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Alexander Prior has arrived

Matthew Parsons

Alexander Prior is the newly appointed chief conductor of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. At only age 24, he has already conducted the Royal Philharmonic, the Seattle Symphony and many more of the world’s great and good ensembles. He’s also a composer, whose music has been performed at Wigmore Hall, the Barbican and the Royal Danish Ballet. His performances were broadcast on radio and television while he was still in his teens. As a result, Prior's age has come to dominate the coverage of his musical career.

In a sense, this is inevitable. To conduct your own music at an opera house in St. Petersburg at age 12 is extraordinary. To have a piece commissioned by the Moscow State Ballet at age 13 is extraordinary. To be appointed chief conductor of a professional orchestra at 24 — and offered a five-year contract, to boot — is extraordinary.

But while a bit of a reputation for precocity might have helped Prior on his way when he started composing at the age of eight in his native England, or when he entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory at age 13, it strikes him as unbecoming for a professional musician six years into adulthood.

“Just after the Edmonton announcement, some of the Edmonton press used the word ‘prodigy,’” Prior said. “And I thought, but I’m 24! It’s just bizarre! I find the word prodigy to be a very derogatory word. It's only a word I'd use to insult someone. Because it implies someone who is a young, gifted musician who isn’t yet anywhere. Like a bud.”

Prior, on the other hand, has gotten somewhere. We met up with the newly minted maestro while he was on a break from rehearsing Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel with Vancouver Opera. Working in the theatre takes Prior back to his earliest experiences with live music. His first musical memory is seeing Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake performed by a ballet company. When we spoke, he’d just finished a run of performances of that work in Copenhagen.

“It was quite romantic to come back to it 20 years later. But yeah, I was three or four and Swan Lake was the piece that definitely captured me the most. Actually, at a very, very young age I had some interest in even being a dancer. But that quickly left me. I still love dance, but I can't. Classical musicians can't dance.”

Having made the crucial realization, Prior got down to business. “I remember telling my preschool teacher that I wanted to be a conductor. I was about four or five, maybe. I'm not entirely sure I knew what it meant. But I had a rough idea. It was very clear very early.”

The Alexander Prior of 2016

Prior’s early-developing abilities as a conductor and a composer hit the media when he was still in school, and there are still some interviews floating around the internet in which he is very noticeably a teenager. At 17, Prior was appointed to the conducting staff of the Seattle Symphony, and took the opportunity to lash out in the Telegraph at the British music establishment that failed to give him a job — citing “age discrimination” as the reason. At 14, he characterized the Harry Potter books as “devilish.” One journalist referred to him in print as a “princeling” — intended in the least flattering way. This is an occupational hazard of being in the spotlight during the years of your life when you're most prone to insufferable moments.

But the Alexander Prior of 2016 seems to have largely put aside his youthful smugness. He’s still ostentatiously intelligent, but he doesn’t use that intelligence as a stick with which to beat lesser, older mortals. His conversation proceeds in the manner of a flow chart, with incomplete thoughts often put momentarily to one side, to be completed once he’s done with his parenthetical about Braveheart. (“Everybody goes on about 'Oh, it's not historically accurate.' No it's not! It's just a great film!”)

The Alexander Prior of 2016 is breathlessly enthusiastic about nearly everything, from Rimsky-Korsakov’s seldom-performed operas — “Rimsky operas are the most beautiful side of Russia; the side of Russia that I wish Russia would see more of” — to modern urban planning — “I find dense downtowns exciting. I really do!”

(Regrettably, Harry Potter never came up.)

The Alexander Prior of 2016 listens to a huge variety of music. Since the ESO announcement, much has been made of Prior’s enthusiasm for various sorts of pop: an essential defence against accusations of snobbery, which run rampant in Prior’s line of work (not without cause). But he says that aside from his affection for the Arctic Monkeys, whom he genuinely adores, this has been a touch overstated. “My main passion other than classical music is folk music. That's what I really, really, really love.”

What kind of folk music?

“Field recordings of Mari bagpipes from the Republic of Mari El. Norwegian folk music; Hardanger fiddle. Celtic folk music. Swiss folk music. I really love Alpine music. Russian music, especially from the northwest of Russia. Various Finnic people. Komi; Udmurt; Estonian music. That kind of thing. Very nerdy.”

OK, so not early Dylan, then.

“That’s not folk music. Folk music cannot be written by someone. If it's written by someone, it's not folk music. It’s one of my pet peeves. I have many.”

The Alexander Prior of 2016 knows the classical repertory straight out to the margins. When asked about his favourite music, he brings up Strauss's Elektra, Wagner's Ring cycle, Janáček's Jenůfa, John Adams's Harmonielehre, late Bruckner, Rachmaninov symphonies, the music of Nicolai Medtner (“the first piano sonata is really wonderful”), Mikhail Glinka (“people know of Glinka, but when do you actually see his operas staged?”) and the little-known Danish composer Rued Langgaard (“you should listen to his fourth symphony”). He says that the pinnacle of all Western civilization is Sibelius's seventh symphony.

