In the old days, the conductor was king. Fritz Reiner, George Szell and Arturo Toscanini, for example, were leaders in the style of the film “Whiplash,” notorious for abusing musicians who didn’t meet their demands. But Joshua Weilerstein is one of a new breed of gentler, kinder conductors.
At 27, Weilerstein has been getting laudable results from orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, where he was assistant conductor for three years. He already has conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Walt Disney Concert Hall and at the Hollywood Bowl and is regarded as one of the most promising conductors of his generation.
On April 18 at the Alex Theatre in Glendale, and again the next evening at UCLA’s Royce Hall, Weilerstein makes his debut guest conducting the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO) in works by Joseph Hallman, Camille Saint-Saëns and Mozart.
Speaking by phone from Dallas, where he was about to guest conduct the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Weilerstein already sounded like a veteran.
“Conductors as dictators, imposing your will on people — those aren’t happy or joyful thoughts,” Weilerstein said. “One of the greatest conductors, Carlos Kleiber, got what he wanted, but he had a way of doing it. He once said to an oboist, ‘I want to see you enjoying the music.’ The goal is to inspire people to play beyond their capabilities, and the orchestra has to be willing.”
Weilerstein grew up in a thriving Jewish community in Cleveland and was born into a musical family. His sister, Alisa, has become a star cellist; his father, Donald, was founding first violinist of the Cleveland Quartet; his mother, Vivian Hornik Weilerstein, is a pianist who directs the New England Conservatory’s piano chamber music programs.
Yet the conductor said there was never any sense of competitiveness in his family. “That’s not how we were raised,” Weilerstein said. “My mother and father communicated an enthusiasm and love for music their whole lives, and with a sister five years older than me, it can’t help but be inspiring.”
Still, before the age of 15, Weilerstein said music and playing the violin were just a hobby.
“I wanted to be a sports journalist,” Weilerstein said, “but as a violinist in the New England Conservatory Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, we went on a tour of Guatemala and Panama. Thousands of kids had never heard a symphony orchestra before, and to see them so excited changed my life.”
Weilerstein added that he considered becoming a concertmaster. “But once I started playing in orchestras, I wanted to play every instrument. And when everything’s working, I do get the feeling I’m playing the whole orchestra.”
For his Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra debut, Weilerstein is scheduled to open the program with the West Coast premiere of Hallman’s “Imagined landscapes: six Lovecraftian elsewheres.”
“Hallman’s work is criminally under-represented,” he said. “His piece is inspired by [horror fiction writer] H.P. Lovecraft, and it’s strange in an atmospheric way, creating an air of mystery.”
For the concert’s centerpiece, cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan, also 27, joins the conductor for Saint-Saëns’ evergreen Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor. “I went to school with Narek,” Weilerstein said. “Now he performs everywhere. The Saint-Saëns concerto is not always given the respect it deserves, but every moment is gorgeous and exactly right.”
The concert concludes with Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 in C major, “Jupiter.” “It’s one of those pieces you never stop being in awe of,” Weilerstein said, “especially the last movement, where he turns a rudimentary fugue into such exhilarating music.”
Although these days most of Weilerstein’s time is devoted to conducting — his tenure as artistic director of the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne begins in September — he said he’ll never give up playing violin.
According to conductor and pianist Jeffrey Kahane, who will be stepping down as LACO’s music director at the end of the 2016-17 season, that’s a good thing. “Almost every important conductor in history has mastered at least one instrument, usually either the violin or piano,” Kahane wrote in an email. “There are a handful of exceptions to this, but they are quite rare. It helps not only to communicate with an orchestra, but also helps to create a sense of trust on the part of musicians if they know the conductor understands the demands of playing an instrument.”
Weilerstein agreed, adding that he feels lucky to play a string instrument. “When I ask the string section to play with more bow or other technical things, they listen,” he said.
But the conductor said he wished he also played the piano.
“The less you speak, the better,” Weilerstein said of conducting orchestra musicians. “They like to be shown, not told.”
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, with guest conductor Joshua Weilerstein, at the Alex Theatre in Glendale on April 18 at 8 p.m., and UCLA’s Royce Hall on April 19 at 7 p.m. For ticket information, visit