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 pressdemocrat.com).
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?