Ward Stare returns to Lyric Opera, with a baton

Ward Stare

Ward Stare conducts a rehearsal of "Hansel and Gretel" at Lyric Opera on Nov. 29. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune / December 4, 2012)

You've heard of pianist-conductors, violinist-conductors, even the occasional cellist-conductor. But how many conductors can you name who began their careers playing first trombone with a major American opera company while still in their teens?

Ward Stare has that singular distinction all sewed up.

The Rochester, N.Y., native was 18 when he was named principal trombone of the Lyric Opera Orchestra. He was the youngest musician ever to enter that ensemble. He was still the youngest when he resigned seven years later to pursue a conducting career. Taking up the baton always was at the back of his mind, he says, even before he began studying the trombone at the tender age of 9.

On Friday night, Stare will return to his old stomping grounds, the Civic Opera House, to make his Lyric Opera conducting debut with the season's first performance of Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel."

The meteoric rise of Stare, who recently turned 30, from the orchestra pit to the podium would make many an up-and-coming conductor turn an envious shade of green. But natural talent and securing the right career breaks at the right time have made a crucial difference in his life. Stare recently completed his fourth and final season as resident conductor of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and is booked as far ahead as 2015.

He does not appear overly awed by the fact that his career has taken off so soon and in so many directions. For one thing, there's no time to think about such things, not when he has a show to prepare, and an important house debut, at that.

"I couldn't ask for a better piece or a more comfortable situation with which to make my Lyric podium debut," Stare told me during a recent rehearsal break in his dressing room at the Ardis Krainik Theatre. "Everyone in the company has been wonderful, and working here is even more a pleasure than I remember."

The Lyric musicians clearly are pleased to have their former colleague back in the pit, even if it's in a very different capacity than before. And they're not averse to ribbing him about his rapid ascent from brass man to batonsmith.

Just before the first orchestral rehearsal of "Hansel," Stare was astonished to learn the entire trombone section had requested the day off. Sure enough, when he began tuning up the orchestra, all three chairs were empty. Not until a second "A" was sounded did the three trombonists turn up, all sporting big grins. Stare was quick to pick up on the joke. "Trombones, you're already late!" he mock scolded.

Having grown up in a family of amateur musicians (his father played the trombone, his mother the piano, his sister the double bass), Stare cannot recall a moment in his childhood and adolescence when there wasn't "a lot of music going on around the house."

Young Ward began studying the piano at 5. By the time he had reached 10, he was playing trombone in a firefighters marching band, at $20 a gig. Although his enthusiasms also extended to Little League, his love of music easily trumped his love of baseball.

The best piece of advice he says he ever received came from one of his high school music teachers. Noting that young Ward was studying trombone, conducting, harmony and counterpoint all at once, the teacher told his parents, "Ward is very talented. He has great exuberance. However, he really should focus on one of his many interests if he wants to truly realize his potential." He took the advice to heart, focusing on the trombone before and after entering New York's Juilliard School of Music at 16.

It was only a matter of time, however, before the inner conductor emerged. Because the Lyric season ran just 26 weeks, Stare got to spend extended periods in Europe, where he took master classes in conducting. With that experience under his belt, he was accepted into the American Academy of Conducting at the Aspen Music Festival, where he worked with conductor David Zinman, eventually winning both of the festival's top conducting prizes.

He spent the 2007-08 season as a League of American Orchestras Conducting Fellow at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he assisted Esa-Pekka Salonen and David Robertson.

Robertson's recommendation was key to the St. Louis Symphony's naming him to the newly created post of resident conductor in 2008. His duties ranged from leading and covering subscription concerts, to conducting pops and family concerts, to directing the St. Louis Youth Symphony Orchestra. He took time out during his first season to hop up to Chicago to assist Lyric music director Andrew Davis, another mentor, on Alban Berg's "Lulu."

Stare's relationship with the St. Louis Symphony "really solidified," he said, in April 2009, when Robertson deputized him at the eleventh hour to conduct a performance of Austrian composer H K Gruber's "Frankenstein!!" the orchestra was to give in Carnegie Hall. Bad weather in New York had slowed air traffic, preventing Gruber from fulfilling the role of chansonnier in his difficult, cabaret-style piece. So Robertson took the half-sung, half-spoken role, while Stare wielded the baton — with no rehearsal.

The concert was a success, thrusting him into the music industry's radar almost overnight.

To date, Stare and the St. Louis Symphony have logged more than 150 concerts together. Although he no longer holds an official title with the orchestra, he remains a welcome guest and considers their musical and personal rapport a decided plus.

"Now when I walk out to conduct the orchestra, there are things I don't even have to say, because the players know what I want, and I know what they're going to give me," he said. "A lot of time is saved, and we can delve even deeper into the music."

Although the ultimate brass ring for Stare would be to land the music directorship of a reputable symphony orchestra, he said he's in no rush for that to happen.

"I have a lot of great work in the next few years, so I'm trying to focus on each engagement and do it well. My goal is to continue to build my guest conducting career at the highest level possible. I continue to get a lot of great experiences with great orchestras all over the world. When the right situation and the right orchestra come along, it will be obvious."

Lyric Opera's production of "Hansel and Gretel" opens at 7:30 p.m. Friday and plays through Jan. 19 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive; $32-$239; 312-332-2244, ext. 5600; lyricopera.org

Sharps and flats

•Both the Lyric Opera and Chicago Symphony Orchestra have received major grants through the National Endowment for the Arts' Art Works funding program. Lyric was given an unspecified amount toward the company premiere of Dvorak's "Rusalka" (date and production details yet to be announced), while the CSO received $80,000 toward its spring 2013 festival, "Rivers: Nature, Power, Culture," according to the NEA. A total of $23.3 million in grants was awarded to 832 recipients across the country.

•Eighteen students from Merit School of Music's Suzuki-Alegre Strings program have been chosen to represent Chicago at the 16th Suzuki Method World Convention, March 27-31 in Matsumoto, Japan. More than 2,100 young musicians from around the world will take part in performances, lectures, lessons and master classes.

jvonrhein@tribune.com

Twitter @jvonrhein

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