In The Key of Alex

Fresh. International. Accomplished. Alex Prior is orchestrating a new kindof symphony.

Photography Adam Goudreau

I have been warned; 25-year-old  Alex Prior, the new chief conductor of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (ESO), does not like to talk about his age. In fact, questions about his youth may provoke an involuntary eye-roll. My media contact with the ESO explains: “I tell him, ‘Alex, you’ve got to stop rolling your eyes when asked about your age! Especially on camera! Can you do that?'”

Never mind that conductors under 30 are still rare enough to be newsworthy in the world of symphony orchestras. And never mind that young Prior is fearlessly picking up the baton from beloved Bill Eddins, a music director and conductor more than twice his age, who delighted audiences and earned international respect for the ESO during his 12-year tenure. None of that matters. Prior firmly believes the age issue isn’t important and he’s felt that way for years. In 2010, a British journalist got more than an eye-roll when he suggested a teenage Prior was too wet behind the ears for his new appointment across the ocean with the Seattle Symphony. “I’m young. So what?” Prior shot back.

He has mellowed since and the tousled-haired, casually-dressed maestro is far less tetchy when I broach the topic. To his credit, the eye-roll reflex is mostly suppressed as he finds himself explaining, yet again, why the age issue is old hat. “It’s just so irrelevant and exhausting, it comes up a lot. My goodness, Edmonton media even called me a prodigy when my appointment was announced. I haven’t been called that for years! When you start studying and working, you’re a musician, not a prodigy. My age is just so uninteresting.”

Numbers don’t matter to Prior, who is more concerned with quality over quantity. As he wryly observes: “I’m always seeing in the media that I’ve composed 40 works. I don’t know where that number comes from, I guess journalists all Google the same outdated articles, I’ve written so many more.” He goes on to note that while he’s only written two works in the past three years, he thinks they’re “way better” than many of his previous compositions. Obviously he’s proven his talent repeatedly over the years while maturing from wunderkind to wunder-adult, so let’s all move along, shall we?

The London, England-born Prior has worked all around the world (“my nationality is music,” he says) and is already over a decade into his professional conducting career. It unofficially started at age eight when he began composing, and officially at age 13 when he was commissioned to write the score for a ballet called Mowgli, based on Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, while studying at Saint Petersburg Conservatory in Russia. He was 14 when he had his conducting debut with its premiere at the Kremlin Theatre in Moscow. What’s equally impressive is that Mowgli is still touring, which is rare for a debut ballet. One year later, he conducted the National Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican in London, England, one of Europe’s largest performing centres. The list of achievements goes on and on, all ancient history to Prior.

Prior would much rather talk about his plans for Edmonton. To describe him as enthusiastic would be an understatement; he’s ready to embrace his new role and his new city equally and passionately, and already feels at home – “I don’t feel like I’m new here, I feel imbedded in the city.” He felt an immediate chemistry with the ESO when he first guest conducted here in 2014, performing his own work, “The Banshee,” from his Putl’lt Suite. It’s his favourite personal composition, inspired by the poem “Freedom Come All Ye” by Scottish wordsmith and songwriter Hamish Henderson – “I like the idea of being at home in freedom,” Prior says. He’ll conduct it again on May 11, 2018 during a show called Late Night Soundscapes, alongside work by fellow young and Canadian-based composers Jared Miller and Harry Stafylakis. He also feels in sync with the new energy that the arena development has brought to Edmonton.

“I’m so excited about the changes I’ve seen over the past four years, the physical and cultural growth. I love this city’s spirit and energy. I feel I’m in the right place at the right time.”

The ESO has given him an unusually long contract – five years, instead of the typical two or three. He started the season on September 15 with Late Night with Adams, a performance of John Adams’ “Harmonielehre,” and will next conduct Mozart’sSymphony Number 41: Jupiteron November 5. During his tenure, Prior wants to blow away all those misconceptions that classical music is boring and outdated or that symphony performances are stuffy, snobby and inaccessible. Instead he wants to welcome you in and show you that an ESO concert is as much fun as a hockey game, just as easy to attend and costs much less, too. He makes himself available to talk with patrons after concerts, and encourages audience feedback. He truly believes that once you step inside the Winspear and listen, the music will sell itself. “The Winspear is one of the best concert halls in North America, and going to a show is just like when you’re hanging out with friends, talking about music. It’s a great, easy night out. The Winspear is a temple for music, a shrine for art. It’s not the same as sitting at home and listening to music.” He makes music sound like so much fun, you find yourself saying: “Sounds good, I’ll have what he’s having.”

Prior feels ESO has a solid base on which to build, with a strong children’s concert series to create positive experiences and hopefully encourage the symphony-goers of the future. He identifies the biggest challenges as teens and young adults, “the group who will no longer be dragged along with their parents. They’ll only go if they want to.” This is the one area where he thinks his age might make a difference, hoping it will help him “infiltrate the youth community,” and he’s intent on programming a season of music “that’s relevant to everyone.”

Listening to this quick mind, his extensive experiences and his big plans, it’s easy to forget you’re talking to a 25-year-old. And once Edmonton gets to know Prior better, his age will stop being the first thing that comes to mind too. But people can’t help but be curious about the background of the ESO’s new artistic leader, because, regardless of what he says, it’s far from irrelevant. We’ll accept that he’s qualified, but the new question becomes “how did he get so wise so young?”

Despite his disdain for the word, Prior was involved with a British TV show called The World’s Greatest Musical Prodigies. The plot line of this arty version of a reality show that had Prior working with four prodigies, who would later perform a piece he composed for them – which he would also conduct.

