Oct. 27, 2021

A trailblazing BIPOC conductor changes the score

This month, Careers in Motion brings you an interview with alumnus Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser, the new host of CBC Radio’s Centre Stage
Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser

Will it be an indelible star-is-born moment in music history? No one knows, yet. But we are certain that never has conductor Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser, BMus’99, BEd’01, DipFA’02, had the reach he now does with this new national gig on CBC Radio hosting Centre Stage. Sure, the music grad has toggled between orchestras in San Francisco, Halifax and Toronto for years where he has conducted or taught music — but might this seasoned conductor’s career rocket further? Faster? Let it snowball . . .

Where did you hang out on campus when you studied at UCalgary?

Craigie Hall, Mac Hall and the squash courts. I must admit, I never found my way to the Sciences too often!

What were some of the lessons you learned at UCalgary that have stayed with you? 

Passionate teaching makes a difference. I was really inspired by my instructors in performance, theory, history and musicianship. They were all personalities, in a sense. We were always telling stories about what they did or said. Had it been different, my path might have been different. 

If you could replay your undergrad degree, what would you do differently?  

I wish I had taken more philosophy courses and more languages. If I could go back, I would practise and spend more time learning concertos and I’d take more opportunities to perform as a soloist, rather than just at recitals. It would have helped me get used to it much faster. 

Have any UCalgary prof’s words stayed with you?

Dr. Victor Coelho: It’s not about getting answers, it’s about getting the right questions. That is the first one to jump out. Even if he hadn’t said that, his teaching would still have been impactful. I hate to reduce the years of effort my profs gave me to a few pithy lines; for most, it is the cumulative effect of their teaching that was more impactful.

If I had met you when you were, say, 20, where would you have predicted you’d be in 25 years? 

I was not enough of a forward-thinker to imagine where I’d be. But I certainly would not have predicted that I would be conducting internationally, out of the closet and hosting a national radio show. This would have been a bit of a shock then, as it is now. 

How did you manage to land this very weekly gig on CBC Radio?

CBC approached me many months ago to chat about hosting a show. We did a number of trial runs before anything went on the air. I was constantly asking for feedback, perhaps even a bit annoyingly; I am not trained in radio. But I am a teacher, so perhaps the public-speaking part of it helped. After quite a few trial shows and much feedback, I was offered the job of host. I admit it’s been a bit of an adjustment . . . talking to people that you can’t see. It is really intimate, because, even though you are speaking to the nation, you really are only ever speaking to one person. When my producer, Matthew Parsons, and I are recording a show, I usually have one or two specific people in my head that I am speaking to. I love introducing people to music they will love and music they will hate. I want people to have opinions about the music they hear, and to discover whether they have the tools within themselves to understand why. That really fires me up. 

How difficult is it to join an orchestra these days?

Difficult, but not insurmountable. Persistence helps, as well as the ability to use failure as an opportunity for study, rather than an opportunity for grief.

Any advice for new music grads?

You are hired in part for what you do, but also, ultimately, for how you do it. 

You need to have your own standard of what is acceptable and what you won’t deviate from, a standard that exists independently of what others tell you, but that is yet informed by what others tell you. This standard must always be rising.  

What makes a good conductor?

Imagination. Consistency. Rigour. Kindness. 

Biggest challenges for you? 

Jet lag.

What are the best and worst things about your career?

The best part is twofold. You meet incredible and amazing people in orchestras all over the world. Making music with a professional orchestra is basically indescribable. It is an honour, a thrill, an addiction. The sensitivity of a group of musicians who create together is one of the most intimate things you can experience. 

I don’t really know what I might say the worst part is. Nothing really sticks out. Every job has loads of stuff that comes with it. Once you realize that the “stuff” is part of the job, it all makes sense. 

Do you worry about the future of classical music?

No. Frankly, I don’t have time. We are all working to create art and make projects that are vital, compelling, engaging and meaningful. That’s where our energy is going in the orchestral sector, coast to coast. So, there’s not a lot of time to worry!

Also, one example among many is that the majority of Symphony Nova Scotia’s concerts are sold out every year. There is lots of work to be done and lots of reason to hope.

How has COVID-19 impacted classical music and your career?

My career has moved on screen and radio in ways I had not anticipated and in ways that I have enjoyed. I do a lot more on-screen work: screenwriting, acting, hosting and directing. It is super-fun and also extremely intense. And radio? I never would have foreseen this.

The unfortunate backdrop to this is the fact there are fewer in-person shows at the moment. They are coming back, however, and will come back. But, until then, the hybrid model of screen and stage will continue to be the way we reach audiences. 

If someone wanted to learn more about classical music, where should they begin?

I would suggest that they check out the CBC Music Playlists or CBC Listen.

This will seem self-serving, but my job is, literally, to introduce people to classical music, so I would suggest that they check out my show, Centre Stage, or any of CBC’s classical shows. 

One thing I try to do is to challenge people; I also think it can be helpful to start where you are at. If you know the name of one composer, start with the music of that composer and do a deep dive. You will really get to know them and their sound. Then, when you hear another composer, you will really be able to “compare and contrast.” That is where the fun really begins. 

At what age did you know you wanted to be a composer?

There really was no moment. Also, I am continually deciding. Once you decide to be a conductor you have to, in a way, decide what kind of conductor you want to be. There was no lightning moment or decision, and the decision to engage meaningfully with the art is an internal one, daily and hourly . . . even if my role on paper stays the same year after year. 

What’s inspiring you now?

I am really moved by the musicians I get to work with in all the different orchestras. They all have deep and unique areas of expertise; it is quite humbling. There is so much to know, and the more experience you gain the more you realize how much more there is. This is a cliché, but also quite true.

How have you stayed motivated during the pandemic?

I admit, I was not always motivated during COVID-19. It was quite hard. I found “Pandemic Triumphalism,” a phenomenon as in which we were encouraged to seize the availability of “downtime” to re-evaluate and re-envision our lives, which was extremely tiring. I am now more than motivated to get back to work and look forward to creating art and working with orchestras again.