Man With the Light Touch

Peter Bay leads the Austin Symphony with the finesse of Astaire

Man With the Light Touch
Photo by Sandy Carson

If all the term "symphony conductor" calls to mind is that cartoon stereotype – bushy white mop of hair rising from hunched shoulders, arms sawing the air with the frenzied air of Klaus Kinski hacking his way through the Amazonian brush in Aguirre: The Wrath of God – then you might be a bit startled upon seeing Peter Bay take the podium. The now well-established director of the Austin Symphony Orchestra – he's just begun his 10th season with the orchestra – cuts a modest figure, even in a tux: slight of stature and build, close-cropped black hair with a dusting of gray here and there, spectacles that might suggest a scholarly mien were it not for the merry eyes behind them and the affable smile beneath. Actually, despite the formal wear, Bay's open, congenial demeanor gives him the air of a most agreeable neighbor, that ever-pleasant fellow down the street who is always fun to chat up. And when he raises his baton, well, there's none of that strenuous agitation of the arms, as if he's straining to force a recalcitrant 18-wheeler to make a sudden 90-degree turn. Bay's movements are precise and delicate, the baton bouncing lightly on the beat, the gestures toward this section of players or that one fluid and easy. He appears buoyed by the sounds around him, to the point of seeming almost to be floating. He doesn't wrestle the music; he dances on top of it – and not in the manner of a Gene Kelly, whose athleticism and vigor is more in line with those aggressively physical conductors whom Bugs Bunny liked to ape. No, Bay is an Astaire, moving with a lightness that bespeaks elegance and finesse. That quality makes him a fascinating and even fun figure to watch when the orchestra is playing, but it's also integral to who he is as the artistic leader of ASO and why he's still on the podium after a decade.

Into the Music

Curiously enough for this "Astaire," it was a "Gene Kelly" conductor who first inspired Bay to want to take up the baton. He was 9, an otherwise ordinary suburban kid growing up in Maryland outside Washington, D.C., when he caught one of the Young People's Concerts that CBS used to broadcast back when network television still thought cultural programs were worth putting on the air. There was Leonard Bernstein leading the New York Philharmonic, and, Bay says, "he was jumping up and down on the podium. He was smiling. He was frowning. He went through all of the emotions of the music. He was so into it, he seemed possessed, and I just thought, 'Wow, how fun that must be,' to stand in front of an orchestra with that sound and to be so into the music the way he was." The young Bay was riveted by it, "and from that point on, that's all I've wanted to do. Never wanted to do anything else."

So he pursued that life, even though aspiring conductors – unlike aspiring dancers or actors or musicians – don't get many opportunities to try their hand at their chosen craft. "When you're young and have no way of practicing with an orchestra, you basically watch a lot of conductors' work," says Bay. By the time he had a chance to lead an orchestra, Bay had observed numerous other conductors and seen the varied ways there are to conduct: more flamboyant, less flamboyant, energetic, tightly focused. "And you pick up some mannerisms," he says, "whether you intend to or not."

The conductor may not always be aware what those mannerisms are, however, unless, like Lenny B. or John Williams of the Boston Pops, he's had his work caught on camera and had the chance to watch himself. That's not been the case with Bay, who says that, except for the occasional descriptive comment he's seen in a review, he doesn't have much sense of what he looks like on the podium. It's telling, that ignorance of his appearance while conducting. What matters to Bay – has always mattered to him – has been the music and how he could get into it the way he saw Bernstein get into the music. To that end, he's studied the music keenly with an eye toward how he can help musicians bring it off the page. He knows the score, in every sense of that phrase.

