25 things you might not know about Austin Symphony conductor Peter Bay
On Dec. 5, 1997, Peter Bay conducted his first concert with the Austin Symphony.
Along with other music at Bass Concert Hall, he and the orchestra partnered with eccentric soloist Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg for the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.
That, and the following night’s concert, counted as his Austin audition.
Spoiler alert: Bay won, beating out 10 other candidates who guest-conducted the orchestra over the course of a season and a half of auditions.
This year, a full house met on March 24 at the spanking new Junior League Community Impact Center just off Loop 360 and spent the evening lionizing Bay’s 25th anniversary with the Austin Symphony. A small version of the orchestra performed, as did students from McCallum High School String Orchestra.
On April 8-9, Bay and 86 instrumentalists played the entire ballet score to Stravinsky’s “The Firebird,” an intense and tricky piece. This came right after performing a salute to the Ukrainian people, as well as Tchaikovsky’s fast and fiercely difficult Piano Concerto No. 1, featuring soloist and fan fave Olga Kern.
I lost count of the number of curtain calls and encores.
This orchestra in 2022 sounds nothing like the one I heard in December 1997. Overcoming some bumps along the way, Bay, with the help of more suitable digs at the Long Center for the Performing Arts and some fresh talent, has given us an ensemble capable of tackling just about anything in the classical repertoire.
To celebrate, I sat down over salads at Vinaigrette with Bay and Rachel Santorelli, PR and guest artist relations manager for the orchestra, to brainstorm some trivia about the conductor.
1. He adores jazz, especially post-bop pianist Bill Evans: “His is a combo of imagination and technique. I own all his recordings, except for a couple of bootlegs, including an Italian recording that goes for $600 on eBay.”
2. Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” with a classic (and almost Wagnerian) score by Bernard Hermann, is among his favorite movies. “One project I’m praying that I can accomplish here is a screening with the orchestra playing the score live. I want Kim Novak (the star), who happens to be a friend, to come, and we’d exhibit some of her paintings.”
3. Bay is a huge sports fan. The Washington, D.C., native has suffered lately for his hometown teams, but he zealously follows pro and college football, as well as baseball. He says, “I don’t play golf, but I watch a few tournaments each year, just recently the Masters.”
4. Speaking of being a sports fan, last summer he threw out the first pitch for the Round Rock Express: “I’ve seen tons of of videos of celebrities throwing the ball all over the map. I practiced. You especially don’t want to throw short of the plate.”
5. Bay played flute in the band at the University of Maryland: “In the marching band, however, I played the sax. The fingering on both instruments is the same. There’s no point to marching with a flute. You’d never hear it. I love watching a marching band, but not marching.”
6. He’s into all Broadway musicals, but he nurtures a special fondness for the half-forgotten ones. (At this point, the animated chat swerved to the subject of obscure musicals, which I also cherish, for about half an hour.)
7. His father was a Filipino diplomat, his mother a Swiss au pair: “She’ll be 90 in August. Dad died in 1986 at the age of 83. He was from a different era.”
8. He attended his first symphonic concert at Constitution Hall. The National Symphony Orchestra played, among other things, a movement from Debussy’s “La Mer.”
9. Leonard Bernstein was his conducting hero: “I saw him first at age 9 and met him at age 17 at National Symphony Orchestra rehearsals. He had endless amounts of energy and passion. That’s what attracted me.”
10. In 1989, he was accepted at the Aspen Music School: “I attended almost all rehearsals for all five of their orchestras. I made mental notes on what to say and what not to say to musicians. Don’t say: ‘Make this sound like the string section of the Philadelphia Orchestra’ or ‘This is not together again.’ What’s not together again? Be specific.”
11. Bay was an add-on to the list of auditioning conductors during 1996 and 1997: “Board member Jane Parker saw me at a concert in Vail, Colorado. She asked if I’d heard about the opening in Austin. I hadn’t. They bumped another conductor — he was already the orchestra’s assistant conductor and UT’s conductor — to let me audition.”
12. The toughest piece he’s ever conducted was Bernstein’s “Mass” at the Long Center: “It involved more than 300 people onstage at the same time, some of them moving.”
13. Before the recent concert, he had wanted to do the full version of Stravinsky’s “The Firebird” onstage for a long time. He conducted in the pit with a smaller orchestra for Ballet Austin’s version: “The tempos and textures change very frequently. And hey, we had three harps onstage this time! I don’t think we ever had that before.”
14. He owns more than 10,000 CDs and more than 10,000 vinyl records. That’s what is left after he gave about 4,000 recordings to the University of Texas music archives.
15. Bay met his wife, Sarajane Dailey — known as singer Mela Dailey onstage — at Tower Records on the Drag: “She knew who I was and was impressed that I bought some Sting and Bill Evans CDs. Years later, she auditioned for me as a master’s student at UT.”
16. While currently music director of the Austin Symphony, he simultaneously holds parallel positions with the Big Sky Classical Music Festival Orchestra and Arizona Philharmonic.
18. He has conducted or served as music director at 10 summer music festivals, among them Oregon’s Britt Music Festivals, Chicago’s Ravinia Festival and the Festival-Institute at Round Top in Texas.
19. He has conducted 10 operas, including “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “The Ballad of Baby Doe” and “Every Good Boy Deserves Favour,” all three by recent or living composers.
