Wesley Schulz lived in Seattle for 6½ years and moved to the East Coast to be the associate conductor of the North Carolina Symphony mere weeks before the Auburn Symphony Orchestra named him its new conductor, finally landing him the job for which he and more than 25 others had begun contending 2½ years earlier.
But what the grin that comes across even in a phone call to his new home in Raleigh tells you is that this man is beyond delighted, thrilled, head over heels to have the job, and he’ll have no trouble adjusting his compass.
“I was joking with someone who was cutting my hair today that when you are in the Northwest, you point west when you refer to the ocean. Now I’m in Raleigh, and when I refer to the ocean, I am still pointing west but now it’s two hours to the east,” Schulz said with a laugh.
Schulz takes up his baton for the upcoming season’s first performance of the full symphony orchestra in October. He’ll return for the remainder of the season’s concerts in December, February and April. Before all that, however, he’ll be at the Meridian Valley Country Club on April 21 for the ASO’s gala.
Lee Valenta, general manager of the Auburn Symphony Orchestra, described some of the newly-minted maestro’s special qualities.
“He’s very engaging, and I think that was one of the elements that helped us decide. Given that he met all the other criteria, that was an important part of it, and I think we just liked what we saw on all levels. He had the hard and soft skills,” Valenta said.
Schulz, 34, a Nebraska native, played percussion and cello in high school. He had planned to teach band in public school after high school, and while he was earning his degree in music education at Ball State University, he studied for a time in Vienna, Austria.
Vienna, home of the internationally-renowned Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and a destination for all of the world’s great orchestras, changed his life.
“That’s where I first saw conducting as an opportunity to teach, like I wanted to do in public school, but on a broader level,” Schulz said. “ … There are so many options for entertainment these days, and I think it’s one of our duties as classical musicians to keep sharing what this art form is; that it’s not just an old art form, but one that is very much alive today and growing.”
Schulz earned his graduate degree in conducting from the University of Texas in Austin, a city to which returns several times a year to visit with the conductor of the Austin Symphony Orchestra – he is one of Schulz’ mentors – to renew his close ties to its orchestra and to conduct family and educational concerts,
While he was living in Seattle, Schulz conducted the Everett Youth Orchestra, the Bainbridge Youth Orchestra, the Bainbridge Symphony, the Seattle Festival Orchestra, taught at the University of Puget Sound and was a guest conductor for other orchestras. And in that process, the congenial Schulz forged close relationships with many local musicians, among them several dozen who played for the ASO, friends who taught at UPS and others who played either full time or as free lancers for the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.
Opportunity to conduct here
One of Schulz’ friends, a musician who plays for the Auburn orchestra, told him about the opening created by the sudden departure of founder Stewart Kershaw in 2015, and Schulz bit.
“There are so few conductor jobs that you just apply to, that you think you’d be a good fit for, not necessarily knowing anyone there. But this was very different. A lot of these are musician friends of mine and colleagues I’ve met. I feel really grateful getting this position because I get to make music with all these friends that I already have, people I know, musicians I love. That was what really got me excited when I heard the position was open,” Schulz said.
“There is so much competition for entertainment these days, and I think part of the conductor’s role is perhaps being an educator. There are people who say, ‘I don’t know about orchestras, I don’t know about classical music.’ But they’re curious about that, so you try to invite them inside it, not by speaking to them in a condescending manner, but by ensuring that we as an orchestra have our arms wide open, and letting them know we are glad they are interested, you know, let’s share what this is,” Schulz said.
Education, he said, can mean many things to many people, but sometimes just talking about how musicians play together, how they communicate, talking about the role of a conductor, sharing what those things are helps to make people comfortable at concerts.
“We are all looking to share this art form with young people as an option for their appreciation, or perhaps to spark young peoples’ interest in picking up an instrument some day. We want to expand our role in that capacity, seeing what we can do with schools in the Auburn area and other youth organizations. I am so interested in doing that. One of the realities of being a professional orchestra is we have to do fundraising for a lot of our operating budget. Part of that allows me to get to know people who are interested in classical music,” Schulz said.
The careful search
Nancy Colson, a member of the ASO board, explained why the search took so long.
“We used a very deliberative process,” Colson said.
Colson noted that the ASO puts on only four programs a season, and arranging for the final three candidates to conduct for each program ate up time. Then, too, many people played a role in the process, from the search committee chaired by board member Elaine Swigart to ASO’s board of directors, from the musicians to the audiences. Each of the four groups generated its own set of data to evaluate along such formal lines as skill and technique, and less formal – but no less critical – their impressions of the candidate himself, his likeability, how well he got along with the musicians.
“Obviously, his skills, his interactions with the musicians were more than satisfying,” Colson said. “They really liked him; they liked him the best of the three. And one of the reasons for that was the reception with the board, and then there was a gathering after the concert that each of them conducted where there were more members of the community. That was to give us an opportunity to see how he would interact with folks. Because, being the face of the symphony in the community and to the schools is an important consideration. And he’s very engaging.”
“In the vast majority of other areas we talked about, it’s not that the other candidates didn’t meet those criteria. I don’t want to give the idea this was a slam dunk. It wasn’t. But there were these little nuances,” Valenta said.
Because so many of the musicians who play for the ASO are from the Pacific Northwest Ballet orchestra, Schulz said, the organization he most likens it to is the Metropolitan Opera in New York, whose musicians also play in a pit all year but come out and put on concerts at Carnegie Hall several times a year.
“Most ballet musicians are hidden in the pit, and we bring them on stage with the Auburn Symphony Orchestra to do these concerts,” Schulz said. “I tell people – and I mean it honestly – this is one of the best regional orchestras in the Pacific Northwest. There’s no shortage of orchestras here, and there’s often competition for people’s attention. There are more than 40 orchestras within 30 miles of Seattle, which is fantastic, but at the same time, you don’t have to look far to find an orchestra. And this is definitely one of the best.”