In the same way that Bay knows music, composer and UT School of Music professor Dan Welcher knows Bay, having been the conductor's close friend since the two met at the Aspen Music Festival 25 years ago. ("Our musical tastes were remarkably similar, with a decided lean toward the music of Benjamin Britten and other mid-20th century composers of expressive, finely detailed, and emotionally strong music," says Welcher. "He liked my music a lot, too, which didn't hurt.") Welcher, who can frequently be seen on the podium himself, leading the New Music Ensemble that he founded at UT, characterizes Bay's conducting as "unusually clean, while still containing a broad sense of shape and color." He recalls the first time he saw his friend conduct a first-rate professional orchestra: It was in Vail, Colo., and Bay was running the Rochester Philharmonic through a rehearsal of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. "I was surprised not only at the detailed comments he was making – many young conductors, which he certainly was then, are very reticent with seasoned pros, for fear of exposing their own weaknesses on the podium – but also at the power he was eliciting in the last movement. Peter is not a large man, and his economical beat and fastidious technique might seem to be incongruous with beefy composers like Beethoven and Brahms. But he was making that finale absolutely churn with power and deep energy, and the orchestra clearly loved him – smiles all around and vigorous playing that obviously came from the heart. I knew that this was a young conductor of true substance."

Welcher was not alone in that assessment. At the age of 23, Bay took first prize in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Young Conductors Competition and seven years later was a prizewinner in the Leopold Stokowski Conducting Competition sponsored by the American Symphony Orchestra in New York. Seven years after that, he was one of two conductors selected to participate in the Leonard Bernstein American Conductors Program.

Jessica Mathaes, currently concertmaster for ASO and the featured soloist for October's ASO concert, says that Bay is every bit as focused on the music now as he ever was. "Peter really knows the score inside and out for every work that he conducts," she says. "His interpretations of the works we play are based on scholarship and honest study, not whims."

That encyclopedic knowledge of classical music is one of Michelle Schumann's favorite things about Bay. The Austin Chamber Music Center director, award-winning pianist, and self-professed "big fan" of Bay says, "The guy knows everything about classical repertoire, history, theory, and trivia. I remember having this crazy conversation with him about how composers died, and I swear, he listed the fates of over 30 composers and musicians ... all of whom had these elaborate and involved deaths. I don't think he was tapped out, either. I think someone's phone rang or something."

That said, it isn't just about the facts and figures with Bay. He channels all that information into an informed, cogent reading of the score that he can communicate to the musicians he's leading. According to Mathaes, "He has a clear idea of what he wants from the orchestra, which makes us respect him." Schumann echoes that sentiment: "He is exceptionally clear, and while he has a firm idea of what he wants to bring to the music interpretively, he creates room for individual musicians to bring their ideas to the table as well. Personally, I've found that he has an incredible way of bringing out the best in his players, by trusting them with musicality and phrasing matters. That trust is integral to creating a good playing relationship. The conductor and the musicians have to have this symbiotic relationship whereby they are able to listen and react, and there is no better feeling than when you play and get the feeling like you can do whatever you want and everyone will catch on and be there with you. And likewise, you're listening so carefully that when your fellow musicians do something totally cool, you're with them, supporting them, making it better. It's this spontaneity that can make classical incredibly exciting, and I know that Peter is a collaborator rather than a dictator at the heart of it all."

Plays Well With Others

Bay in rehearsal, 2001
Bay in rehearsal, 2001 (Photo by Bret Brookshire)

That's Bay's light touch in evidence again. Rather than laying the heavy hand on the musicians he's leading, he leaves room for their contributions, for them to give shape and color to the music. Some of that springs from Bay's natural disposition toward openness and cordiality. One gets the feeling that his kindergarten report card noted he "plays well with others." He certainly can be said to now. "During rehearsal breaks he's always chatting with the musicians, and he knows everyone personally," says Mathaes. Consequently, she adds, "Every musician feels comfortable approaching him with questions or ideas about the music that we are working on. He is a very approachable and humble person – which is not always the case with conductors!"

