Peter Bay: A Classic Maestro with an Austin Attitude
The musical odyssey of Peter Bay.By Steve Uhler; Photos by Cody Hamilton; Hair by Maegan Foster, Avant Salon; Makeup by Lauren Lumsden, Rae Cosmetics; Styling by Ashley Hargrove; Shot on location at The Long Center.
Overture: When Peter Met LennyAs Peter Bay recalls meeting his boyhood idol, his hands begin shaking slightly. Whether brought on by the power of the past or just the caffeine in the present, Bay prudently sets aside his coffee cup before continuing. “It was 1973 or 1974,” he remembers. As a young flute player in a high school band, Bay had dreams of becoming a classical music conductor, and legendary conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein was due to visit Bay’s hometown of Washington, D.C., to conduct the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center. Through a friend, Bay finagled his way backstage during a rehearsal intermission. Tentatively knocking on the door, he poked his head inside Bernstein’s dressing room. “There he was,” Bay recalls, “with a posse of about four or five people: one holding a lit cigarette for him, another with a bottle of bourbon and some other assistants. He’s sitting there in a Japanese robe, which I thought was kind of weird, smoking cigarettes. He looks at me and says, ‘So…I hear you want to be a conductor. Why is that?’ I said, ‘Honestly, it’s because of you.’ And he goes, ‘Oh, god! Another one!’ ” “The world is filthy with conductors,” Bernstein pronounced. “You’re young enough that you can change your mind.” Luckily for the world of music—and for Austin in particular—the star-struck boy didn’t heed the master’s advice. Instead, Peter Bay marched to the beat of his own baton. First Movement: Main Theme Peter Bay is arguably the only prominent Austin music artist who is more recognized from behind than in front. For 15 years and counting, as conductor and music director of the Austin Symphony Orchestra, he has often appeared with such distinguished companies as the Austin Lyric Opera, Ballet Austin and just about any other artistic consortium that piques his interest. He’s such a frequent guest on classical music station KMFA that they could consider renaming it KMF-Bay. Still, for all his ubiquity, few recognize his face. But when he turns his back and raises his arms, baton in hand, the familiar silhouette falls into place, unmistakable: It’s Maestro Peter Bay in his element. “I do come out and take bows either before or after the pieces,” he points out. “But most people say I look better from the back.” Meeting Bay in person is eerily akin to shaking hands with Dorian Gray; at age 56, there is nary a line on his face, though a few random white hairs are beginning to fleck his scalp. Just back from a short vacation in Hawaii with his wife and 5-year-old son, Bay appears relaxed, freshly tanned and affable on a summer afternoon in an East Austin café. Toss out an opening question, “What is music?” and Bay proffers a considered and unexpected response. “I think music, in its base form, is basically sustained speech,” he answers. “If I say the word ‘mama,’ that’s speech. If I say, ‘m-a-a-a-a-a m-a-aa- a-h-h,’ I’m basically just elongating those two syllables; I’m creating music. If you think about it, we don’t speak in a monotone. We speak with a certain inflection. If I slow my words to a crawl, it winds up taking on the quality of a musical instrument.” As he demonstrates, stretching out the word “crawl” for what seems like an eternity, a few nearby diners tilt their heads in curiosity. Bay’s penchant for quirky responses to left-field questions isn’t confined to the realm of classical music. In casual conversation, he ricochets and bounces from one off-the-wall topic to another like an eloquent pinball. Consider a few of his random pop-culture predilections: He carries a longtime torch for Elaine May (“I had the hots for her when I was a kid.”). He’s addicted to All Sports Talk Radio, religiously watches The Daily Show and has a passion for vintage movies (favorite film: Psycho.). Bay’s list of non-classical music favorites includes Sergio Mendez, Sting and—honestly—The Monkees. He’ll careen from Paul McCartney (“I always wanted to talk to him about why he doesn’t want to learn how to read music.”) to Leonard Cohen (“I never got what the whole experience was about until I saw him live in concert.”), pausing to ruminate on the oeuvre of such musical obscurities as Martin Denny and Esquivel. University of Texas composer and Director of New Music Ensemble Dan Welcher, a longtime friend, recalls “sitting in a car with Peter and hearing him sing/speak through Frank Zappa’s Billy the Mountain without missing a cue. The song is at least 15 minutes long, I think!”
