A Young approach to classical music

At 29 years old, Caleb Young is heading into his third season as the enthusiastic Staff Conductor of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic—and it could be his last.

“They could extend my contract after next year, depending on how the relationship develops,” Young says. “If not, then that’s it.”

Two or three years is the typical lifespan of a Staff Conductor. Unlike Music Directors, who might stay in communities for up to 15 years, Staff Conductors tend to be more transient. Caleb Young

Every few years, they’re moving to new cities, adapting to new orchestras, and doing what they can to serve communities while they’re there. And in Fort Wayne, Young’s impact has been significant.

Originally from North Carolina, he landed his first conducting position in Fort Wayne after graduating with his masters from Indiana University. Since then, he’s made classical music more appealing to new audiences in northeast Indiana.

Along with starting the Philharmonic’s popular Music + Mixology series that meets for drinks at Wine Down after performances, he has reinvigorated the Philharmonic’s Musically Speaking pre-concert talks before its Masterworks concerts, too.

In fact, last year, the Philharmonic saw attendance at these talks double from 40-50 a night to roughly 100 thanks to Young’s innovative approach to the discussions.

“It’s been so expansive that we’ve had to move rooms three times because of fire code,” he says.

Input Fort Wayne sat down with Young to learn about his experience as a Staff Conductor for the Fort Wayne Philharmonic, and how the orchestra is making a place for itself in Fort Wayne’s future.

IFW: There are a lot of cities and Philharmonics. What makes your job conducting for the Fort Wayne Philharmonic special?

CY: What makes this job so great is we have a 33-week season, and in those 33 weeks last year, I conducted 45 concerts. So this job, in particular, has more conducting in it than literally any other job in the country, including those $300 million dollar orchestras.

So yeah, Fort Wayne’s been an amazing platform for me to grow with, and I’m very fortunate that they give me as much work as I do. I have colleagues who just twiddle their thumbs for their whole season. They will conduct literally three or four shows while I’m conducting 45.

IFW: So in some ways, conducting in Fort Wayne is better than conducting a big city orchestra?

CY: The thing is that, in big orchestras, they have (A) a lot more guest conductors, and (B) their season does not have as many different types of concerts, per say.

For example, in Fort Wayne, we have our Masterworks Series, Patriotic Pops, Family Series, specials. The list goes on and on, right?

Andrew Constantine (our Music Director at the Philharmonic) conducts 10-12 shows every year. That’s our Masterworks Series, which are bigger repertoire, Embassy Theatre, serious concerts.

But the rest of it is kind of up to me. So I’m really driving the ship for most of the season, which is scary at times. I wake up and go: “What do I have to do this week? How do I not drive this thing into the ground?”

IFW: Wow. That’s a huge responsibility. What are some of the challenges and opportunities you’ve had with being a Staff Conductor? 

CY: The opportunity is that you can get better. Young leads the orchestra's Musically Speaking preconcert discussions.

The whole thing about being a young conductor especially is that you need as much podium time as possible. Because unlike a pianist or a violinist who can go into the practice room and actually practice their instrument, you can’t really do that. You need literally all of the orchestra. So we never really practice.

The saying is: “A conductor is always performing.” Even in rehearsal. You’re always honing your craft, and what’s so special about this orchestra is that they really understanding of that. Being a young conductor, I don’t feel like they’re going to bite if I make a mistake. A lot of orchestras will eat you up alive.

IFW: That does seem like a recipe for disaster: Being the youngest person in the room and being in charge. How has that gone for you?

CY: The analogy I always like to put on the table is, if you’re going into surgery, there’s usually one person in that room who knows how to do the surgery, right? In the orchestra world, as a conductor, pretty much everybody knows how things go. Everyone could perform the surgery. I may be a little bit better at the actual conducting, but everyone knows the music. They’ve all played in more times than I’ve probably looked at it.

Think about somebody who’s played in the orchestra for 35 years. That’s more than I’ve been alive. So you’re always playing with that dynamic. But here in Fort Wayne, they’re very understanding, like, “Caleb’s doing this piece for the first time. Let’s be easy on him.” So it’s been a great environment for me to spread my wings and grow and get a lot of different pieces under my belt. I’ve been very thankful for that.  

