New kid in town

ASO's Alexander Mickelthwate makes his official debut

At 32,
Alexander Mickelthwate is part of that 18-38 age group marketers of "classical" arts have found elusive. But as the newest member of the conducting staff at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Mickelthwate is part of an ASO arsenal aimed at attracting that demographic. He's not one to stick to the tried-and-true, especially in the orchestra's new and innovative climate.

"Classical music is usually seen as the dusty museum piece," he says. "Here in Atlanta, since Robert Spano is music director, it's the whole opposite feel. We want people to talk about us, and to get it back where classical music was: a now experience — like, right now it is being made and written, and is an art form which is absolutely exciting."

Alex and his wife, Abigail, a fashion designer, moved from New York to Atlanta in August 2001, and have since embraced their new hometown. Though he still loves New York, the young assistant conductor with the tousled hair and big grin refers to Atlanta as "a really hip city."

Mickeltwate first conducted the ASO during an October 2001 benefit concert, in a performance of Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait." Since then, he's helmed a number of community outreach and educational concerts. He made his unofficial subscription debut in January, substituting for indisposed guest conductor Zdenek Macal.

But this week, Mickelthwate makes his official scheduled debut, and his inaugural appearance on the ASO podium is a program infused with youthful vigor. Violinist Leila Josefowicz is guest soloist for Tchaikovsky's "Violin Concerto," and "Blitz," a short work by composer Roger Przytulski, opens the program. Still in their mid-20s, Josefowicz and Przytulski are both Mickelthwate's juniors.

"I tried to find someone who was my age or younger, who grew up with MTV but who is classically trained," says Mickelthwate concerning Przytulski's "Blitz." "You hear the rhythmical drive and excitement in the music — but in a classical form."

Mickelthwate's own classical background is rock-solid. Born into a musical family in Germany (his grandmother was an opera singer), he got his early training and experience there, and then came to the U.S. to study at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore. ASO music director Robert Spano was one of his conducting teachers during a summer at Tanglewood; other powerhouse mentors include Leonard Slatkin, Michael Tilson Thomas and Seji Ozawa.

While he can hold his own with the standard classical repertoire, Mickelthwate's creative interests are strongly sympathetic toward his own generation. His professional forays prior to the ASO included a stint as assistant conductor of the Eos Orchestra in New York. Eos, established in 1995 and known for its non-traditional programming, often features concerts of neglected music by important composers and important music by neglected composers, often in concerts that are multidisciplinary in format.

Mickelthwate was responsible for introducing Eos to John Zorn, an avant-garde composer with a devoted following, who's been able engage the younger generation with his own work and material released on his Tzadik label. Mickelthwate knew Zorn from Germany, a connection that resulted in Eos commissioning a violin concerto from Zorn, which Mickelthwate calls "a wild and steaming piece."

Such experience serves Mickelthwate well in his job with the ASO, particularly when encountering the even younger crowd that attends the symphony's Young People's Concerts.

"Usually conductors are warned about middle-school kids," he says. "But for me, I absolutely love the energy and try to channel it, because you really get something back [from them]. They want to talk with you, and they are totally open for that and for more contemporary music."

Mickelthwate notes that an audience often doesn't realize just how much the performers on stage feel them.

"Those middle school kids — you feel the energy," he says. "You feel they are really listening and have real questions about the music."