Second Movement: A Chorus of HallelujahsBay’s reputation as a consummate conductor has won accolades from audiences, critics and peers alike. He is revered by players for his ability to embrace fresh ideas, adapt to challenges, follow lagging soloists and anticipate rushed stanzas. “Peter’s beat is the clearest there is,” Welcher marvels. “I have never seen him give an upbeat or a cue that wasn’t totally on target. Musicians who can’t follow Peter can’t follow anybody.” “To my eyes and ears, he strikes the perfect balance between leading the orchestra and sharing the emotion of the music with the audience,” says KMFA host Dianne Donovan. “Plus, he’s fun to watch. Fluid but clear.” Despite his lofty position in a profession largely populated by divas, spoiled prodigies and Mensa members, Bay has an enviable reputation among his peers and co-workers as a Good Joe, a genuine Mensch. “He’s a regular guy,” testifies longtime friend and music aficionado Stephen Aechternach. As former artistic administrator for the Houston Symphony, Aechternach sensed a kindred and accessible spirit in Bay. “When Peter first arrived in Austin in 1998, I sought him out to meet. At the time, I wasn’t involved in the local arts scene. I was merely a music lover who wanted to get to know our new music director. We had lunch and hit it off immediately. He made an instant impression upon me as the kind of guy I’d like to have as a lifelong friend. You must understand that most conductors don’t make friends readily; they tend to be completely wrapped up in their work and career and don’t make time for casual, buddy-like friendships. From the moment I met him, I knew we’d be friends forever. Peter is very easy to like. When I was evacuated from my home in 2011 on account of the Labor Day Pedernales Bend Fire, Peter generously offered to house me, my wife and our two golden retrievers. And he is a cat lover! That is a true friend!” Craig Hella Johnson, founder and artistic director of the celebrated vocal ensemble Conspirare echoes that endorsement. “Peter Bay is easily the most approachable, ‘real’ conductor I’ve ever known. There’s something about being an orchestral conductor, especially in the U.S., that tends to make most people become hard-shelled or even distant, as a means of self-preservation. … But Peter has not only flourished as a conductor, he’s also preserved his warm, outgoing personality and his concern for other people. He’s funny, clever, super talented and extremely bright. And a very good friend.”
Fourth Movement: Collaborations and Symphony SoloAs both music director and conductor of ASO, Bay has frequent collaborations with other artists, both traditional and avant-garde, and they’ve become a cornerstone in his career. “I’m all in favor of collaboration,” he says. “It’s all part of making music. I don’t make music by myself. In fact, I make no sound. I rely on others to make sounds. The more different kinds of things I can do with sound, the happier I am.” Bay’s love of the collaborative process has brought him into prestigious artistic circles throughout the world, but none more so than in his adopted hometown. He often partners up for projects with Austin Lyric Opera, Ballet Austin, Conspirare and the Austin Classical Guitar Society. ACGS Executive Director Matthew Hinsley is an unabashed fan. “We did a project called Austin Pictures where Peter was to conduct 115 young guitarists with the Miro Quartet in a new five-movement work,” Hinsley relates. “The guitarists came from as far away as Albuquerque, Oklahoma City, Brownsville and, of course, all over Austin. Watching Peter walk calmly into the high school where we were hosting the first rehearsal, and commanding instant undivided attention, watching him lead those young players to excellence, is something I’ll never forget.” Perhaps Bay’s most challenging collaboration took place last year with dance choreographer and Forklift Danceworks founder Allison Orr. Orr had just completed her massively ambitious Trash Project and was contemplating her next project. “I went to a performance of the symphony and, as I usually do, was watching the conductor,” Orr recalls. “The idea hit me: Wouldn’t it be incredible to make a piece on Peter Bay because he’s such a mover? He’s so engaged in his conducting style. And through a friend of a friend, I was introduced to him. He said yes immediately.” The idea behind the project, dubbed Solo Symphony, was to have Bay reverse his usual position in performance: He would conduct a 13-piece orchestra while facing the audience. Perhaps even more disconcerting was the fact that he wouldn’t be calling all the shots. Orr spent the next year shadowing the conductor, attending concerts and rehearsals, and studying his moves and body language. “I’m drawn to movement that I see as skillful and virtuosic,” Orr says, “but I’m also drawn to people’s stories and why they do the jobs they do. So I learned a whole lot about the world of conducting: What it takes to be a conductor, all the different components of that job.” Bay may have been willing to embrace the artistic alliance, but he was uneasy about being in the center of the spotlight “He did keep asking early on, ‘Well, aren’t you going to be in the dance?’ ” Orr relates. “I said, ‘No, that’s not what this is.’ I think it was difficult for Peter to imagine that he himself would be interesting enough.” “I was petrified,” Bay reveals. The performance was a triumph, exceeding everyone’s expectations, especially Bay’s. Audiences were mesmerized watching Bay both control and surrender to the music, sculpting sounds in the air, arms undulating in rhythm, senses attuned to every nuance and note. His face especially was a kaleidoscope of expression, alternately pensive, joyous, playful, enraptured. One of the audience members attending the show was KMFA President Ann Hume Wilson, who found herself deeply moved by the experience. “Peter’s performance ended with its musicians playing Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze, which is one of my favorite pieces,” Wilson recalls. “As they played, Peter stepped off the podium and walked among the musicians, just looking at them with a smile that brought tears to my eyes. His love of the music shone through at that moment. It is not about him; it’s about the music.”
