Daniel Stewart

By Scott MacClelland

Daniel StewartThe year he competed with a field of Santa Cruz Symphony music director candidates, 2012, Daniel Stewart was accepted into a three-year apprenticeship with James Levine, longtime music director of the Metropolitan Opera. That was/is probably the best thing that could have happened to his expanding career. Not only has this young, gifted and passionate musician been invited into the inner sanctums of American classical music at the highest level, but his mentor has graciously allowed him a week off for each Santa Cruz Symphony concert cycle. That week equates to three standard rehearsals, one dress and two concert performances.Ades_Thomas_2013c_PC_BrianVoice_300

This is the week as Stewart prepares to open the 2014-15 Symphony season with Bernstein’s Candide overture, In Seven Days piano concerto by Thomas Adès (pictured, right) and Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony.

“I’ve been very gratified by the chemistry between the orchestra and myself,” Stewart—who prefers to be called Danny—told me in an interview last week. He also said that coordinating his schedule has become a very tricky part of his ongoing itinerary. “It’s like putting together music itself.” Does that leave adequate time to study scores? “That’s a very good question,” he says. “Any conductor would say there’s never enough time, so for me it means studying every minute I can grab.”

The evidence from his first season in Santa Cruz suggests that Stewart is a quick study. The quality of play by the orchestra took a noticeable step up right from the start of the 2013-14 season. (He told the orchestra that playing was their responsibility, that he was only a “facilitator.”) Stewart says that discipline has been a “big deal” since he was 6 when “My mother found me a Suzuki violin class.” Growing up, sports was as important. “Then I started to play in ensembles from age 10.” Soon he was seduced by the viola, the alto of the string instruments. “I fell in love with it.” As an early teen he played in youth orchestras in Santa Rosa and Marin County. At 14, in the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, he played Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony on the stage of Davies Symphony Hall. “It was like a lightning bolt for me,” he recalls. While he later played viola with the Santa Rosa Symphony, that single moment ignited his desire to become a conductor.

Even so, that outcome would remain years in the future. “I’m an insatiable ensemble player,” he says, describing the six years, starting in 2002, that he participated in chamber music at the summertime Verbier Festival in Switzerland. “I always had the score in front of me,” he says. At the end of his first summer at Verbier, James Levine asked him if he was interested in conducting. When he was vague, Levine said, “You should be.”

He returned to his alma mater, Indiana University at Bloomington, and prepared Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, then Brahms’ First Symphony. “I can’t tell you how many ad hoc situations I put together.” He describes his time at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia as “my last formal schooling,” but then spent time at the Aspen Festival in Colorado studying with, among others, David Zinman and the late James DePreist. He also credits Michael Tilson Thomas as “generous with instruction” when he participated with the New World Symphony in Miami.

Working with Levine at the Met, “is a gift unlike anything else,” he says. With 3,000 artists under one roof, “I shadow everything Levine does, from coaching young artists to participating in new productions. “Earlier this year we did Benvenuto Cellini, The Elixer of Love, Abduction from the Seraglio and Stravinsky’s Mavra.” He conducts readings with the Met Orchestra and, like Levine, works with young singers. “I marinate in the entire Met scene.” He says the opportunity to apprentice under Levine is typically reserved for singers. “I am the only conductor to be accorded this honor.”

But perhaps the most important lesson Stewart has learned from Levine is to use vocal music as the standard for instrumental playing. He says that’s where the lyricism and dramatic intensity come from. This may be inside information for audiences, but any well-trained instrumentalist was imbued with that concept by his or her teacher. “I always bear that in mind,” he says.

For his opening concert, Stewart is bringing Adès’ In Seven Days to Northern California for the first time, and also the pianist who gave it its London and American premieres, Nicolas Hodges. Having worked closely with Adès in Los Angeles, Stewart says his talent is “as close to Stravinsky’s as anyone I’ve come across.” Calling him “an outstanding composer, pianist and conductor,” Stewart says, “The ease with which he demonstrates the thorniest technical challenges is wonderful.” He adds that despite tremendous complexity, Adès delivers “a direct emotional, conversational quality.”

(Tal Rosner’s film collage created for In Seven Days in partnership with Adès will be shown at Santa Cruz Civic this Saturday, but turned out to be technically unavailable for the Sunday matinee in Watsonville.)

In the fourth concert of the season, we’ll get a chance to discover Danny Stewart the composer, when he conducts the orchestra in his own Sinfonia.