The news out of Canberra is that rising star conductor Leonard Weiss has accepted an offer to study a Masters in Conducting at Peabody in the USA with Marin Alsop. Weiss, who is the current Musical Director and Conductor of the Canberra Youth Orchestra, the National Capital Orchestra, the Canberra Sinfonia and the ANU Choral Society, is expected to move to America next month.

The 2016 Young Canberra Citizen of the Year for Youth Arts and Multimedia, an ACT Finalist for 2016 Young Australian of the Year, and that same year the recipient of a Canberra Critics’ Circle Award for Music, his career highlights to date include conducting prestigious groups such as The Idea of North as well as musical soloists from the Goldner Quartet’s Dimity Hall and Julian Smiles (in Beethoven’s Double Concerto), MSO Concertmaster Dale Barltrop, and vocalists Teddy Tahu Rhodes, Tobias Cole, Paul McMahon, David Greco and Louise Page.

An advocate for contemporary classical music, he has conducted world and Australian premieres by composers from Philip Glass to Sally Greenaway, as well leading regional premieres of works by Carl Vine, Graham Koehne, Matthew Hindson and Natalie Williams.

Earlier this month, Limelight caught up with him to find out a little more about his career to date and what this new opportunity will mean to him.

When and why did you decide on conducting as a career path and who inspired you to travel in that direction? 

After a couple of years directing both the National Capital Orchestra and Canberra Youth Orchestra, I had begun to receive a fair few comments from musicians and audience members suggesting that I pursue a career in conducting. Towards the end of 2017 I conducted a three-week show run of Sweeney Todd, directly followed by Brahms’s Double Concerto with Dimity Hall and Julian Smiles, then straight into the Canberra Youth Orchestra’s final 50th birthday concert featuring James Morrison, and lastly Handel’s Messiah with the Canberra Choral Society – it was certainly a busy month! Those experiences were truly pivotal in cementing my desire to pursue conducting full-time… and who wouldn’t want to, when you get to work with such incredible musicians each week?

As for inspiration, I’m constantly drawn to the work of Australian conductors Benjamin Northey and Nicholas Carter who have always opened the door to their rehearsals, and have both been ongoing supporters of my development. In a few weeks’ time I have the opportunity to observe the Queensland Symphony Orchestra with Alondra de la Parra who is a wonderfully dynamic conductor and gets an incredible sound out of the orchestra. I previously had lessons with the late Richard Gill AO and participated in the 2018 and 2019 Australian Conducting Academy with maestro Johannes Fritzsch and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. Those experiences have encouraged and reassured me to follow in the footsteps of these iconic conductors, who are a source of inspiration when walking into professional rehearsals – particularly when Australian orchestras such as the TSO are always welcoming and eager to support emerging professional musicians.

In rehearsal with Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, 2019. Photo © Alastair Bett

What was your reaction to the news about getting to travel to the USA and to work with Marin Alsop? 

I must admit that I spent the months after my Peabody audition feeling convinced that I hadn’t made the cut! Looking at the calibre of my conducting peers – not to mention the outstanding instrumental students at Peabody who performed in the audition orchestra – I am truly humbled by this opportunity and am honoured to be considered at that standard. I know that studying in the USA will be quite a jump from Canberra; the USA has an incredible cultural history and musical legacy in just about all of the major cities, so I can’t wait to explore this as part of my studies and travelling around making new contacts in the breaks.

I am exhilarated to work with and learn from Marin Alsop. She is a remarkable conductor and educator, who continues a lineage of many of the last century’s best conducting teachers (I grew up listening to Bernstein recordings and eagerly kept both ears on Alsop’s Bernstein centenary performances last year). Even in the brief and intense audition window, she was quick to offer insightful technical advice. I can’t wait to have her wisdom and knowledge guiding me for the next two years.

What interests you about Marin Alsop in particular?

Everyone I know who has worked with Alsop has spoken positively of the experience, which is a powerful testament to her energy and continually high quality of work. As an artist she has forged her own path in the industry, honed her pedagogy by studying with the absolute best musicians, and trained herself to be hyper-aware of how to lead an orchestra in terms of nuanced gestures as well as personality (not to mention knowing every score inside out). Alsop carries an almost insurmountable reputation – she is one of the few conductors who has a household name, known and respected across the USA and Europe. The opportunity to watch her work with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra each week and learn from her in lessons is really incredible – and unfortunately not something that is available in Australia.

With Canberra Symphony Orchestra. Photo © William Hall

What do you hope to learn from her?

Having already conducted a fair amount of staple repertoire in Australia, I’m keen to focus on my musical and technical development throughout my upcoming studies, looking at how to more succinctly communicate ideas verbally and non-verbally. (Hopefully I can also sneak in learning a bit more about opera alongside our largely 19th- and 20th-century program.) Although it will no doubt involve many hours of hard work, I look forward to having the constant and probably unspoken pressure of maestro Alsop to raise the standard of my work every week. If I can learn as much as possible and continually raise the bar, I think that I will have achieved my goal.

What do you hope this opportunity will lead to in terms of your career?

In a few years I would love to have some work with the major Australian orchestras, whether that be assisting or otherwise, alongside continuing to build connections overseas. Alsop has a significant career in Europe, so that may end up as my next destination – but I have such great respect for the Australian musicians and orchestras who have supported my career development thus far, so I deeply hope to pursue opportunities here. I have been fortunate to champion the works of many contemporary Australian composers as well, so I look forward to continuing to invest in our exceptional local musicians. These artists and professional organisations operate at a world-class level equal to that of major international orchestras, so I would love to broaden my horizons across a couple of continents to really maximise my development opportunities.