Santa Rosa Symphony conductor candidate Andrew Grams a multitasker at heart

Q & A with Santa Rosa Symphony music director finalist Andrew Grams, who will audition with the symphony Dec. 2-4 in a program of Berlioz, Ravel and Rachmaninoff.|

Baltimore native Andrew Grams started multitasking at an early age. While studying conducting at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, for example, the Juilliard-trained violinist was also hopping on trains to perform with the New York City Ballet Orchestra.

So the diverse challenges of directing a modern symphony orchestra - equal parts baton technique, public speaking and community outreach - do not daunt the 40-year-old conductor, who currently serves as the fourth music director of the 67-year-old Elgin Symphony Orchestra in Elgin, Illinois, just 35 miles northwest of Chicago. The orchestra is roughly the size of the Santa Rosa Symphony and draws upon musicians from all over the region.

Grams will lead the Santa Rosa Symphony this Saturday through Dec. 4 at Weill Hall during a program of Berlioz, Ravel and Rachmaninoff entitled “A Luscious Euro Sound.” The conductor is the third of five finalists trying out this season to succeed Music Director Bruno Ferrandis (other interviews and reviews so far can be viewed at

In addition to his in-depth string knowledge, Grams is known for creating a close relationship with the community, which has translated into a successful run so far with the Elgin Symphony.

“As time goes on, I have found more and more of my time being used in community development and relationship building rather than sitting in one’s cave, poring over scores and searching them for the deepest meaning,” Grams said in a phone interview. “I’ve dedicated myself to that in Elgin … and I am happy to say that over the course of my four-year tenure, we have grown both audience and revenue every single year.”

The Elgin Symphony Orchestra sold the highest average number of classical concert tickets in its history during the 2016-17 season, according to the Chicago Tribune. Grams believes the success of the orchestra is in part because of his personal accessibility.

“One of the things that I like to do is to get rid of the idea, the stigma, that exists in most people’s minds about what going to a symphony is,” he said. “I strive in my communication ... to make everyone know that music is for everyone. All should feel welcome.”

Grams, who served as assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra for three years, guest conducts all over the world, from the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Orchestra London to the Oslo Philharmonic. His conducting style is elegant and animated, ranging from power punches to smooth balletic sways.

Here is our edited interview with Grams, who was named the 2015 Conductor of the Year by the Illinois Council of Orchestras:

What will the symphony musicians enjoy about working with you?

I create a working atmosphere that is positive and encouraging. The most important thing, and the thing that translates into an exciting performance, is when everybody strives for something that lies just beyond their easy grasp. It’s about trying to find that expressive region, where people are doing everything correctly …but striving for higher levels of the particular qualities required by the music, whether it be clarity, atmosphere or sustained intensity.

What ideas do you have to engage and grow the audience here, and can you give an example of what you’ve already done with other orchestras?

Since I’ve only had one orchestra, my experience is limited … but I am a person who is encouraging and inviting and warm and welcoming. I strive in my communication, whether it be in print or one-on-one conversations or speaking to the audience from the stage, to make everyone know that the music is for everyone … and if you come, you can come as you are and the only thing we ask is to come with open ears. Everybody has permission to not like what they’ve heard and to feel as if they can express that.

One of the things I’ve tried to do is to make sure I and the community establish trust. I am going to make sure they hear what they really like to hear, and also, that if I give them things that they don’t recognize, that they trust me that I’m not going to throw them into the deep end of the pool without some sort of floaties on the arm … And I always try to give the audience a framework for understanding.

What is your programming philosophy and how do you plan to keep concerts exciting for everyone?

This goes hand and hand with community relations and with me being who I am. I like to program stuff that I think is cool … a lot of the stuff that I think is cool, everybody else thinks is cool as well. So I’m not introducing wildly new, crazy, off-the-wall things.

I’m not saying we won’t go to places that will stretch people’s ears. But my programming starts off with, “Let’s all get to know one another.” And that goes for me and the orchestra. How an orchestra plays together is a very intimate thing, and it’s easier to understand one another when you are on familiar ground.

Where do you see classical music going in the future, and how would you take this orchestra in that direction?

I see the future being very bright, because many of the generations younger than mine have grown up with access to the widest gamut of music and information. And I think that a lot of the young people, those we generally call millennials, have grown up with a curiosity about the world.

The struggle comes because that curiosity does not always come with longtime loyalty. And so, we’re going to have to spend a lot of time learning about each other, and we are going to have to be flexible with our offerings, looking at it from a perspective that is not backward-looking. Tradition does have its place, and it’s important, but it cannot be adhered to without regard to new trends.

Why do you want to come to Sonoma County, and how much time can you spend here?

There are many things I find attractive. One is being wanted and considered, which is a great honor and privilege. It’s an affirmation of the quality of my work.

Another thing is the Green Music Center, since it is modeled on Ozawa Hall out of Tanglewood, which was one ?of the first truly special halls that I ever had the privilege of performing in when I was a Tanglewood fellow. I thought it was one of the greatest places to work ever.

California is a state that I have spent some time in, but the West Coast has a very different feel to me as a person who has spent a number of years in the Midwest and is originally from the East. It would be very, very exciting to get to know people who are there and who inhabit such a beautiful area, who live and work and craft things …whether it be wines or artisanal this, that and the other. All these things you really only find in California, with abundance.

Frankly, I really like working with the musicians of the Sacramento Philharmonic, and a lot of them play in Santa Rosa, so this will also be very nice.

I would spend a significant amount of time outside of concerts getting to know the community, from the City Council to all of the people who are in charge of a community. That’s extremely important. It’s time well spent. An orchestra should have relevant offerings for its community that support the community … you can’t know that until you know the community, and you can’t know the community by standing on the stage.

What instruments do you play and how does that experience serve you in your role as a conductor?

I play the violin, and I can get around on a French horn and trombone, albeit somewhat badly … one of the most terrifying experiences of my life was playing second horn for Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony. The trio is for the first row of woodwinds and second horn, which functions as a third bassoonist. You feel extremely naked.

Conducting is your favorite thing. What is your second favorite thing?

As I’ve gotten older, I cherish the opportunities to be still and do nothing. It’s difficult to do because there are so many distractions, but one of the things I like about flying … is that it is time that I don’t have to do anything. I don’t watch movies, I don’t listen to music and I don’t read. I sit still and enjoy the sounds of air rushing over the skin of an aluminum tube flying at 3,000 feet.

Can you talk about the program you’ll be leading?

This program offers a lot of expression. All three pieces have just a tinge of sadness and a little bit of tragedy.

The “King Lear” Overture (by Berlioz) is wildly exuberant and manic - hey, it’s King Lear - but there’s a bit of tragedy, too.

In the Ravel Piano Concerto (No. 2), the second movement is absolutely beautiful, a quasi-sarabande, with lovely expression, but it doesn’t make you smile. It’s not a smiley E major, which is just amazing that he was able to do that.

Rachmaninoff is never a smiley composer - there’s the “Dies Irae” (a leitmotif for fate and death) - and it really is a culmination of a lot of drive and thrust and intensely held feelings, but it’s never completely exuberant and bright and sunny.

The program has a sadness in the smallest possible dose - it colors everything just a little bit.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or On Twitter @dianepete56.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.