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Fords in Four: Meet Geoff McDonald '03
The Haverford School

1. Walk us through a day in the life of Geoff McDonald, the conductor.

Conductors spend more time preparing to conduct than actually conducting. When I study scores or rehearse with soloists/singers I often use the piano. I can work through string parts at the cello, and I sing the music I'm studying constantly, because it forces my body and my breath to actually produce notes that would otherwise remain abstractions in my inner ear. Conductors are expected to study languages and read history and literature. All of this comes before I wave my arms in rehearsal or performance, and it requires me to continue developing a variety of interests and skills.

I sing the music I'm studying constantly, because it forces my body and my breath to actually produce notes that would otherwise remain abstractions in my inner ear.

2. What don't most people know about your profession?

Contrary to the popular image of The Unapproachable Maestro, I think empathy is the most important quality in conducting. The conductor must put him/herself in three very separate pairs of shoes: that of the composer as he/she was writing the music, that of the orchestra while they're rehearsing/playing it, and that of the audience as they're hearing it. That sensitivity to others is not the first thing that strikes to the popular imagination about conducting (probably with good reason), but in the truly great conductors it is there at every beat of every measure.

Sensitivity to others is not the first thing that strikes to the popular imagination about conducting, but in the truly great conductors it is there at every beat of every measure.

3. What is your favorite type of performance to conduct?

I trained first as an orchestral conductor. It surprised me when, in my mid-20s, I realized that I feel most at home in the opera pit. In retrospect it shouldn't have, because I've always loved the kind of stories and broad emotional strokes that opera trades in. I also realized that, to a greater extent than an orchestral concert, anything can happen at any time in an opera performance. With all those moving parts on-, back-, and under-stage, there needs to be someone at the center of it all to stay focused and calm. I like that job.

4. Note a memorable Haverford experience or faculty member.

I had many, many, many wonderful teachers, but Michael Stairs stands out among them all; the reach of his influence extended over the longest span of time. My first experience playing cello in an orchestra was with Mr. Stairs wowing us all from the keyboard. As a beginner cellist of 10 years, I was charged just with playing open strings on obvious downbeats, so I had plenty of time to listen in awe. I made music with and learned music from Michael more and more with each year — Glee Club, Notables, music theory, some private lessons, and his ever-cheerful company. Mr. Stairs is also likely the most humble and gracious person I know, which served as an example to students in his presence.

My first experience playing cello in an orchestra was with Mr. Stairs wowing us all from the keyboard. As a beginner cellist of 10 years, I was charged just with playing open strings on obvious downbeats, so I had plenty of time to listen in awe.

Next up on Geoff's performance schedule is a production of Beethoven's opera "Fidelio" in Princeton, New Jersey, on Jan. 23. "We have an outstanding cast of singers and an exciting orchestra, called Grand Harmonie. We are also drawing on Philadelphia-area talent for the chorus, and the director, Julia Mintzer, happens to be an extremely talented Baldwin alumna. It promises to be a unique experience: 'Fidelio' is something of a rarity to begin with, and it has never been staged in the U.S. with an orchestra like this one, comprised of authentic 19th century instruments." For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the Grand Harmonie website.

Geoffrey McDonald commands a broad repertoire with extensive experience in operatic, symphonic, and choral works. He is the music director of the Longy Conservatory Orchestra (on leave during the 2015-16 season), and On Site Opera in New York City. He was assistant conductor for Gotham Chamber Opera, the American Symphony Orchestra, and the New Amsterdam Singers. He served on the faculty of Bard College and was music director of the Philadelphia Young Artists Orchestra and the Columbia University Bach Society orchestra and chorus. Geoff made his Carnegie Hall debut in spring 2012 as one of the conductors of George Crumb's Star-Child with the American Symphony Orchestra.

Geoff earned a master's degree in orchestral conducting at Mannes College of Music, where he was the recipient of the Alma Askin Scholarship, the Felix Salzer Techniques of Music Award, and the Mannes Theory Essay Prize. He holds a bachelor's degree from Princeton University in musicology. Full bio >

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