If you’ve attended an Austin Symphony Orchestra concert, then you’re aware how magical the experience can be. The notes seem to fly through the air to wrap audience members in an embrace and–in my case–gift tears of joy.
But while the general public counts down to the day of the show, there’s much more to the Austin Symphony Orchestra than what you see during a performance. Take a step backstage with me, to learn more about Conductor Peter Bay and the preparation required to deliver a high-quality, moving concert.
The Story of Conductor Peter Bay
Maestro Peter Bay’s journey to becoming a conductor began at the young age of nine. At the time, CBS Television would regularly air youth programs. The great American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein was featured on a segment, and Bay sat in front of the television with wide eyes, mesmerized by Bernstein’s work.
The experience struck such a chord in young Bay, propelling him into a career as a conductor that has only given him joy and delight. He has worked with over 80 different orchestras throughout the world and conducted at several summer music festivals.
In addition to being the conductor for Austin Symphony Orchestra, he is the primary conductor for Ballet Austin and has appeared with Austin Opera several times. It’s no surprise he was inducted into the Austin Arts Hall of Fame in May 2016!
Bay joined Austin Symphony Orchestra as Music Director and Conductor in 1998. He was drawn to Austin at the time because of its fine reputation as a vibrant, arts-loving city–which hasn’t changed since then.
Since the start of his career in Austin, he told me the last 20 years have been very calm. One of his most meaningful experiences was leading Leonard Berstein “Mass” here in Austin in June 2018. The full-scale event included over 300 performers and was the largest performing arts collaboration in Austin’s history.
Other highlights during his time with Austin Symphony included premiering the work “Compassion” by Australian composer Nigel Westlake, when cellist Yo-Yo Ma performed alongside the orchestra, and the time violinist Itzhak Perlman played with the orchestra during the Centennial Gala in 2011.
When determining the next season’s musical selections and working the the Board of Directors to ensure a delightful schedule, Bay desires to feature Austin musicians and artists. In the current season, for example, Conspirare Symphonic Choir and Chorus Austin will be featured in “Brahms’ Requiem” (February 2019) and “A Shakespearean Evening” (May 2019), respectively.
In addition to displaying the wonderful talent of our city, Bay enjoys planning shows that stand out because of their unique nature, such as the “Happy Birthday, Lenny” concert that will exclusively feature Leonard Bernstein music (Oct. 19-20, 2018) and “Creative Expressions” featuring all female composers (March 2019).
What Goes Into Each Austin Symphony Orchestra Concert?
After the season’s musical selections have been determined, a flurry of work occurs behind the scenes to move the concert from seed of thought to grand performance. Librarian Alison Mrowka works for months in advance to acquire the sheet music for all of the performances, purchasing or working on rental contracts where necessary. Auditions occur as needed, depending on the requirements of the piece being performed.
Musical preparation starts with making bowing directions on the sheet music, about six weeks out from the performance. Two weeks later, any changes from Bay are passed down and notated on the music.
The musicians don’t actually get the music in-hand until two weeks before each concert, and spend most of the time rehearsing on their own. Full orchestra rehearsals occur the week leading up to the concert, Monday through Thursday.
If a guest artist is performing with Austin Symphony Orchestra, then the schedule typically looks like this:
- Monday and Tuesday: Only the orchestra rehearses.
- Wednesday: First night of rehearsal with the guest musician. The focus is on portions of the concert when both the orchestra and guest musician perform together. However, the guest musician’s solos are not performed at this time.
- Thursday: Full dress rehearsal.
During rehearsals, performers may decide to come only for the portions of the show they are playing in. Since different musical pieces require different instruments and sounds, a musician may only perform during a portion of the concert. But no matter whether they are in one song or all, the first day of rehearsal or the last, there is a ton of energy put into rehearsals.
Before rehearsals can begin, the stage needs to be prepared. Setup can take around two-and-a-half hours. This includes placing chairs, getting the piano or other large instruments onto the stage, pushing panel walls out, and much more. All of this work requires six to 10 stagehands.
On the day of the show, performers arrive through the back entrance of the building, behind the stage. There are multiple dressing rooms and plenty of tables for orchestra members to rest, or have a meal before heading onstage. Maestro Bay has his own dressing room close to the stage and another private dressing room is prepared for the guest musician. The latter even has a piano in it!
And then, it’s curtains up. The time when everything falls together, and the delighted audience is given the performance they’ve been waiting for.
Browse upcoming concerts and purchase tickets at austinsymphony.org.
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