Assistant and Associate Conductors: Past and Present

As Seattle Symphony Associate Conductor Stilian Kirov moves on to music director positions at both the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra and Symphony in C, and we welcome our new Assistant Conductor Pablo Rus Broseta and Conducting Fellow Ruth Reinhardt, here’s a look back at Jamie Swenson’s Encore feature article from October 2013 about Stilian and other former assistant conductors.

“The most challenging aspect is the fact that you have to learn a great amount of music every week, but in a way this is also the most rewarding part of the Assistant Conductor position.” – Stilian Kirov

Picture this: It’s a Tuesday afternoon and Music Director Ludovic Morlot is leading the Seattle Symphony in a rehearsal of that weekend’s Masterworks Season concert, the first of which will be performed in a little over 48 hours. Because it’s a rehearsal, the lights are dim and the seats in the S. Mark Taper Auditorium are empty — except for one man.

That man is Seattle Symphony Associate Conductor Stilian Kirov. He’s seated about 15 rows back and has a score open on his lap. He flips pages to keep up with the music that Morlot and the orchestra are rehearsing onstage, and he occasionally jots notes down in the margins. Kirov is essentially preparing to conduct the concert himself, in the unfortunate event that Morlot is unable to. Rare as this is, it did happen this past January. And, on just a day’s notice, Kirov stepped in and led the orchestra and soloists in the Symphony’s fifth annual Celebrate Asia concert — a stunning and memorable affair.

“You always have to be prepared and ready to step in,” Kirov shares. “It was challenging, but I had a great time with the orchestra. The musicians are always wonderful and very supportive, and the soloists were also absolutely fantastic. The experience was very important for me.”

But, as the Seattle Symphony’s Associate Conductor (he was Assistant Conductor last season but earned the promotion to Associate beginning in September), Kirov has much more on his plate than covering rehearsals and performances. In addition to being prepared to fill in on a moment’s notice, the Assistant/Associate Conductor’s duties include leading concerts (especially neighborhood, family and education concerts), editing concert recordings for radio broadcast and grant support, and working with the artistic staff on programming ideas.

Just this month, for example, Kirov leads a Mainly Mozart series program, three Community Concerts (two of them side-by-side performances with local high schools), and a Discover Music family concert. In other words, the Associate Conductor must continually think about the audience, the way the music is presented, and the inherently community-centered responsibilities that come with being a musical leader at the Seattle Symphony.

As it stands now, the Assistant Conductor position typically runs for one or two years and sometimes includes a promotion to Associate Conductor. The position, which gives young musical leaders some very valuable experience, has proven to be a valuable link in the career trajectories of many former Seattle Symphony Assistant/Associate Conductors. A few examples: Adam Stern (Assistant 1992–96; Associate 1996–2001) is now Music Director of the Seattle Philharmonic and the Port Angeles Symphony; Alastair Willis (Assistant 2000–02; Associate 2002–03) is now Music Director of the Illinois Symphony Orchestra; and Carolyn Kuan (Assistant 2006–07; Associate 2007–09) is the newly appointed Music Director of the Hartford Symphony.

Willis, who conducted over 100 concerts in three seasons with the Seattle Symphony, says, “Every experience, large or small, helped me prepare for what was next. The variety of programming, the flexibility, the ton of repertoire I learned, my relationship with the musicians, the musical politics and so much more. It’s no understatement that my three years with the Seattle Symphony helped shaped me into who I am today, and not a day goes by that I’m not grateful for that.”

Posted on June 17, 2015