Joseph Young ushers in a new era at Berkeley Symphony Orchestra

A new era begins for the Berkeley Symphony at Zellerbach Hall on Thursday when conductor Jospeh Young debuts as the ensemble’s fourth music director. Photo: Berkeley Symphony Orchestra

The first time Joseph Young stepped in front of an orchestra and raised a baton he knew he’d found his calling. Growing up in a tight-knit working class family in Charleston, SC he’d never had the chance to even see string instruments before he enrolled in an intensive summer conservatory program at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities.

He studied music history and theory, and continued to hone his trumpet chops, but what really got his attention was the class in conducting. As the five-week program progressed, fellow students were gradually cut from the course, until he was one of four kids left, each of whom was tasked with conducting one movement of Beethoven’s 2nd Symphony.

“Some people say it’s about standing in front of the orchestra, but for me it was the sheer sound.” — Joseph Young

Young was already reeling from being surrounded by “an orchestra of my peers,” he recalls. “In my high school we didn’t have an orchestral program. I finally saw violins and string instruments, and it was kind of surreal and amazing to be drenched in classical music with kids my age all coming together because we loved the same thing.”

Everything seemed to drop away when he took the podium and raised the baton. As he eased the orchestra into the 2nd Symphony’s long and languorous 2nd movement all of his anxiety and self-consciousness seemed to flee. “Some people say it’s about standing in front of the orchestra, but for me it was the sheer sound,” Young says.


“The other part was at 16 years old, I was pretty shy and had a bit of stage freight. But conducting you can exude all this energy and get that fear out. For me, being able to emote without saying a word or making a sound was a revelation.”

His sensitivity to the emotional current running between a conductor, ensemble, and audience is part of why Young made such a powerful impression when he stepped in as a last-minute replacement for Joana Carneiro in January, conducting the Berkeley Symphony on a program featuring Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, and the world premiere of Hannah Kendall’s “Disillusioned Dreamer.” A whirlwind courtship followed, and on Thursday Young conducts his first concert as the BSO’s fourth music director, ushering in a new era for an ensemble long known for embracing new and overlooked works.

Opening the 2019-20 season at Zellerbach Hall, Thursday’s program features pianist Conrad Tao on Ravel’s jazz-influenced Piano Concerto in G Major, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. The program kicks off with Olly Wilson’s “Shango Memory,” a highly kinetic piece for the Yoruban god of thunder and lightning. It’s only the second time the BSO has performed a piece by the late, beloved UC Berkeley professor of music and composition, who died last year at the age of 80.

“There’s a group of African American composers on a list in the back of my mind who I’ve wanted to conduct and meet,” Young says. “It felt like a serendipitous honor to bring this piece together with a community where he was so beloved. It’s a short, thunderous six-minute piece, and such a great way to start the season. He was at the university since 1971 and I want to make a bigger connection between his work and the symphony.”

Given the speed with which Young was wooed and won by the BSO, he sees this first season mostly as an opportunity to get acquainted with the ensemble’s musicians and patrons, the audience, and other artists and collaborators. He’s got some specific ideas about directions he wants to explore with the BSO, and is also very cognizant of its history.

“I want to build on the symphony’s track record of innovation and creativity, and learn more about Berkeley to showcase where the city and the Bay Area is going in the arts,” he says. “One thing I’m passionate about is telling diverse stories, not only of composers of the past, but composers of today and the future.”

The BSO is a small part of Young’s busy itinerary. He’s also the Ruth Blaustein Rosenberg artistic director of ensembles at the Peabody Conservatory and resident conductor of the National Youth Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. He earned national attention during his 2014-2017 tenure as the assistant conductor of the Atlanta Symphony, conducting more than 50 concerts per season. With the BSO, he’s already tapped into some key local institutions.

On the Feb. 2 “You Have a Voice” program he conducts a world premiere by Chinese composer Xi Wang, and two Bay Area premieres, “Become Who I Am” by Mary Kouyoumdjian and “Voy a Dormir” by Bryce Dessner  (who also performs in the rock band the National). Brahms Symphony No. 1 in C minor rounds out the evening, which also features mezzo soprano Kelly O’Connor and the San Francisco Girls Chorus.

March 26’s “New Perspectives” program includes two canonical jazz-inspired works from the 1920s, Darius Milhaud’s “La création du monde” and Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” and two Bay Area premieres, Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Trumpet Concert and Gunther Schuller’s “Journey Into Jazz.” The program features the Berkeley High Jazz Combo and powerhouse trumpeter Sean Jones.

A member of the SFJAZZ Collective from 2015-17 and jazz artist-in-residence at San Francisco Performances from 2015-2019, Jones has become a familiar presence on Bay Area stages. He earned two degrees in classical trumpet while establishing himself as one of the most formidable jazz horn players of his generation. As an educator he was head of the Berklee College of Music’s brass program before starting his current position last year as chair of the jazz studies department of the Peabody Institute (where he’s a colleague of Young’s).

“We also have the National Youth Orchestra connection,” says Young, noting that Jones leads Carnegie Hall’s National Youth Jazz Orchestra. “He’s the inspiration for the ‘New Perspectives’ concert. People know him as an amazing jazz artist, but audiences should hear his breadth as a player.”

Trumpet was actually Young’s first instrument. The oldest of three kids who were encouraged to study music seriously by their parents (his brother teaches saxophone and is assistant dean of digital media at the North Carolina School of the Arts, and his sister played flute), Young played in a variety of bands and fell in love with classical trumpet in high school.

“I dabbled in everything, even steel drums,” he says. “On trumpet I was always on the lead jazz part because I could play those high notes, but I was that kid always afraid to improvise.”

His initial career ambition was to teach, and after earning his bachelor’s degree in music education at the University of South Carolina he spent three years teaching music in high school. All the while that Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities summer program epiphany about conducting never left his mind. He hoped to study conducting during his summer breaks, but it wasn’t until a conducting workshop at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz that a path opened up. He’d almost passed on the opportunity to attend due to another commitment but a friend urged him to take advantage of the opportunity to study with the great conductor Marin Alsop, who directed the Cabrillo Festival from 1992-2016.

Toward the end of the festival, he asked her advice on how to pursue conducting as a career. “She said, why don’t you come study with me, and she created a fellowship at the Baltimore Symphony,” where she broke the glass podium in 2007 when she became the first woman named music director of a major American orchestra.

Young is bringing his passion for education to Berkeley.

“I’m always about training the next generation, that’s one of the biggest parts of who I am,” Young says. “I want to make sure young black boys know this is an avenue for them, that it’s an avenue for anyone.”

Correction: Joseph Young is the Berkeley Symphony’s fourth conductor, not the third, as originally stated in this story.