Bay extends this open hand to the guest artists who come in as soloists for specific concerts. It helps him serve as mediator between the artist in the spotlight and the ensemble of musicians providing support for that performer. "I feel that if I engage a soloist, and this soloist comes and wants to play a certain piece, I'm bringing him there for that reason, to get his take on what he thinks of this piece," Bay explains. "So I feel less in charge of the whole concerto and more like a real accompanist, no longer the real boss. I mean, I'll boss the orchestra bits, but overall the interpretation should be that of the soloist. Out of respect. Most, if not all, of the time we agree completely. If the soloist says, 'I really feel like we should slow down these eight bars and get back into tempo in the ninth bar,' I'll gladly do that. There are times when the soloist wants to play more spontaneously, like Philippe [Entremont, soloist for the season's first concert], so it's more challenging for me, because I can't plan as well. He'll say: 'I don't like to play the same performance every night. I like to do some different things.' That's valuable in its own right, but it's hellacious for me, because I have to guess: Will he slow down or speed up or totally change tempos? There's something extraordinary about really great soloists that you can somehow read their minds before they do something. Or they can telegraph something in their playing rhythmically that alerts you: 'Ah! We're going to do something a little differently here.' This is something I can't fully explain. It's a sixth sense. It's a matter of intense listening and caring. I've witnessed concerts where it seemed like the soloist and conductor didn't care about each other. I've always enjoyed the accompanying aspect of conducting, because it's a chance for me to play chamber music in a way. Since I don't play much anymore, this is the closest I come to playing chamber music with someone."

Nudge Toward the New

Bay's light touch isn't reserved for other musicians, however. He extends it to audiences through the area of programming, and it has made a substantive difference in the development of ASO, nudging the organization ever so gently into the present. Before Bay arrived, an Austin Symphony concert was not a place where one expected to hear much 20th century music at all, much less music that could reasonably be called "new." Bay knew this from having studied all the ASO season brochures in the eight to 10 years before his arrival, and he made it an early goal to bring some contemporary music into the repertoire. Which he did, not by programming a slate of ear-challenging atonal works that might send a large segment of his audience racing for the exits but by slipping into programs more recent compositions with that expressive, emotionally strong music that Dan Welcher described. And the strategy seems to have worked.

"I programmed some new things, some American pieces that hadn't been done here," says Bay. "I think initially there was a bit of skepticism, but I have felt after those experiences that this audience is ready for practically anything." Part of that approach owes to Bay's personal preferences in music – he'll tell you flat-out that his taste in contemporary music is on the conservative side: "I don't play a lot of very avant-garde things." – but it allowed him to ease the audience into newer and occasionally more challenging material, to the point that now works from the 20th century are a routine part of almost every ASO program, sometimes outnumbering the 18th and 19th century warhorses still thought to be an American orchestra's bread and butter. The first concerts of the season featured works by John Corigliano and Lukas Foss, as well as World War II-era pieces by Stravinsky and Khachaturian, and next season will open with a new work commissioned from hot young American composer Christopher Theofanidis, whose music drama The Refuge just premiered in Houston. ASO audiences have become so acclimated to contemporary work that when Bay programmed a truly avant-garde piece – György Ligeti's Atmosphères, which may be familiar from its use in 2001: A Space Odyssey but still can't be classed as easy listening – "everyone was very welcoming to it," Bay says. "So that was encouraging, and I've been trying to include more and more newer music."

That's been good for the audiences, but it's also proven beneficial for the musicians. As Bay puts it, "Certain repertory makes us play better." He describes Beethoven as having a specific kind of rhythmic drive "that forces an orchestra to play well together"; thus, ASO's two-year tour through all nine Beethoven symphonies has improved the orchestra's sense of ensemble and rhythm. And because much of the contemporary music Bay has programmed requires rhythmic precision, the players have improved through it, as well. Bay is not one to shy from a challenge. "I was a little nervous when we first programmed Mahler's Fifth Symphony," he recalls, "because this requires everything of an orchestra – emotionally and physically. But I knew it would challenge us in a really good way. And I was really happy with the way that turned out. The players greeted that like a long-lost friend ... lover ... parent – it was all of those things. And the orchestra really rose to the occasion. So rhythmically we've played better over the 10 years. I hope we've been more emotive as a result of the music we've played."

