For the past several seasons, Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser has delighted San Francisco Symphony audiences with his easygoing and engaging podium presence. He returns this month to conduct a range of SFS concerts, including SoundBox (Dec 6–7), Deck the Hall (Dec 8), and Music for Families: Holidays Around the World (Dec 14). Here he talks about how he connects with audiences young and old.
Is an audience full of kids different from a regular concert audience?
[Laughter] If you don’t engage them you feel the energy leave the room very quickly! But they give you a lot of energy too; you come out on stage to uninhibited applause and yells. There’s also a lot of pressure to explain things in a way that’s fun, exciting, and understandable for young people who may not even have English as their first language.
What do you try to accomplish with a concert for children?
While the main thing is being able to engage the kids, another important aspect is to challenge them. I have a demonstration where I teach them how to recognize when the orchestra is sharp or flat. They can hear that. I always keep in mind that it isn’t just a kids’ concert; it’s a future violinist’s concert, or singer, or conductor, or donor.
How do you keep the holiday repertory fresh for you, the orchestra, and the audience?
These pieces are institutions for a reason. People love them. I’m probably going to conduct “Sleigh Ride” three times a year with different orchestras for the rest of my life. And I’m going to love it every single time! Because if I don’t, there’s no hope for the musicians. And someone in the audience may be hearing it live for the first time. So it’s high stakes.
Some of the pieces in the December 14 Music for Families concert will be new to the audience and the Orchestra.
I’m Caribbean/Canadian of African descent, and I love classical music, so I like putting all of that together. “Hlonolofatsa Bacchanale” is an African blessing song, a big fun dance piece of music. There are also Trinidadian calypso rhythms. “Parang, Parang” has Trinidadian roots too.
How did your decision to become a conductor shape your experience?
I was often the only black kid in a class, and all my music teachers were white, but all of them said ‘absolutely, you should be a conductor.” My family was like, ‘go for it!’ I haven’t encountered overt racism on my path. But I long for the day when a black conductor isn’t a novelty.
You obviously have a great relationship with the SFS.
Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be conducting the San Francisco Symphony. With a group this good, what you can accomplish as a conductor is only limited by your own imagination.
Steve Holt is a contributing writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book. This article first appeared in the program books of the San Francisco Symphony, and is used with permission.