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CLASSICAL NOTES

He’s taken the baton and run with it

At 23, NEC grad Joshua Weilerstein is off to a very fast start in the conducting world

A February audition helped Joshua Weilerstein (pictured at NEC) become a New York Philharmonic assistant conductor. “How fantastic that was,’’ he said. A February audition helped Joshua Weilerstein (pictured at NEC) become a New York Philharmonic assistant conductor. “How fantastic that was,’’ he said. (Andrew Hurlbut)
By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / August 5, 2011

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During his freshman year at New England Conservatory, Joshua Weilerstein borrowed a DVD from the school’s library that would alter the course of his professional life. He had entered the school as a violinist but become interested in conducting. In the library he found a DVD of the legendary conductor Carlos Kleiber leading works by Brahms and Mozart. A student he didn’t know noticed him checking it out and asked Weilerstein whether he had seen it before; he hadn’t.

“And he said, ‘Well, it’s going to change your life,’ ’’ Weilerstein recalled during a recent phone interview. “And he was right.’’

Weilerstein was speaking from the Aspen Music Festival, where he is serving as assistant conductor this summer, one in a series of recent vocational leaps. In 2009, the year he received his bachelor’s degree from NEC, he won both first prize and the audience prize at the Copenhagen-based Malko International Competition for Young Conductors. Two weeks ago, he was named one of two assistant conductors at the New York Philharmonic, where he will spend the year attending rehearsals with and covering for conductors like Bernard Haitink, Kurt Masur, and Christoph von Dohnányi, not to mention Alan Gilbert, the philharmonic’s music director and the man who hired him. Conducting is a notoriously difficult field in which to make a career, but Weilerstein, at only 23, is off to an unusually fast start.

Surprisingly, Weilerstein didn’t even settle on music as a career until he was a teenager, relatively late in a field full of prodigies and young stars. To say that his family is musical is an understatement: His parents - violinist Donald and pianist Vivian - are both NEC faculty members, and his sister, Alisa, a cellist with a thriving international career. Joshua chose the violin but, by his own admission, wasn’t terribly serious about it. When asked what he played growing up, his immediate reply is “baseball.’’

“I practiced 25 minutes a day, five days a week, three seasons a year,’’ he said. “During the summer the violin went into the case and didn’t come out.’’

That all changed at the age of 15, when he went on tour with NEC’s Youth Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Benjamin Zander to Panama and Guatemala. “[There were] thousands of kids in gyms all across these countries, where they’d really never heard classical music before,’’ he said. “And I saw how amazingly Ben interacted with them. And that sort of made me think that that was something I really would like to do at some point in the future.’’

That got him serious about being a musician. Encounters with Ludovic Morlot - who led the NEC Sinfonietta during one year of his tenure as assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra - steered him toward conducting, and the Kleiber DVD sealed the deal. “Working with Ludovic, and watching Kleiber, seeing what was possible when you have a fantastic conductor, is what really got me into it.’’

Most of the basic rules of conducting he learned from Hugh Wolff, NEC’s director of orchestras and the person Weilerstein calls “my main source for everything conducting-related. . . . His dedication to all of us was really stunning, and wonderful.’’

Weilerstein is “a disciplined quick study, and has amazing confidence and maturity for someone his age,’’ Wolff wrote in an e-mail. “Even more remarkable is the rapport Josh develops with orchestras, whether student or professional. His manner is relaxed but his standards are always high and he finds a way to get what he wants in a collegial atmosphere.’’

Weilerstein went to New York in February to audition for the New York Philharmonic slot, as one of five finalists. The job itself was “an amazing opportunity, but part of the attraction was just that I was going to be able to conduct the New York Phil for 25 minutes,’’ Weilerstein said. “How fantastic that was. They were unbelievably responsive and easy to work with. It was almost like any other conducting audition that I’ve done, just that it was in front of the New York Philharmonic.’’

Actually winning the audition, he added, “was something so ridiculous that I hadn’t even thought of it as a possibility.’’ When he got the call, “I was just totally in shock and really trying to figure out how to make my mouth form words to the artistic administrator who was talking to me.’’

Though several major orchestras have hired younger conductors as music directors - Gustavo Dudamel in Los Angeles, Gilbert in New York, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin in Philadelphia, to name a few - standing up and telling professional musicians how to play is still thought to be the purview of someone with decades of experience. So how does someone in their 20s bring the requisite authority to the podium?

“As much as possible, I want the orchestra to have their own ideas and be open about their ideas,’’ Weilerstein said. “I think starting from that point helps someone who’s my age get some measure of respect from an orchestra. [If] I have a huge amount of respect for them, but I also have my own ideas about the piece, I think it can work really well.’’

He will have plenty of opportunities to hone his craft. Besides his New York commitments, he will guest conduct in a number of places - including Frankfurt, Oslo, and Toronto - in the coming months. It’s almost enough to allow a young conductor to get ahead of himself.

“I’ve had some conversations with some mentor types who’ve cautioned me on not moving too fast,’’ he said, “which I’m really taking seriously.’’

David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com.