Maestro for a Day: My Conducting Debut with Pacific Symphony

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Newport Beach Indy editor Christopher Trela conducts the Pacific Symphony Pops on June 10, 2023 / photo by Doug Gifford

What’s on your bucket list?

Maybe you want to walk the fabled Camino de Santiago, visit all 50 states, or shoot a hole-in-one at Pebble Beach.

For many years I had one seemingly unreachable goal atop my bucket list: Conduct the Pacific Symphony.

Every year at their annual gala, the Pacific Symphony holds a live auction that includes exclusive trips, fine wine collections, and other items. Oh—and one other thing: the opportunity to conduct one piece during a Pacific Symphony Pops concert at Segerstrom Concert Hall.

I play violin and was concertmaster of my high school orchestra, which I occasionally got to conduct, so I know my way around classical music. And I’m a pretty good air conductor and can’t resist keeping time to familiar orchestral music. But to conduct the third largest orchestra in California was a longtime dream.

I have been attending the Pacific Symphony gala for many years, but never bid because the conducting opportunity usually goes for upwards of $20,000—a little out of my reach.

However, at the Pacific Symphony Gala in March of 2020, my situation was a little different. Armed with a high-balance credit card, I was prepared to finally bid on the conducting opportunity, although I set a limit to what I would bid.

When the time came to bid, my bidder paddle went up and continued to go up as I outbid others vying for the same precious item. Eventually one paddle remained up—mine!

Yes, I had finally won the opportunity to conduct the symphony. I began to picture myself on stage, relishing the applause as I led the symphony.

One week later, the pandemic shutdown forced the cancellation of all indoor arts events, from plays to concerts.

My conducting debut was put on pause as I waited out the pandemic. Weeks turned into months turned into years as the pandemic protocols prevented me from taking the podium. The Pacific Symphony staff kept in touch with me (including President John Forsyte) as we waited out the pandemic.

Pops conductor Enrico Lopez-Yañez and Maestro Christopher Trela / photo by Doug Gifford

Finally, my conducting debut was set: June 10, 2023. The final Pops concert of the season, and the first with the new Pacific Symphony Pops conductor, Enrico Lopez-Yañez.

The symphony chose a fun piece for me to conduct: “Seventy-Six Trombones” from “The Music Man,” one of my favorite musicals. They gave me a YouTube link to the music so I could practice at home.

As part of my prize package, a conducting lesson was arranged with Pacific Symphony Music Director Carl St.Clair, whom I have known for years having interviewed him many times. We met in his dressing room prior to a Pacific Symphony concert. We went over the finer points of conducting while reminiscing about his 30+ years as music director.

Pacific Symphony Music Director Carl St.Clair and Maestro Christopher Trela

After about 30 minutes of watching him demonstrate and then trying to repeat his seemingly effortless conducting, I  came close to achieving a passable conducting technique.

Then came the night of my conducting debut.

The symphony provided eight box seats at the Concert Hall for my friends to attend the concert. I showed up early to get a few tips from Enrico, who proved to be a charming and charismatic conductor. He brought me on stage so I could get a lay of the land including how to walk to the podium without tripping.

I had my own dressing room, and the symphony furnished a bottle of champagne and a box of elegant chocolates. And, to my surprise, they gave me a conductor’s baton with an engraving that read “Maestro Christopher Trela, Guest Conductor, June 10, 2023.” My name was also listed in the program as guest conductor. I certainly felt like a celebrity.

I was to conduct the first piece on the second half of the concert, so I watched the first half with my friends. At intermission, we all went to the VIP reception for dessert and photos.

Maestro Christopher Trela / photo by Doug Gifford

I then made my way back to my dressing room, donned a special jacket I wore for the auspicious occasion, grabbed my baton, and was escorted backstage near the stage entrance.

Enrico welcomed the audience back to the concert and explained that the symphony auctions off an opportunity to conduct one piece of music, with the proceeds going to the symphony’s education and programming funds.

He introduced me by saying something about me being the concertmaster of my high school orchestra, and then “please welcome Maestro Chris Trela.”

I walked on stage all smiles, shook Enrico’s hand, walked to the podium, shook the concertmaster’s hand (yes I knew the protocols), ascended the podium, turned and bowed to the audience, turned back to the orchestra, and away we went.

Christopher Trela conducting the Pacific Symphony / photo by Doug Gifford

As the music started, I realized the musicians were very close to the podium—closer than they appear from the audience. I felt comfortable and confident as I kept time with my baton, glancing around at the musicians, cuing them (probably needlessly) and relishing my time in the spotlight.

As the piece came to an end, I finished with a flourish, then had the orchestra stand. I applauded them, then turned to the audience and bowed, soaking in the applause. I descended from the podium, shook the concertmaster’s hand, shook Enrico’s hand and we strolled backstage.

Christopher Trela conducts the Pacific Symphony / photo by Doug Gifford

The experience was exhilarating and exciting. It was so much fun I was ready to do it again—but alas, not that night.

I returned to my seat to watch the rest of the concert. Afterwards I accompanied my entourage next door to the Westin Hotel lobby for celebratory drinks—and to consume the box of chocolates!

But wait—the experience does not end here.

The symphony held an outdoor gala in June of 2021, with the Pacific Symphony performing for the first time in more than a year. At that gala, the symphony again auctioned off numerous exclusive items. One of them caught my eye—the opportunity to have dinner with Carl St.Clair and Pacific Symphony Pops Conductor Richard Kaufman (who had served as Pops conductor for 30 years) hosted by symphony supporters Scott and Leslie Siegel at their home in Newport Beach. The dinner included watching a movie with Carl and Richard in the Siegels’ screening room.

With that rare opportunity in mind, I held my bidding paddle up until I was the last bidder remaining.

Scott Siegel, Carl St.Clair, Richard Kaufman, Christopher Trela

It took two years to fulfill that auction item, but last July – a month after my conducting debut – my girlfriend Della and I, along with my friend Jim Owen (founder of Classical Mystery Tour, the Beatles tribute band that Maestro Kaufman conducted at the July 4 concert) and his wife Stefanie, arrived at the Siegel’s home.

Once Carl and his wife Susan, and Richard and his wife Gayle, arrived, we all chatted as we enjoyed appetizers and wine, then retreated to the dining room. At each place setting was a program for the evening with a “Music Man” theme, including photos of me conducting.

During dinner we reminisced about Pacific Symphony concerts, and Richard’s and Carl’s experiences during their many years with the symphony. It was a pleasure and an honor to listen to these music aficionados discuss their careers.

After dinner it was time for a movie. Richard had chosen “The Music Man” because he had a small role in the film when he was a youngster, (as a trombone-wielding marcher during the “Seventy-Six Trombones” finale) and I of course was delighted since my conducting debut was with that song.

Della Lisi and Christopher Trela getting ready to watch “The Music Man”

As we watched the movie and Richard regaled us of his time filming “The Music Man” I soaked up the moment, realizing the conducting experience had come full circle.

Specials thanks goes to Scott and Leslie Siegel, the incredible staff at the Pacific Symphony, to Carl St.Clair and Richard Kaufman, and of course to the musicians who helped make my experience one I will treasure the rest of my life.

And Enrico—if you ever need someone to fill in as a Pops conductor, I have my baton ready to go!

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