A Teenage Prodigy Joins The Seattle Symphony

Alexander Prior i i

Alexander Prior, 17, conducts the Seattle Symphony Orchestra during a rehearsal. Ben VanHouten hide caption

itoggle caption Ben VanHouten
Alexander Prior

Alexander Prior, 17, conducts the Seattle Symphony Orchestra during a rehearsal.

Ben VanHouten

The world of classical music is full of prodigies — gifted 10-year-olds who make piano concertos look like child's play. The phenomenon hasn't been as common with conductors, though. That's why Alexander Prior, the Seattle Symphony's new assistant to guest conductors, is raising eyebrows. The British teenager is expected to stand in for no-show guests and lead special concerts.

He also composes and plays piano, and he recently moved halfway around the world for his new conducting job. Prior says he's ready.

Talent Beyond His Years

"I don't think age really matters so much," Prior says. "Young musicians have a certain energy, which is not the same as older musicians, who have more wisdom and experience. So you have something fresh to bring."

The Seattle Symphony created an "assistant to guest conductors" post just for him. It's a six-month understudy role in which a lot of professional conductors start. Elena Dubinets helps the symphony select its artists and programs.

"He was extremely mature in his conducting ... even compared to other people who are much older than he was," Dubinets says. "He loved music. He was able to express it visually and in words. And you would start believing him when you would watch him conduct."

Recently, the symphony gave donors the opportunity to see what Prior could do. He got off to a rocky start, but the tension dissipated as soon as the orchestra began playing Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 4. It was just a rehearsal, but Prior clearly takes it seriously.

Cellist David Sabee has played Symphony No. 4 many times, and he's been with the orchestra longer than Prior has been alive.

"It's a piece of so many transitions," Sabee says. "That he was chosen to work with us was a great thing."

Bringing Youth To Classical Music

It was an atypical choice, too. Symphonies have their pick among hundreds of conductors, and some think Prior is too young to have what it takes. He says he just started early. Several years ago in Moscow, the conductor for the orchestra recording one of Prior's symphonic poems showed up drunk, and Prior had to fill in.

"I had to do it myself," he says. "I was, what, 11 or 12? And I didn't have a stick, so I just took a pencil. Obviously, I had no technique, but the orchestra could see I was 11."

Shortly thereafter, Prior and his mother moved to Russia so he could continue his studies at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. He says his parents didn't push him. Though they tried to expose him to a variety of things, he chose classical music.

Regardless of where the music takes him, Prior says he has no regrets about all the work he's crammed into his short life. Now, he says he wants to inspire other young people.

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