Made for Austin

He can get an orchestra playing better. He can earn the trust and respect of musicians. He can learn a score inside and out. He can get an audience to enjoy music that maybe they thought they didn't want to hear. Peter Bay has all the skills that make a great conductor. In fact, Michelle Schumann will go so far as to say he has "the background, skills, integrity, and musicality to be considered one of the top conductors in the country." And as if that weren't enough, she adds, "he's also, uniquely, unbelievably, a totally great guy. You hear all these horror stories about the ego and cruelty of famous conductors, and then you meet someone like Peter, who only wants people to get excited about the music. He communicates with his audiences and tries to make real connections between the music and the lives of people. He is committed to making classical music relevant, and this is why Austin loves him and why he is great for this community."

But with so much going for him, why, asks his friend Dan Welcher, is Peter Bay in Austin and not in a city with a major, full-time orchestra? Welcher blames "the same mentality that so often governs U.S. politics: voting for style over substance. Peter is a genuinely nice person, approachable and real and believable. When he tells a player or a composer or a board member what he thinks, it's the unalloyed truth. The number of successful conductors one could say that about can be counted on the fingers of one hand. But the fact of Peter's continued residence in Austin is something for all of us here to cheer and be grateful for. I hope that the powers that be who govern the Austin Symphony recognize this and that they will help him groom, shape, and grow the orchestra as it moves into the Long Center."

For his part, Bay says that when he arrived in Austin, he knew that he wanted to stay. And that hasn't changed in the decade that he's been here. If anything it's deepened as he's grown closer to the musicians in the orchestra; as he's programmed more of the music that is meaningful to him; as he's woven himself into the fabric of the community, helping organize the citywide Shostakovich 100 celebration last year and serving as guest conductor for just about any entity that needs a baton – Austin Civic Orchestra, Austin Chamber Music Center, Ballet Austin, Austin Lyric Opera, high school orchestras, you name it; as he's met and married the soprano Mela Sarajane Dailey, with whom he's expecting a child. (Considering that her due date is just after the Long Center opening and before the ballet, Bay is headed for one of the most memorable springs of his life.) "I've grown so attached to Austin that I'm trying to think of a way to remain part of Austin" even after my time with ASO, Bay says. "I feel like I have everything I want and have wanted right here."

Not that Bay plans to lay down his baton anytime soon. "There are so many things that I'd like to do here," he says, and the prospect of being in the Long Center – ASO's first true home and, at 2,300 seats, a considerably more intimate one than the 3,000-seat Bass Concert Hall – gets him speaking excitedly about the possibilities. "If there's one thing I feel I have not played enough of, it's Mozart and Haydn. There's a certain amount of orchestra-building that takes place whenever you play those kinds of pieces, because there's a refinement in Mozart that you have to capture, a certain sound. I never felt 100 percent comfortable programming Mozart at Bass. There's an intimacy in that music that would get lost in the fray. This is something I'm really looking forward to at the Long Center, to get back to that repertory." Also Bruckner. Schumann. Opera. And more new work. "I'd like to have a certain amount of the budget set aside for commissions, because I truly believe in it. There are a lot of living composers who should write us pieces." (And, yes, Dan Welcher, he's looking at you.)

He beams with enthusiasm and optimism – "We're going to grow because we're going to be in an extraordinarily beautiful acoustic space; it's like moving into your new house, your dream house. It's going to help us in so many ways." – and it reminds you once again how far removed Peter Bay is from that glowering caricature wielding the baton like a machete. He's found that fun that he saw in Bernstein all those years ago, and he's out to share it with us until we're all lighter than air and dancing on top of the music.

The Austin Symphony Orchestra performs the Bach Magnificat and Beethoven's Seventh Symphony Nov. 16 and 17, Friday and Saturday, 8pm, at Riverbend Centre, 4214 Capital of TX Hwy. N. For more information, call 476-6064 or visit

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Peter Bay, Austin Symphony Orchestra, Dan Welcher, Jessica Mathaes, Michelle Schumann

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