The funny thing about being a conductor, said Troy Peters, is that it’s a traditional authority role – conductors literal shout orders from an elevated platform.
The podium provides built-in distance, but as Peters stands on his podium, baton in hand, he can recall the names of all 110 student musicians clinging to their instruments before him.
“I try to be as available to the kids as they want me to be,” Peters said. “I try to send the message that if they want to talk about anything they can approach me without hesitation. I think they know that I care about them.”
As music director of Youth Orchestra of San Antonio (YOSA), Peters is surrounded by the best student musicians in the city – many of whom will go on to study at the country’s top music conservatories.
Many of them are also first-generation college students who hadn’t thought about pursuing a degree before being thrust into the “college-going cohort” that is YOSA.
“I work with kids who have some advantages and I work with kids who have very few,” Peters said. “I work with kids from a lot of different backgrounds, but all of them are hungry for the chance to figure out who they are. The experience of doing something great in an orchestra gives you this enlarged sense of your own possibilities, your own potential.”
This summer, he’s taking the top student on a European tour.
One of his primary professional goals is to build a bridge between classical music and the masses. He is not the only one: as symphony orchestras struggle nationwide and the media question the longevity of classical music, it is not surprising that the San Antonio performing arts scene is in a similar rough patch.
“There is a rich, long history of European-style performing arts in this town and we have a world-class performance venue in the Tobin Center – yet the core group of people who are already engaged with and committed to art … is smaller than in other cities,” Peters said. “So, the challenge for this city is to figure out how to bridge that gap. How do you get people who don’t think this is for them to think it is?”
Peters has instilled an appreciation of classical music to an unprecedented amount of new, young fans by developing innovative programming that ties the skills learned from the classics into modern, more “relatable” songs and artists. YOSA is planning two tributes to the late pop legends David Bowie and Prince for the upcoming season.
He’s working on a piece called Remembering Bowie for the Symphony Orchestra’s salute to the rock star on Nov. 6 that will include video projections and theatrical elements. The new piece from composer Philip Glass is based on Bowie’s music and several of Bowie’s favorite classical pieces.
Next year, YOSA will peform Mozart at the Opera on Jan. 22 and the Purple Rain Live show on March 13. Purple Rain Live, a performance in the same vein as the wildly popular rendition of Radiohead’s “OK Computer” or The Beatles “Abbey Road,” will include orchestral renditions of the entire Prince album including several additional singles reinvented with bluegrass and mariachi twists.
To end the season, the orchestra will perform a show called “The Planets Live,” an orchestral spectacular including video footage of astronomical photography meant to foster a connection between the music, the audience’s life experiences, and science on May 16, 2017.
“It’s not like Beethoven or Shakespeare are in a language you can’t understand,” he said. “This (art) is about what it means to be human. When you get in the room and listen with open ears, (the music) welcomes you. Even if the experience overall might seem like something you’re not used to, the material itself connects.”
Peters began his musical career in a youth orchestra playing the viola. Born into a musically-disinclined U.S. Navy family, he bounced around, living in Scotland and Washington before securing a position in the Tacoma Youth Symphony, where he said he learned that music was more than just a hobby for him.
After he was accepted as a composer in the Curtis Institute of Music, in what he calls the luckiest break of his life, Peters earned his master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania and became the assistant conductor for the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra.
Because he was young himself, Peters said he was good at fostering energetic responses from the kids and helping them connect to the music that had first inspired him when he was their age.
“It became clear pretty quickly that it was a good fit for me,” Peters said. “The thrill of not only conducting an orchestra, but leading an orchestra of teenagers through a Beethoven symphony for the first time was something that made me feel deeply connected and fulfilled.”
Peters served as musical director and guest conductor for several professional symphonies before joining YOSA in 2009. In contrast to his time spent conducting adults in professional symphonies, Peters was able slow down the process with his students at YOSA. Rather than hastily putting a symphony together in just a few hours, Peters and his orchestra have three months of weekly rehearsals to get to know each piece and each other.
“The journey with a youth orchestra is more about getting inside and falling in love with the piece,” Peters said.
Top image: YOSA Musical Director Troy Peters. Photo by Scott Ball.