“Utility conductor” isn’t his real title, but it might as well be. Officially, Stephen Mulligan is assistant conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and music director of the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra. That means he conducts educational and other community performances, leads the ASYO, studies all the ASO’s main concert repertoire, attends all rehearsals, and stands ready to jump onstage at a moment’s notice if a scheduled conductor falls ill.
Toward the end of his busy first season, Stephen Mulligan found a moment to sit down with GPB’s Sarah Zaslaw. The Yale- and Peabody-educated Baltimore native talked about catching the conducting bug young, visiting Finland, working with moody youth, synching a live orchestra to blockbuster movies – and the three times in early 2018 that a maestro’s illness catapulted this 30-year-old assistant onto the podium.
…And then he ran off to prepare for his next scheduled shows: the youth symphony’s season finale May 4 and the ASO’s roving Italy-themed concert, headed for the Atlanta BeltLine May 10, Morehouse College May 11, Spivey Hall May 12 and Madison, GA May 13.
On his pilgrimage to Sibelius’s composition retreat
“When I got off the bus in the town, there was no bus going to the house. There was no nothing. In fact, it was just snowing. And I was standing around like a fool. But I decided, like a brave fool, that I would walk there. So I actually walked to his composition house, and I hopped the fence and went up to the house and had my little moment communing with Sibelius and the Finnish woods. Of course it was freezing cold but it was totally worth it. And the funniest thing about this story is that when I met [Atlanta Symphony music director] Robert Spano a few summers later, it turns out he’s done exactly the same thing.”
On conducting teens
“One of the biggest challenges that I have with young people is reading the room and sensing their mood, and helping them come out of their shells when they’re nervous, and on the other hand helping to enforce a disciplined approach when that’s required. There were some times you could feel the orchestra go into its shell – and it comes out physically, in people’s posture and how much bow they’re using and how deep a breath they’re taking.”
On the high-wire act of accompanying films live
“For example, the Death Star blows up. That was a stressful one to synchronize, because the last battle scene in the first Star Wars movie goes on for a long time and it’s so easy to get behind. Because the passagework is incredibly complicated. It’s really tricky music, and you’ve got to get to the end of it such that the final tam-tam crash and the big explosion of the Death Star happens at the right moment.”
On conducting ballet
“One of my first professional gigs was doing the Nutcracker 17 times with a professional dance company, and I remember feeling like if I can’t get the tempos [just right] then the dancers are going to be in pain.”
On replacing Robert Spano mid-concert
“Robert decided he was not up for the second half. He turned to me and said, ‘I’m sorry and thank you.’ So then I had about 10 minutes to get ready. [ASO Artistic Administrator] Evans [Mirageas] went on stage and apologized to the audience that I was not in a tuxedo. And then I went on.”
Stephen Mulligan on the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra