Judge Daniel Stewart Interview: Music is a passport

Daniel Stewart
Santa Cruz Symphony Music Director, Conductor Composer, Musician.

Among the beautiful plants of the Japanese Tea Garden and with the light rain falling around us, we interviewed Daniel Stewart, one of the competition’s main judges. This year, Mr. Stewart completed his first season as the Santa Cruz Symphony’s music director and has just signed an additional five year contract with the symphony. Daniel Stewart has performed with numerous orchestras across the United States and traveled to over forty countries on tour. He transitioned from being a violist into a conductor and is a composer as well. He has worked with modern composers and assisted well-known conductors throughout his career and has earned recognition for his talents concerts and performances.

When did you realize that you wished to pursue a musical career?

“I can remember the first moment when I was in youth orchestra, the San Francisco Youth Orchestra, which incorporated different regional players and was on a professional stage in the Davie Symphony Hall. That first visceral moment of sound, unity, great ensemble, great focus, and great concentration was revelatory. It was life changing and from that point on, I discovered how orchestras really represent how the community and humanity opened up to learn more about oneself and each other. So it was a form in which we share physical and emotional space and learn to empathize and understand, to deeply go into the subjects that are so important to us, and grow evermore so throughout our lives. So I realized it was a very deep subject which I could dedicate myself throughout my life. You can’t overstress the importance of the arts and opening our intellect and our empathy to ourselves and others.”

Growing up, did you always feel this passionate towards music?

“Yes, I think we all are in different ways. We listen to the radio, we sing songs, but then we get to a moment in life when we are able to contribute to the creation of music. And that became the most essential element of music to me. To be able to create it and listen to others as we collaborate together, and then to play in large ensembles and to relate to more and more musicians at the same time was wonderful and profound.”

How did you transition from being a violist to a conductor?

“ I always wanted to know more about the process in which I was participating in. In other words, the orchestra is such a fascinating unity of diversity, that you can appreciate the sound emotionally, you can appreciate it for its intellectual beauty, its instruction. You can appreciate it for the dexterity and the agility of the musicians and you can appreciate it for its satisfaction of reaching out to the audience. All of those were fascinating to me but I wanted to know more about the overall picture so I started looking more and more at scores. And then, I eventually started putting together my own ensembles and I went to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Then, I went to the Metropolitan Opera Symphony in New York where I’ve been for the past three seasons and now I’m at the Santa Cruz Symphony and very excited to see where this leads to next.”

After traveling to over forty countries around the world, which one has left the most lasting impression on you?

“Music is such a passport, it takes you to so many different cultures and so many different countries. I’m so grateful to have been to so many in this part of my life, and Europe is the seat of so much of the music that we have studied. It is wildly inspiring to be in cities such as Paris, Vienna, or Rome. I’m always so much aware of the musical culture and how it’s evolved from these magical cities. It’s such an inspiring culture that has an enormous history of art and music, so I’ve learned just as much as I’ve brought and I’ve learned so much more from those trips. Music is truly a passport.”

Have you traveled to Asian countries?

“Yes, I’ve been to China, I’ve been to Beijing, it was fantastic. I’ve played in Shanghai, I’ve been in Guangzhou and in Hong Kong several times. And all over Japan and Korea, it’s thrilling to see how the orchestral scene has blossomed there recently and I’ve been in some of the best concert halls, met some of the best musicians. It’s really a very exciting place to play music.”

Out of all the concerts that you’ve participated in, which one stands out the most to you?

“There’s so many singular and unique moments as performers that we have, we’re always going for the lifechanging experience. Just good enough or very good is never acceptable, we want to make the most impactful and profound experience. Among other things, we never know when someone is hearing a piece for the very first time or the very last time in the concert hall. For me, it’s a very important concept that musicians have the privilege and the responsibility to present this story as passionately as possible. Beethoven said that, ‘to make a mistake is insignificant, to play without passion is inexcusable’, and that’s something that I keep in mind as well.”

What words of advice can you give to young musicians?

“Plenty, there’s so much wisdom to be found and I’m happy to be able to share some of it. To play music, to participate in the arts, is something where you can both serve and create community and that’s very special. And for, five seconds of pure inspiration where you can change somebody’s life, that is perhaps one of the greatest gifts we can achieve or give to each other. Find what you’re good at, what you’re passionate about and go for it with all of your heart. Trust in your ability to progress everyday, and when you inspire others and bring people together, you will create a better world. I strongly believe that the future of our species, of humanity, will be led by those artists and those transcendent thinkers among us who bring people together, help us understand more about ourselves and the people around us, and build stronger communities.”

What are you looking forward to in the Asian Youth Talent Competition?

“I’m very much looking forward to hearing the wonderful talent and the stories and the personalities of the participants. I’m looking forward to being a part of an encouraging and supportive experience for those who bring their personalities and talents to the competition. I think it’s outstanding that the competition is not only supporting the artistic base in the San Francisco Bay Area but also helping to support new education initiatives in China and this is what it’s really about.”

What made you decided to join the judge panel of the competition?

“I was very impressed by the seriousness, by the sensitivity with which this competition is being set up. It was very clear from the materials and the introduction of the competition. I think it’s being done with the best of artistic integrity and its goals are absolutely rooted in the community but with world class expectations.”

Your first season as the musical director of the Santa Cruz Symphony has had great feedback, how did you accomplish this?

“I’ve had outstanding experience and chemistry with the orchestra and the community and I’m very proud of the results and the critical acclaim that we’ve accomplished together. I knew that I could prove that we as an orchestra and music director in collaboration could evolve into a world classensemble and I’m very happy to saw that we proved it and we’re doing it consistently. It has to do with the constant artistry that they bring to and the possibility that exists to reach beyond perceived capacity and to reach for the very best. We’ve accomplished quite a lot and we have a very exciting future ahead of us.”



Interviewed by Sarah Zhou, a high school student at Mills High School, Millbrae. Sarah practices Piano.

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