Alumni Interview

Molly Turner ’15

Conducting Fellow, New World Symphony
November 16, 2023

Molly Turner grew up playing violin and piano and joined TYSA in the seventh grade as a violinist. Fast forward nine years and Molly has built a rich and varied musical career as a conductor, including working with the likes of the Berliner Philharmoniker, the Orchestre de Paris, the National Polish Radio Symphony, the Dallas Opera Orchestra, and the San Francisco Symphony, in addition to her many other projects as a composer and violinist! We spoke with Molly about her time at TYSA, her recent appointment to the New World Symphony as a Conducting Fellow, and more.

What are you up to now? What’s it like working with the New World Symphony?

I am currently living in Miami Beach (crazy!) and I am the conducting fellow at the New World Symphony. This orchestra was founded by Michael Tilson Thomas in 1987 and he was the sole Artistic and Music Director until recently, when Stéphane Denève arrived enthusiastically to lead the organization. NWS is an 80-person full-fellowship orchestra, which means that housing and living expenses are covered for the musicians—the dream for a young artist! The New World Symphony’s mission is to prepare graduates of music programs for leadership roles in professional orchestras and ensembles, and many recent alumni have won top jobs in major orchestras around the world. It’s amazing working with them because everyone is young and motivated, just like in TYSA, and the musical level is extremely high. I conduct concert openers, education concerts, family concerts, holiday concerts, and chamber music concerts. And whenever I’m not conducting, I serve as assistant conductor to whoever is in town working with NWS!

Molly Turner (at right) conducts the New World Symphony in performance.

How do you balance such a busy schedule? What do you do to decompress?

I love biking and running! I did a lot of biking growing up in Tacoma and only recently started running because of COVID. Both allow me to unplug, get out of my head, and listen to some non-classical music! I also love traveling, which luckily comes as part of the gig sometimes! 

You’ve conducted a lot of new music lately. What are you enjoying about preparing these works?

The great thing about new music is that there is often not a recording out there, or maybe not a very good recording. It means you have to do a lot of thinking on your own! You have to get into the composer’s mind and try to understand what they were thinking—whether you think it’s crazy, genius, or something in between. This provides a new freshness with which to consult the standard repertoire where recordings and opinions are endless. I think that working on lots of new and contemporary music fosters independent thinking and interpretation! 

Molly (center) addresses the audience at a concert at the New World Center.

What are the most challenging and fulfilling parts of your life at the moment?

The most fulfilling part of my life is all of the amazing people that I have met through music. Starting in TYSA, you learn that musical friends are lifelong friends. After high school, I have been lucky to meet so many incredible musicians in different cities and countries, and these connections have given me just as much joy as the concerts I have performed in. In terms of challenges, a conducting career can be really non-linear and that can be difficult. Whereas a violinist may win a position with an orchestra and get tenure, I can’t quite take an audition in the same way as they do. My career is a lot more about meeting artistic planners, perhaps doing a competition or a high-profile music festival, and creating strong relationships with orchestras. Of course, I can “audition” for an assistant conductor position, but those positions are few and far between! 

You’ve worked with a lot of different groups on a lot of different styles of music—you’re certainly expanding the idea of what a “traditional concert hall” looks like! What are your favorite types of projects to work on?

Some of my favorite projects don’t even involve conducting! I’m planning a big concert this spring at NWS which will feature Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. It’s a long-form unconducted piece that is led by different members of the ensemble cueing new sections. It blends pop, classical, and world music and I think these projects are really rewarding because they make our classically-trained brains think in a new way. Instead of reading music left to right, Steve Reich’s music makes us think in terms of looping, improvisation, and slowly changing rhythmic textures. In terms of what I enjoy conducting, I love Stravinsky, Mahler, and Beethoven! They are so fun to conduct and every orchestra sounds so different playing them. 

Molly (right) conducts musicians as a TYSA student at the Evergreen Music Festival, under the direction of Dr. Cobbs (left).

What is most memorable from your time at TYSA?

Playing Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story in the final concert! The moment we started playing “Somewhere,” I remember crying in the concert because TYSA had given me so many amazing friends, professional skills, musical motivation, and musical lessons. The lyrics “there’s a place for us / somewhere a place for us” were so powerful because I was about to move out and find my place outside of my known world. 

How did your TYSA education prepare you for your professional life?

TYSA prepared me in so many ways for the professional world! First and foremost, being early to things is essential in the music world. If you show up “on time” (that is, late…) to a gig, you are not going to get hired again. The classical music world functions on preparation before rehearsal and having people arrive early to things so that everyone can be respectful of each other’s time. When you have 80 people in an orchestra, plus 10 or more people in the backstage crew, that’s a lot of people’s time! “Early is on time, on time is late, and late is unacceptable” is huge and not just a silly phrase that Dr. Cobbs says all the time. In addition, TYSA plays the same repertoire that collegiate professional orchestras play! It was great to be exposed to some incredible repertoire (like Stravinsky’s The Firebird, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9) at such an early age. I have returned to these pieces many times after graduating, but my first experiences were with TYSA!

Molly (center) conducts New World Symphony musicians whilst in costume.


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