But also, I just feel like this community is needing music, and it’s something that the Philharmonic can really excel at providing for them. We have really nice concert series, but I’m always looking for ways to expand our base and to wrap more people into our family.

The thing that’s so inspiring is earlier this summer, we were at Parkview Field for our Patriotic Pops Concert, and 8,000 people came out to see the Philharmonic. It’s a free event.

Concerts like that, for me, show the power of music to neutralize all of the noise we deal with on a daily basis. People put all of their stresses aside and just come enjoy the holiday, the Fourth of July, and just be with each other.

Young conducted the Fort Wayne Philharmonic's Patriotic Pops concert at Parkview Field.

IFW: Tell us about some of the ways you’re enhancing the Philharmonic’s work in the community.

CY: Something we’ve always done is have pre-concert talks. They’re called Musically Speaking, and they happen an hour before the performances in the Masterworks Series.

I host them, and we typically have a guest artist come and talk about the Concierto or whatever they’re playing or singing.

Sometimes these kinds of talks can be boring because you’re talking about a subject that on the surface level is a little boring unless you have a couple music degrees and you love it and all that. So first off, I always make a handout so you have something in your hand that you can hold on and connect to what we’re discussing. That helps.

Then I try to boil the music down to why I love it. Why do I find this piece interesting?

So I’ll tell stories. I never talk about dates, like, “Oh, the composer on July 1, 1865, had two cups of coffee.” (laughs) No one cares.

Instead, I try to play musical examples, like, “Listen for this melody.” Then I’ll play it on the piano for them. Talk. Play the actual recording. Then say, “Oh, and did you know this melody was stolen by this composer from this piece?” Then play the other piece.

I try to make as many connections as possible for them to give them ammunition for the concert.

It’s about making the music more approachable and accessible. You don’t need a music degree to appreciate music; it’s kind of the opposite.

IFW: That’s awesome. What do you think about the music scene in Fort Wayne?

CY: The rooftop concerts that the Embassy Theatre does every summer on Wednesday nights, those are awesome. The Clyde Theatre is just killing it. That space is amazing. We had our gala over there.

We have so much opportunity here. That’s the other thing about Fort Wayne. It’s not just the Philharmonic. We’ve got so many other things going on, and a lot of opportunities for partnerships.

In the future, we’re looking to do something with the Clyde Theatre with some other groups. In so many ways, art is more powerful when you collaborate. So the more collaborating we can do with different genres, different mediums, different types of dance, it only helps the community.

I think Fort Wayne is poised for greatness. The next couple years, it’s just going to be the place to be for arts, for music, for living.

It’s a very exciting time to be involved in the city’s growth.

The Philharmonic collaborates with other groups like the Fort Wayne Ballet.

IFW: Thinking beyond Fort Wayne, what do you see as the future of classical music, in general?

CY: This is the question that everyone has: What is the future of classical music? I think the simple answer is the future of classical music is up to us. It’s a difficult question to answer, but I think every generation gets asked that question.

Classical music hasn’t died. In a lot of ways, it’s done nothing but grow. There’s more people right now in history that are playing instruments than ever before in the history of the earth. So I think the future of music is bright.

But I think if we want to keep the ship steered in our favor, it’s up to us to reevaluate our image, our impact, our accessibility, and our vision. Because if we don’t do those things—and this has happened—orchestras can die, and we’ll die if we’re not relevant to what’s going on in our communities and the needs of our communities.

It’s always about serving the needs of the community. Orchestras lose sight of that sometimes. They can get dusty and want to play the same 50 pieces over and over again. But some groups are doing great things.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is doing a cool thing called the Pulse Series. A friend of mine from IU actually started that, and what they’re doing is they’re pairing the orchestra with Indie music.

The first half is orchestra only, a reduced size orchestra. The second half is an indie band. Then at the end, they all play a set together.

That’s the kind of stuff we can do. I think we have to always have the conversation: How can serve our communities better?

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native, passionate about the future of her hometown and other up-and-coming places across the country. As Managing Editor of Input Fort Wayne, she enjoys writing about interesting people and ideas in northeast Indiana. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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