20. His and Sarajane’s son wants to be a basketball player: “He’s very good at it. He was drafted to run track and won the 300-meter hurdles at his first meet. Dude is athletic.”
21. Bay doesn’t cook: “I love to eat out. I just don’t have any interest in cooking.”
22. He has no middle name: “My father was Pedro. So I was named Peter. I did choose Paul as a (Catholic) confirmation name. After guess who? It was the early ’60s. Right, Paul McCartney.”
23. As a boy soprano, he sang Latin high Mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C., where President John F. Kennedy’s funeral took place. As a youth, he sang baritone.
24. He conducted for a time in Klagenfurt, Austria. A half-hour drive from the concert hall was one of Mahler’s composition houses in the forest: “It had a double metal door so he could be completely alone. We’re doing Mahler’s Seventh next season. It has cow bells. You know what? That composition house — more like a hut — is right next to a cow pasture.”
Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at email@example.com.
An Ode to 25 Years of Joy With Peter Bay
Celebration puts Austin Symphony Orchestra conductor center stage
By Jasmine Lane, Austin Chronicle – March 31, 2022
No name rings more synonymous with “Austin Symphony Orchestra” than that of conductor and ASO Music Director Peter Bay.
He is the face of an organization that has supported and enhanced the harmonic excellence of this live music capital for 111 years, nearly a quarter of them spent with Bay at the helm. It’s a legacy built on genuine passion, something wholly on display last Thursday evening as ASO celebrated his 25th year running – and sometimes stealing – the show.
Anyone who’s seen Bay in action will tell you about his conducting dances. On Mozart’s Symphony No. 10 in G major, the wand flicks buoyantly across each note while Bay hunches down, smiling as if he and the instrumentalists share a secret. Later in the evening, during the second “Marche” of Francis Poulenc’s Deux Marches et un Intermède, Bay’s ominous conducting visually mimics Sweeney Todd brandishing his razors to the sky. It’s a delight to watch, and event co-chairs Linda van Bavel and Isabel Welland clearly know it, because they’ve reversed the standard conductor-orchestra orientation for this anniversary performance: The instrumentalists face the stage along with the audience, and all eyes rest on Bay in the center. Tonight, he’s the star.
Bay’s enthusiasm for the music was matched only by the attendees’ enthusiasm for him. Along with the in-person speakers, a number of congratulatory videos were sent in from out-of-town collaborators and colleagues, including trombonist Andre Hayward and violinist Midori Goto. Rep. Vikki Goodwin, D-Austin, presented Bay with a Texas flag that had been flown at the capital on behalf of his anniversary, a physical testament to the deep appreciation Bay has earned from peers across the state.
“Peter meets you where you are.” It’s said multiple times over the evening, a simple phrase laden each time with fresh adoration, and it’s true: Even here, at an event designed for him and attended by some of ASO’s most dedicated sponsors and patrons, Bay takes time to introduce each piece, providing context to bring the entire audience along on the journey. Before launching into “Le Diner” from Strauss’ Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, he walked through several musical “jokes” written into the piece, playing and explaining each one so the audience knows what to listen for later. It’s a touch that elevated the experience even as it demystified the art form, and a microcosmic sampling of what makes a night at Peter Bay’s ASO so special – this is about accessibility, about broadening the love of classical music to anyone willing to listen.
In keeping with that ethos, the evening unveiled ASO’s new Peter Bay Fund, intended to forward the org’s mission to “enhance the cultural quality of life for the adults and young people of Austin and Central Texas by providing excellence in music performance and educational programming.” Money from the fund will go toward several initiatives championed by Bay. A Chamber Orchestra series will provide broader access to players and audiences in Central Texas by, in part, playing in nontraditional venues like nightclubs. A Young Instrumentalist Competition open to all young Central Texas musicians will feature soloists under age 18 playing on the Long Center stage, and aims to equalize the presentation time such competitions typically grant to non-pianists. Funding will also be allocated to recording orchestral works. A “paddle raiser” (an auction-style fundraising event where guests raise their numbers to contribute donations) raised over $200,000 for the fund and for the 2022-23 season.
As the evening wound to an end, Bay’s warm, quiet zeal remained ever-present. His energy was contagious, a joy that affects even the air around him and lingers in a room long after he’s left. Austin may not have been Bay’s first place of residence, but it is, as he says, his first home. He’s proven that dedication with 25 years of exceptional leadership at a landmark institution, and the city (smartly) has embraced him right back.
Congratulations on 25 years, Peter Bay, and here’s to 25 more.
About the Austin Symphony Orchestra
Founded in 1911, the Austin Symphony Orchestra is Austin’s oldest performing arts group. The ASO offers a complete season of musical and educational programming. Masterworks concerts include a series of eight concert pairs running monthly September through May in the state-of-the-art Joe R. & Teresa Lozano Long Center for the Performing Arts. Our season also features the Sarah & Ernest Butler Pops Series: October, January and February Pops at the Long Center and December & June Pops at Palmer Events Center. Programming for the entire family includes the Halloween Children’s Concert, “A Very Merry Symphony,” H-E-B Austin Symphony July 4th Concert & Fireworks, Hartman Foundation Concerts in the Park, as well as the popular James C. Armstrong Youth Education Endowment programs, which include Children’s Day Art Park, Young People’s Concerts, High School Concert Tour and a variety of other school programs.