this program with Devóne Tines, I think Devóne Tines came with a lot of ideas of his own that he wanted to share with me about this concerto that we are just getting. And that kind of sparked some creative ideas around the rest of the program and making sure that we create that balance between let’s give you some new ideas, but also give you your bread and butter.

For me, when he came with the idea of this concerto, Anthem, and how he wanted to collaborate with all of these other composers, I was all for it because I love embracing new music. The idea that it was going to challenge what America thinks about our anthems and how can we challenge those anthems in new ways, I was very interested.

The other thing that kind of interested me was Devóne Tines is a bass baritone. And I understand – I want a new “Old American Songs;” Copland’s “Old American Songs” was great, but I want something new that kind of reflects our time. And Devóne Tines was all over that idea.

So that kind of got me thinking about American composers and of course Copland – bringing Billy the Kid back out there – but I wanted to start the program with a piece that I think is such a beautiful, powerful story – a piece of storytelling – that plays well with another piece of storytelling, Billy the Kid. And Carlos Simon’s Portrait of a Queen is a piece that just reminds me of every strong Black woman. I wanted to tell that story from – I would say I want to tell things from the mountain top. But the best I have is the Hollywood Bowl and looking out at the Hollywood Bowl and telling this great story of an American Black woman I think is going to be a powerful gesture. So I wanted to add that to the program.

CKDH:   Have you gotten a chance to conduct or work with the three composers of Anthem (Michael Schachter, Tyshawn Sorey, and Caroline Shaw)?

JY:      No, I have not performed any of their work, so this is my introduction to them.  Carlos Simon is someone I’ve always conducted. But all of those other composers – I have not done any of their work, so this is going to be a beautiful introduction to their pieces.

CKDH:  What can you say about Anthem?

JY:      So every movement is basically a different code as – so the titles of each one say – and I can’t really speak to those yet. Why the word “code”, but every composer really gets to write on those. Like the last one is “Lift Every Voice,” a reconstruction of that. The first one is “The Star-Spangled Banner” in a new color, in interesting ways. Sorry. And then there’s a movement called Code Switch, which plays on a lot of folk songs – American folk songs – and challenges it basically that way.

CKDH:  Sounds awesome! I can’t wait to hear it.

Joseph Young conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl on Thursday, August 18. Program details HERE


Photo credits, all courtesy of the artist’s webpage:

  • portrait with white background: Jeff Roffman
  • portrait with black background: Jared Platt
  • others: Louis Bryant, III

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