You’re going to need your imagination for this first part, so focus your mind’s eye on a time some twenty years ago, near the tail end of the 1990s. Imagine a sixteen-year-old black kid from Goose Creek, South Carolina—a decent trumpet player attending an intensive five-week summer program at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts—standing nervously in front of an honest-to-goodness orchestra in an honest-to-goodness conducting class. (The story gets even better when you realize this is the first time the kid from Goose Creek has ever laid eyes on an orchestra, much less climbed the podium in front of one.) Imagine this kid raising his arms—a baton in one fist—and imagine all that power, all that sound, suddenly crashing over him like a sonic rogue wave. And he controls it all. He is the one who corrals all of that sound and energy and passion. If you try really hard, it isn’t difficult to imagine the kid deciding, at that critical moment, to make conducting and music his life’s work. You can stop imagining now. Because this story is true, and it’s not even close to the end.
Joseph Young was that kid, and while his road back to the podium took a meandering and valuable path for a few years—as a music major at the University of South Carolina and a band director at DW Daniel High School in Clemson—he is now recognized as one of the quickly ascending stars in the conducting universe. How steep is his ascent? Young currently serves as the music director of the Berkeley Symphony, the artistic director of ensembles for the Peabody Conservatory, and the resident conductor of the National Youth Orchestra-USA at Carnegie Hall. He’s been the resident conductor for the Phoenix Symphony, the assistant conductor of the Atlanta Symphony. His conducting has taken him around the country and around the world. And now, he’s coming back to where it started. He’s coming home.
Young will take the baton for two performances as guest conductor in the Greenville Symphony Orchestra’s Masterworks Series. On February 29 and March 1, Young will conduct Leshnoff’s “Starburst,” Bizet’s Carmen Suite, and Symphony No. 2 by Brahms. And he is quick to point out that guest conducting is not simply a matter of showing up and putting the musicians through their paces. “It’s actually a tricky dating scheme,” he says with a laugh. “For me, the idea is not coming in to be the new boss. It’s to create different perspectives of the art and of the music. That’s what the joy of guest conducting is. It’s my sheer excitement and my sheer passion to share with an orchestra. It’s the idea of expressing myself without saying a word and helping create these amazing moments.”
For the musicians on the other side of the conductor’s podium (and the other side of that dating scheme), the feeling is mutual. Anneka Zuehlke-King, principal horn player in the Greenville Symphony, says Young’s visit adds a heightened sense of anticipation to a performance. “I love opportunities to work with new people, learning different approaches to music, different philosophies. I love experiencing familiar pieces in a new way,” she says. “Joseph Young promises to be one of those exciting experiences.”
While Young would not label himself as a stout evangelist for classical music, he does feel a deep sense of responsibility, especially toward young musicians. “A lot of what I have done is to make sure that I’m seen through kids, so kids see that a black man can do this. It’s about making sure kids see me in that light. When I was sixteen, it was the first time I actually saw an orchestra. I think that’s a little late.”
Talk with Joseph Young about his career and the conversation winds down a number of avenues, all eventually circling back to his passion for the music. Back to the small-town, Lowcountry South Carolina, roots that shade his interpretations of classical pieces. Back to his stint as a band director at Daniel High that taught him how to creatively motivate musicians. Back to his large, supportive family that bequeathed him a set of values that serve him well as he navigates the classical music landscape.
“Classical music is high-class art, but it’s also for everyone. Who knew that this Southern boy would actually do this? It keeps me humble. I need to figure out how to show everyone why this music is great,” Young says.
When Joseph Young raises his arms and brings the Greenville Symphony Orchestra to attention, it’s anybody’s guess if he’ll recall that moment twenty-something years ago when he first conducted as a sixteen-year-old. The smart bet would be that some hint of nostalgia will wash over him, right along with the music. Homecomings will do that to a person. “I’m a small-town boy who had big dreams,” he says, “and I think I’m starting to become the conductor I dreamed of.” It’s nice that he’s bringing those dreams back where they started.
For more information about Joseph Young’s Greenville appearances or to purchase tickets, please visit greenvillesymphony.org