Conductor, Springfield Symphony Youth Orchestra
Jonathan Lam is now in his fifteenth year as Conductor of the Springfield Symphony Youth Orchestra, a profession he stumbled upon when playing violin in college. His college orchestra’s conductor fell ill before a concert and, as they say, “the show must go on” so Maestro Lam stepped up and the rest was history.
Getting his Start
It was important to Lam’s parents, immigrants from Hong Kong, that he learn music because it wasn’t an opportunity that was widely afforded when they were growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s. In the fourth grade, he joined the Boston Symphony Youth Orchestra where he cultivated his love for music through playing competitions and engaging in more complex scores.
It may be no accident that Maestro Lam came into conducting as he says it feels like a much better fit for him. Many have noted his natural ability to lead and connect with others as well as to weave each program together. Besides, he says “I’m a better conductor than I am a violinist”.
After returning from graduate school at Southern Illinois University where he studied Orchestral Conducting, Maestro Lam joined the SSYO for his first full conductor role in 2007. As the youth conductor, Lam values challenging programming while maintaining a focus on education. He looks at it as a progression to get to a larger goal and points out that before you can play Mahler you must first learn to play Beethoven.
The joy of conducting the SSYO
According to Maestro Lam, the best part of leading the SSYO is having a front row seat to watch his students evolve as musicians. He takes pride in watching his young musicians progress not just in their abilities, but with the confidence that they gain as young professionals, a virtue that he stresses in rehearsals. He reminds his students that to do big things you must put in the work. After all, Lam notes, before mastering Brahms’ Violin Concerto, the first step is to learn Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.
The first time the orchestra played Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony stands out for Maestro Lam as those young musicians had never played a symphony in its entirety before. The ensemble met the challenge of the rather complex score leaving the audience thoroughly impressed.
He also fondly remembers both performances he has done of the West Side Story Symphonic Dances, which he led. Incorporating the piece into his programming with the SSYO evoked nostalgic memories from playing it during his own youth orchestra career. Lam was excited to share a piece of music history with his students as he considers this to be one of Leonard Bernstein’s best works and he hopes that they will continue to pass it on to future generations.
Additionally, in 2018 the SSYO performed a concert featuring alumni musicians Andrew Cooper and Carson Marshall, an event that left the audience mesmerized and Lam filled with pride to watch how much they had grown as artists.
Working with the Massachusetts Music Educators Association Western District
Twelve years after having led the MMEA Senior Orchestra, Maestro Lam has the privilege of working with the organization once again. He is enthusiastic about this ensemble as they take on the difficult piece of Strauss’s Gypsy Baron Overture. Lam is particular about ensuring that the piece is conveyed in the proper Viennese style and counterbalancing the light and heavy moments. He describes his approach as conveying to the musicians “what paintbrush to use at the right time.”
The orchestra will also be playing Edvard Grieg’s Hommage March from Sigurd Jorsalfar, which he believes will be a shining moment for these young musicians within the concert’s program.
SSYO Alumni and the foundation for success
The SSYO is proud to have been a starting point for many accomplished professional musicians. Most notably, Thomas Bergeron (Princial Trumpet, SSO), Adam Luftman (Principal Trumpet, San Francisco Opera and San Francsico Ballet Orchestras), Chris Bassett (Bass Trombonist, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Jacksonville Symphony, and Santa Fe Opera), Brian Wendel (Principal Trombone, Cleveland Orchestra and son of SSO Director of Operations & Orchestra Personnel Manager, Renato Wendel), Matt Bertuzzi who is the current conductor of the Springfield Youth Sinfonia, and countless others who have maintained their craft over the years.
Lam notes however, that many SSYO alums have gone out into the world to pursue successful careers that are not in the musical realm. All, however, carry with them the foundation of principles that they were instilled in them while studying and practicing classical music with the SSYO. He hopes that in the future an orchestra comprised of alumni can come together to commemorate the significant role SSYO has played in their stories.
As this season has marked the SSYO ensemble continuing to build in skill and musicians, Lam has exciting plans for the orchestra. The February concert will feature Brahms’ Hiding Variations as well as Weber’s Oberon Overture. He hopes for the season to conclude with Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. Above all, Jonathan Lam prides himself as an educator and lover of music who consistently reminds the young musicians under his baton that “we can always do better.”