Coda: Ode to AustinWith the arrival of fall and the opening grace notes of a new season, Bay looks forward to several special projects, including a rare professional teaming with his wife, the celebrated soprano Mela Dailey, in a staging of Verdi’s Requiem. He’ll also be reuniting with Allison Orr, conducting for a major new endeavor, PowerUP, featuring workers at Austin Energy. Along with his assorted other appearances and tours, it looks to be one of Bay’s busiest years ever. In a city that prides itself on its discerning taste, Peter Bay has become assimilated as an iconic part of the local cultural Zeitgeist. “Austin and I get along very well,” he says. “Austin is a very eclectic town. My taste for music—all kinds of music—is very eclectic. I came here because of the job. But once I was here, I absolutely adored everything about the city. I liked the eclecticism of the offerings in town. This is a really vibrant place. Record stores, all kinds of ethnic food, the downtown area. Not to mention the fact that it had an orchestra, a ballet and an opera.” He pauses for a moment, reflecting on those early days. “There was a period of time when I conducted the opening of all three seasons,” he remembers. “I’d go from a symphony rehearsal to an opera rehearsal to a ballet performance within the space of one week. It was tiring, but what an experience I’ve been able to get in this town! I love that entire repertoire, and to get to do it all in one town? Ridiculous! And rock ’n’ roll if I want! So, I don’t want to leave here. I’d be missing too much if I leave.” Somewhere, Leonard Bernstein must be smiling.
The Long CenterFueled by literally thousands of donations large and small from Austinites in 2008, the converted Palmer Auditorium opened with a stunning conversion to become The Long Center. Home to founding resident companies Ballet Austin, The Austin Lyric Opera and the Austin Symphony, it provided a long-awaited and world-class performance center, with the Michael and Susan Dell Hall featuring amazing acoustics. The Debra and Kevin Rollins Theatre and the City Terrace and lawn provide venues for diverse programming. Local resident companies Austin Shakespeare, Conspirare, Pollyanna Theatre Company and Tapestry Dance Company have also made The Long Center their official home. The Long Center overlooks Lady Bird Lake and the downtown skyline, and its design reflects Austin’s commitment to sustainability, environmental responsibility and the region’s natural beauty. Utilizing more than 80 percent local programming, The Long Center is Austin’s Creative Home, built by the community for the community. Must -see fall programs: Sept. 13–15: Ballet Austin—A Midsummer Night’s Dream Oct. 11–12: Austin Symphony Orchestra—Cho-Liang Lin Oct. 20: The Long Center presents Jazz at Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis Oct. 24: Flamenco Austin— Nino de Pura Nov. 16–20: Austin Lyric Opera— Verdi’s Don Carlo Peter Bay’s Guide to Classic Austin
- Classic Austin Night on The Town: Having a wonderful meal on Second Street and then experiencing the power of Verdi’s Requiem.
- Classic Austin Car: Hmmm. Do pedicabs count?
- Classic Austin Outdoor Activity: Anything that involves activity on Lady Bird Lake or Zilker Park.
- Classic Austin Film/Movie Experience: Watching a classic film during the summertime at the Paramount.
- Classic Austin Theater: Alamo Drafthouse for a movie, or Zach Scott for a play or musical.
- Classic Austin Dining Experience: What could be more of a classic than Threadgill’s or Trio at the Four Seasons?
- Classic Austin Family Place: The playground at Zilker.
- Classic Austin Clothes/Style: In Austin, anything goes. People dress up or down for concerts, and I love it.