Jason Altieri is the Director of Orchestras at the University of Nevada, Reno, a job he describes as a combination of conductor, “administrator, the guy who rehearses everything, the librarian, the cheerleader, the preacher,” and more. He leads UNR’s two orchestras, the symphony orchestra and the more elite chamber orchestra, through a couple of rehearsals a week and a couple of concerts a semester.

How do you choose pieces for the orchestra?

Well, usually I try to decide where we have our strengths and where we have our weaknesses in the orchestra. The thing that makes it challenging is that every year the orchestra is different, because we graduated about 20 students last year. And we graduated some really good players. So I just hope that decent freshmen come in.

How long have you been at UNR?

Four years. Originally I came from Atlanta. My parents are musicians. They met in the Atlanta Symphony. I decided to be a musician myself. My parents are string players, and for some reason I decided to be a trombone player. I guess that was my little bit of rebellion [laughs]. I grew up in music. I went to the University of Georgia and got a music education degree. Then I moved to Michigan, lived in real winter weather, and got my master’s and my doctorate. After that, I was on a bus for six years. I was doing tours, conducting an opera company here or there, or doing an orchestra on tour. I’ve conducted in every state except for Nebraska, Alaska and Hawaii. … I’ve been to China three times, conducting mostly movie music. They love that stuff over there. I’ve also been to Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, and I just got back from the Philippines. So a lot of the travel has been in Asia, but I also had occasion to work in opera in the Czech Republic, which was really great.

How does conducting change based on the size of the orchestra, the ages of the musicians, and the piece of music?

A lot of it, where the rubber hits the road, is always with rehearsal. I also conduct the youth orchestras for the Reno Philharmonic. I have two different levels of youth orchestra. I have the younger kids, who are pretty inexperienced on how to use a conductor. They’re used to a director who just sort of bangs on a stand and keeps them on time. Then, we have the Youth Symphony Orchestra. Those are more advanced students. But still, as younger students, you have to tell them what you want, and then you have to tell them again, and then you have to tell them again. And then again [laughs]. There’s a lot of repetition in asking them for what you want. Once they get to college, that changes, because … the brain is a little more developed on how to study quickly, so they’re able to retain instructions a lot quicker. … That way, we can get away with more concerts with less rehearsals in college. And sometimes I conduct the Atlanta Pops Orchestra or even the Reno Philharmonic, where we’ll have a concert and we’ll only have one rehearsal, which is a different kind of pressure entirely.

When you lead rehearsals, what’s the process?

Well, usually with college and the Youth Symphony Orchestra—some of the more advanced musicians—I’ll run through a piece. We’ll go from front to back, just to see the lay of the land, just to dive into the deep end and see who comes out the other side with limbs intact. … You have to do a lot of study even before the first rehearsal. You can’t sight read in rehearsal. It’s never a good idea. So, I’ll find places in the score that are tricky, and I’ll pinpoint those. After we go ahead and just bash through, I’ll find the little spots and work the tricky spots, so that way they practice the tough things, and they’re not shocked by it. … [O]ftentimes, you’ll look through the score and you’ll go, well, this is a pretty tricky spot, I bet they’re going to have a problem with that, but then all of a sudden, they’ll play it well. And you’re like, oh! And then you’ll see something else and you think, well I didn’t think they’d have a problem with that, but for some reason the orchestra will have difficulty with a certain section. So it’s like anything else, you have all the best plans in the world, but once you’re in the heat of the battle, those plans go out the window. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t have a plan when you go into rehearsal, but that’s the beauty of a living, breathing orchestra, you never can really tell what’s going to happen next.

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