(A further plot twist: violinist Simone Porter, one of the prodigies, is now a highly respected adult musician who performed with Prior and the ESO in May). The show was Prior’s second TV appearance. Earlier he appeared with his mother, Elena, in a documentary they were told was about talented child performers, but which ended up being called Pushy Parents. Prior, however, insists his parents were anything but. “I was never pushed. My parents had no desire for me to be a musician. I think my dad actually wanted me to be a banker.”

The nature-versus-nurture question is endlessly debated when people try to figure out where exceptional children’s talents come from. For Prior, it seems to be a mixture of both. He acknowledges he had an unusual childhood and is grateful he did. His British father was a renewable-energy consultant and his mother, originally from Russia, was a former actress, a descendent of Stanislavski, the father of method acting. Peter and Elena tried to give their son a general education, exposing him to chess, dancing,  soccer and other sports, but Prior claims he did everything badly – except music.  He did show an early talent for singing (there’s an obscure YouTube video of a young Prior singing “O Sole Mio” to a bemused Meryl Streep as she receives an award), but that was abandoned as he focused on learning piano and a plethora of other instruments, as well as composing and later conducting.

His mother took him to arts performances several times a week from a very early age. After seeing Swan Lake when he was three, Prior came home and sang the entire score. He loves the symphonic nature of ballet, opera and orchestra. “I love the mass beauty and teamwork of all those sounds together. That’s why I compose and that’s why I’m a conductor – to have a symphony of sound instead of playing one instrument.”

In psychological terms, a child prodigy is someone who achieves the extraordinary skills of an expert adult at an unusually young age. Music is full of examples, from Mozart, Chopin and Mendelssohn to the contemporary parade of young virtuosos on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, like chubby-cheeked, long-haired, piano-playing, 10-year-old Elias Phoenix. History is also full of examples of precocious youngsters who fail to transition into exceptional adult artists. Many suffer mental breakdowns, develop additions, turn to a completely non-musical field – or end it all by suicide.

Perhaps by never considering himself a child prodigy, Prior more easily crossed the bridge from precocious youth to professional adult with no obvious signs of trauma. Or maybe his personality has something to do with his success. In her book Gifted Children: Myths and Realities, psychologist Ellen Winner notes that unusually talented children tend to be introverted and often feel lonely and isolated. None of those adjectives apply to Prior.

One of his first professional positions – and his North American debut – was with the Seattle Symphony, which created an “assistant to the guest conductors” position specifically for him. Elena Dubinets, the symphony’s vice president of artistic planning who invited Prior to participate in the assistant conductor auditions, remembers a very charismatic 17-year-old. “His engaging personality made him an outstanding ambassador for the arts. A quick learner in every field, he is very well-read and can impel a conversation forward on virtually any topic – fluently in at least a dozen languages!” (Yes, Prior is also a talented linguist. For him, languages are just another kind of music, and he can’t comprehend why Indigenous languages aren’t taught in our schools.) Dubinets also says she’ll never forget how Prior sang a new opera he’d written over dinner at his apartment.

Prior’s outgoing personality is also mentioned by Annemarie Petrov, the ESO and Winspear Centre’s executive director, as part of his appeal. “In addition to his excellent skills, he’s gregarious, exceptionally well-spoken and a lot of fun,” says Petrov. “He’s genuine and sincere, a very grounded individual.”

Ultimately however, a conductor needs the respect and trust of the musicians he stands before. And some, like trombone-player Kathryn Macintosh, have been playing with the ESO since before Prior was born. Macintosh mentions that what really impressed her was Prior’s complete confidence in his ability. “He showed such mastery of the psychology of leadership. Quite apart from his musical talent, he understands how to bring everyone together to make something great happen.”  ESO violinist Joanna Ciapla-Sangster says taking direction from someone the same age as her son is no problem. “Alex was so open and genuine the first time he guest conducted with us. And he’s done nothing since to make me change my mind; we have so much to learn from him.”

Others are less enamoured with their young boss. According to symphony members who did not wish to be named, there are rumblings about time-management problems, that too much rehearsal time was spent on what some considered to be trivial issues, resulting in rushed dress rehearsals and inadequate prep time for soloists. Eyebrows were raised; eyes were rolled.

Some also mentioned fears that Prior, who has a passion for Nordic composers, will steer the musical director of the ESO into less familiar, less popular waters – or that their new chief conductor, who is also a composer, will include too many of his own compositions in upcoming programming.  ESO’s 2017/18 season, however, shows Prior has avoided both of these pitfalls. Programming features a balance of greatest hits, such as Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and pop culture, including The Music of Star Wars. “That was a conscious decision, not to make my first year too much about me,” says Prior. “It’s a splash of humility in my new job.”

Nicholas McGegan, now in his 31st season with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, is one of the conductors Prior assisted in the past and considers a mentor. Like Prior, McGegan began conducting at an early age, and he recalls the challenges: “You have to be pretty brave. Most musicians are older and more experienced than you, but it’s your job to tell them what to do. Sometimes you have to tread carefully. Now that I’m 67 and have been conducting for nearly 50 years, it’s a lot easier.” McGegan adds, however, that Prior is “extra special, with a ton of energy, and I’m sure he will achieve great things.”

Prior himself says he considers himself a democratic conductor, who tries to listen to his musicians and treat them as partners as they do what the composer asks of them. But if he’s prepared, knows the score well and gives clear direction, he doesn’t see why there should be any problems. Because, as he likes to tell everyone, he believes he’s the luckiest man in the world. “Conducting is amazing, exciting, thrilling and fun. It’s the best job, it really is.” And, considering his age, Prior will be able to do what he loves best for a long, long time. Maybe someday in the distant future, journalists will start asking him how he’s still conducting when he’s so old. And he won’t have to roll his eyes, he can just smile.

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