The Alexander Prior of 2016 claims to have no regrets about the young age at which he found himself in the spotlight. “I wouldn't be where I am now if I hadn't done what I did,” he said. “I had a very unusual life course, but it was hugely educational.” And he flatly denies that there’s any such thing as discrimination against the young in classical music. “Perhaps there's assumptions. Preconceptions. But not discrimination.”

The right time

Prior’s appointment with the ESO happens to coincide with a massive shift in Edmonton’s cultural life. For better or worse, the city’s downtown is gentrifying, thanks to the construction of the huge new hockey arena Rogers Place — within shouting distance of the Winspear Centre, where the ESO performs. New venues and hip restaurants have been springing up around Jasper Avenue like dandelions through the pavement.

In spite of not having moved to Edmonton yet, Prior has noticed this. “The downtown, now, is going to be higher than Vancouver's downtown very soon. There's a lot of things happening in other music scenes — like the American sense of the word 'folk.' I think it's a rather thriving city and it's got a lot of promise.”

So when Prior says that he wants to “make Edmonton a world destination for music,” it may simply be a grandiose proclamation — or it could just be a declaration that he intends to keep pace with the rest of his soon-to-be-adopted city. “I want people to fly to us to hear us,” he said. “Take Edmonton out of the 'flyover city' category. And I think a lot is happening in the city in that way already. I think I'm there at the right time.”

Prior has been working with the ESO as a guest conductor since 2014. “The chemistry was obvious really within the first five, 10 minutes,” he said. “They are really an exceptionally good orchestra. They play with a lot of energy. They're really flexible in terms of they want to try new things. They're really innovative and forward-looking.

A city on the rise and chemistry with the orchestra: this sounds like a good starting point for a first-time chief conductor. But when Prior invokes concepts like “innovation” and “trying new things,” the classic classical question rears its head: how on Earth does a symphony orchestra innovate?

Seeing eye to eye

Perhaps it’s wrong to expect young classical musicians to change the world and reverse this music’s supposedly inexorable march towards obsolescence. But then, it’s their careers on the line, isn’t it? So what suggestions does maestro Prior have to offer?

Some of his ideas about bringing younger audiences into the concert hall have already become familiar refrains in classical music circles, but perhaps they’ve seemed insincere or panicky in the mouths of older musicians. Prior is willing to consider the notion that his comparatively young face may help this music connect with his demographical compatriots. “It's the only thing I think that's relevant to my age in this job: that maybe as a young person it kind of helps in terms of seeing eye to eye.”

Prior's futureproofing plans are already long on specifics: make allowances for social media in the concert hall; program more broadly (making space for composers like Xenakis, whom he calls "the heavy metal of classical music"); actively reach out to communities where classical music isn’t prevalent: “The Winspear sits on Treaty 6 land, so I hope to learn a lot more about the First Nations of Alberta, and I hope that we can serve them, too. After all, the symphony belongs to the whole city. It's for everyone. It's for middle-aged white people and it's for young First Nations people.”

But the biggest tentpole in Prior’s program of suggestions to attract new concertgoers is more abstract: “I think the way to get young people in, especially young people who aren't instinctively connected to classical music, is not to tell people, 'This is what you should like.'” Instead, classical music should be thought of as part of a larger musical ecosystem, and not the flipside of the coin. “When I arrived in Seattle, it was a huge culture shock for me because suddenly I was surrounded by jazz and rock music. And I realized that, while of course classical music matters to me much more than pop music, those things matter to me, too. They maybe occupy 10, 15 per cent of my listening time. But that time is very important, because it helps me see the same things I see in classical music, but from another angle. I'm hoping that people see the same in classical.”

And another thing: “I think occasionally we shouldn't be afraid to offend. I think that great art sometimes offends. Upsets a few people. So be it. You have to ruffle a few feathers.”

Doing your job

The Russian conductor Yuri Temirkanov once said, “Conducting … this is a career for the second half of life.” The idea that a certain amount of life experience is required to be a great musician and a great leader has a lot of purchase in the classical music world. And for all of his early successes, Prior is yet to prove himself in the taxing role of chief conductor. Temirkanov could yet be proven correct.

But here’s a counterpoint to that view: Simon Rattle is one of the world’s top conductors. His first major job was as the conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble with a modest reputation that Rattle built into a respected institution over the course of a long tenure there. He was 25 when he took the job.

But how do you win the respect of an orchestra when some of its members have been professional musicians longer than you’ve been alive? “By doing your job well,” Prior said, failing to suppress an eye-roll. “That’s really it. You have to show them some respect too, learn the score and have a decent technique. Then there’s no problem.”

When he says it like that, it’s almost like it doesn’t matter at all.

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