Alexander Prior: Piloting the ESO to New Heights!

January 5, 2018
Category: DT Advantage Winter 2018

Alexander Prior: Piloting the ESO to New Heights!

The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra surprised everyone in fall 2016, when it announced that British wunderkind Alexander Prior would succeed the out-going Bill Eddins as Chief Conductor. Just a few months into his gig, Sandra Sperounes caught up with the 25 year-old to see how he’s settling in.

Alex Prior raises the baton in his right hand. He lifts his heels, points forcefully with his left hand, and flashes a quick thumbs up. His dark curls bounce on his head. Directly in front of him, members of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra follow Prior’s every move as they perform Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64 on stage of the Winspear Centre. As their notes dissolve, the audience breaks out in warm applause and gives a standing ovation.

The 25-year-old Brit, dressed in black trousers and an untucked dress shirt, looks more like an upscale waiter than the ESO’s newest and youngest Chief Conductor. 

Days after the late November performance, Prior folds himself into a plush blue chair for a backstage interview at the Winspear Centre.  “I rarely wear a suit,” he says. “What for? Tails and bowties? Why would I wear 19th century Austrian clothes in 21st century Canada? It just seems absurd. We’re not a museum.”

Despite Prior’s best intentions, it’s impossible to ignore him on stage. He only conducts music he loves, - “expressive, slightly dark with a strong emotional impact” - and his passion radiates with every flick of his baton.  And over the next five years, he’ll be serving up a few of his own compositions plus some of his favourites by Wagner (“Wagner is my greatest love, musically,” he says) Sibelius, and Rachmaninoff.

Some of Prior’s goals with the ESO?  To reach younger and broader audiences. To record albums, and if possible, tour. “To make the orchestra the best it can be,” he adds. “To make the musicians and audiences the happiest they can be. That’s my job, so I’m working hard at it.”

The London-born musician knew he wanted to be a conductor after his mother took him to a few ballets and symphonies. He was three years old.

Soon, he was taking piano and singing lessons, winning vocal competitions, serenading Meryl Streep, performing at Carnegie Hall, and studying part-time at the Royal College of Music.

At 13, he moved to Russia to study at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. A year later, he wrote a ballet, Mowgli, for the Moscow State Ballet. 

Despite the awards, accolades, and increasing number of newspaper profiles, Prior’s parents weren’t always sold on his musical career. His father Peter, who runs a cattle farm and renewable energy business, wanted Prior to play rugby or cricket. His mother Elena wanted him to study law or business.

“My parents didn’t want me to be a musician at all. They thought it was a poor person’s life. It’s not true."

"Musicians lead very rich lives. I don’t mean just financially. Many musicians live below average, but your life is rich with friends, colleagues, and beautiful concert halls.”

At 16, he hosted a British TV show, The World’s Greatest Musical Prodigies. A year later, he graduated from the Moscow State Conservatory and landed a six-month job as an assistant guest conductor with the Seattle Symphony. It wasn’t the first (or last) time he was asked about his age. “Alex Prior: ‘I’m young, so what?’” read a headline in The London Telegraph.

Alexander Prior


He made his debut as a guest conductor with the ESO in 2014. “I fell in love with the orchestra 10 minutes into the first rehearsal,” he says. “It’s just like dating, a lot of it is chemistry. There was a mutual respect. The rehearsals were fun and relaxed — filled with camaraderie, mutual support, and a willingness to try eccentric, slightly weird ideas.”

This connection is one of the reasons the ESO hired Prior to succeed Music Director Bill Eddins in 2017. When his appointment was announced in late 2016 Annemarie Petrov, Executive Director of the ESO and Winspear, referred to Prior as a “remarkable musician, he’s gregarious and exceptionally well-spoken, and a lot of fun,”

“They’re the nicest orchestra in the world,” he says. “Also, one of the best orchestras. It’s not an orchestra set in its ways, so there’s an ability to share ideas. When you have that openness, you have that sense as a conductor that you can actually take the orchestra somewhere as opposed to circle the airport for five years.”

As a conductor, he sees his role as a pilot. “You have to be very calm and contained,” he says. “I’m not there to be a dancer or an illustrator of the music. My job is to be secure and oversee things.”

Prior, of course, loves to travel. He’d better — he’s guesting at the Detroit Symphony, Oper Frankfurt and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra this year.

“That’s one of my very few complaints about Edmonton — the airport is very poorly connected and everything goes through Calgary. I love Calgary. But I won’t take a connection through Calgary because I want Edmonton to have more flights."

"Edmonton’s a great city and a world city and part of my job is to put Edmonton on the map culturally, or increase that, rather.”

Between commitments, he usually spends about two weeks in Edmonton. He’s still living in a hotel, but hopes to find his own place soon.

Currently, he’s programming the ESO’s 2018-19 season. “I’ve got a to-do list longer than a Leonard Cohen song,” he smiles. Whenever he needs a break, he likes to grab coffee with friends, explore Edmonton, go to the theatre, read or watch comedians. “I like rough, nasty stand-up comedy,” he says. “Frankie Boyle is my absolute favourite by a country mile.”

On the flip side, Prior adores Edmonton’s “polite and quiet” audiences. “They’re wonderful. I often feel that typical Edmonton positivity and politeness is reflected in their actions and that’s very sweet.”

But could we be louder — like the raucous symphony crowds in Italy and Russia?

Prior says that wouldn’t be a bad thing. “You shouldn’t feel that there’s a code at the Winspear. Just go for it. Let the emotion take you where it takes you. No filters.”

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