Conducting business

A change in the conducting staff of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra takes place at the end of August, both in personnel and the relative job titles.

After three years, assistant conductor Alexander Mickelthwate is leaving the ASO to become assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Mickelthwate says his experience with the ASO has been “absolutely satisfying on every level. It was a very fun time [and] a growing experience.” He cites among top reasons both music director Robert Spano and the players in the orchestra. “Robert Spano is somebody [with whom] you can communicate; he’s very open to questions and opinions,” says Mickelthwate.

Mickelthwate calls the ASO a “top, world-class orchestra,” and adds that conducting it is “like driving a Ferrari” because of the musicians’ ability to respond to subtleties and adapt to small changes. “The thing is,” says Mickelthwate, “[working] with a group that is so sensitive in their music making and in their reactions, my gestures got more subtle, more professional.

“And then I am also the fire extinguisher,” says Mickelthwate of cover work, a large part of an assistant conductor’s role that came into play during his first season for a subscription concert. “I had to jump in with only four days’ notice, which was very exciting, [but] those situations don’t happen so often.”

While the work is often to cover for featured conductors in the event they become indisposed, Mickelthwate found that the position in Atlanta offered him more actual podium time than orchestras typically afford an assistant conductor.

Mickelthwate reflects on his time as an Atlanta resident: “It’s a soulful city, and it was really great to be here to study and to focus myself. In New York you get easily distracted, I must say.”

Incoming conductor Laura Jackson will fill a similar role as Mickelthwate in terms of her conducting duties, but under an entirely new and distinct position: “conducting fellow.” The new position at ASO is part of the American Conducting Fellows Program of the American Symphony Orchestra League, which supports the development of exceptional conductors in the early stages of their professional careers.

When Jackson auditioned for the ASOL program, she was ecstatic to find out that Atlanta was one of the orchestras accepting a conducting fellow. “Of course that was so absolutely my first choice! To be assisting Robert Spano is really a dream come true for me,” says Jackson. “I’ve known him since 1996. He’s been a tremendous personal and artistic inspiration.”

Mickelthwate and Jackson did get opportunity to cross paths recently and talk extensively about conducting the ASO. “It was such a pleasure,” says Jackson. “We went out for coffee, sat next to each other at the concert, and then with Robert [Spano] and the whole gang of soloists from the concert went out [afterward]. Alexander and I talked about millions of things, every kind of detail.”

One of the details is that there is no other person sharing this particular role. “I will be ‘it’ in terms of the person covering [and] doing all the things that an assistant usually does,” says Jackson. “Whatever they need.”

Jackson is also enthusiastic about Atlanta itself. “I like that it’s a city that is not huge, and is a little bit personal. You’re in a big city and you have the benefits of a big city, but it doesn’t feel like one. [Atlanta] seems like it’s in a great growth place where much is beginning, and there is much innovation and hope, and arts that are expanding. That’s an exciting place for me to be.”-- Mark Gresham