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No slowing down for conductor on the move since teen years

Ward Stare is young up-and-coming conductor who used play trombone with Lyric where he started age 18. He is now

Ward Stare is a young up-and-coming conductor who used to play trombone with the Lyric, where he started at age 18. He is now 30 and conducting Hansel and Gretel at the Lyric next week. Ward Stare is in the conductor pit at the Lyric on November 29, 2012. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Time

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When: Friday through Jan. 19

Where: Civic Opera House,
20 N. Wacker

Tickets: $34-$64 (children from $20)

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Updated: January 4, 2013 6:08AM

‘Congratulations, Maestro. You’ve just hired an 18-year-old.”

“Oh, [bleep]! What have I done now?”

That’s how Lyric Opera of Chicago principal horn player Jon Boen laughingly recalls the exchange between his ensemble’s music director and principal conductor, Sir Andrew Davis, and an audition proctor in late February of 2001.

The prodigious teen in question: Juilliard dropout and Rochester, N.Y., native Ward Stare.

“I think he was born professional,” says Stare’s Juilliard trombone instructor Joseph Alessi, longtime principal trombonist for the New York Philharmonic. “Just observing how he dealt with other teachers and professionals when he was a student, he almost acted like one of them.”

And while “technically, there was a lot more to be done” when Stare headed for Chicago, Alessi says, “musically, he was very advanced.” Not to mention sufficiently prepared for his Lyric tryout thanks to demanding mock auditions Alessi held at Julliard.

The master’s pointers, therefore, went beyond mere notes. Having begun his own career with the lauded Philadelphia Orchestra at age 20, Alessi was well aware of the potential pitfalls that awaited someone of Stare’s inexperience in a realm where “you’re being judged constantly.”

Besides knowing the musical score inside and out, Alessi advised his departing pupil, “Arrive early and show that you really want to be there.” Better yet, “be the first person in the building.” And when you’re warming up onstage directly behind someone, tone it down. At a certain volume, even the most virtuosic trombone playing grows quickly grating.

Stare took all of that and more to heart.

“He came to Lyric sort of fully formed already,” says friend and principal clarinetist Charlene Zimmerman. “He took the trombone section under his wing. I witnessed them many times rehearsing their own parts together to make sure they were perfect. And then in rehearsals he was always willing to work and ask questions and get everything right. He just sort of hit the ground running.”

In 2007, when Stare left Lyric to study conducting, he was already drawing seniority pay.


Now a fast-rising star in the conducting world with a powerful handshake that belies his slight build, the once again Chicago-based Stare (he moved into Gold Coast digs this past summer) is back in the orchestra pit of his former musical home for a short run of Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera Hansel & Gretel.

This time, though, he’ll give cues rather than take them. That’s what maestros do.

“I think it’s more difficult to conduct your friends, because you have a lot of history together,” Stare, 30, said in his small dressing room after a three-hour rehearsal with singers and instrumentalists in Lyric’s expansive auditorium. “Of course, I have friends in orchestras all over the world, but at the same time [Lyric] was really my first musical family, so it feels like a homecoming in one sense. And I feel very comfortable in this house. I feel very comfortable with the orchestra.”

Conducting Lyric’s annual “Rising Stars in Concert” program last spring helped tremendously, he and others say. It was the first time he’d wielded a baton in front of erstwhile colleagues instead of playing alongside them.

“But I try to compartmentalize it a little bit,” he said. “When I’m on the podium and I’m the conductor, I have a very important job to do and I take that job very seriously. And nothing is personal; it’s just about getting a great result and getting a unified musical whole. And so I just go about it in a very direct manner. And then afterword, when we’re finished, we can socialize as friends again.”

One of those friends is Lyric principal clarinetist Charlene Zimmerman. Although she’s noticed little or no shift in his personality — he’s still self-assured, still mature “beyond his years,” still ready with a joke — she gets the vague sense “that Ward has pulled away from those of us who are close to him a little bit just because he’s coming back as maestro and I think he wanted to make that distinction quite clear.”

That said, there’s certainly no schism. A couple of weeks ago, Stare accompanied Zimmerman and a small group of others to a screening of Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” And when circumstances allow, he revels in good-natured ribbing.

“He’s very forthright in what he thinks is funny, and he enjoys being around people who share that sort of thing,” Zimmerman says. “And he loves to talk smack about people. He doesn’t hold anything back.”

Such honesty, she adds, is “sort of what endears him to you.”


Stare was honest from the get-go about his genuine desire to conduct. He frequently toted around a score at Juilliard, Alessi recalls. He traveled overseas for intensive training with top-notch sages. He speed-learned new languages — French and German in particular. And, as he continues to do, he eagerly picked the brains of those who’d been there and done that.

Consequently, he gave up a hard-to-come-by gig and the low six-figure salary that went with it. He also forsook the instrument to which he’d become increasingly attached since age 9 — the instrument he often studied until late at night in a soundproof room his father built for him so the family could sleep.

It was an uncommonly bold move, those close to him say, but in retrospect the right one.

“He’s absolutely one of the finest conductors, if not the finest American conductor, of his generation,” Davis proclaims. “I believe he has a bright future in front of him.”

Upbeat reviews and bookings through 2015 seem to confirm that. So, too, does that fact that he has earned the respect of giants in his field — from Davis and Alessi to Detroit Symphony music director Leonard Slatkin and Czech Philharmonic leader Christoph Eschenbach. Several years ago, toward the end of his Lyric tenure, he even began dating one of the most luminous luminaries of all.

“I didn’t think people would care as much as they did,” he says of his May-September relationship with world-renowned soprano (and Lyric creative consultant) Renee Fleming, who is nearly a quarter-century his senior. “I still don’t think people cared, but I didn’t think people would gossip about it for as long as they did. And some people still do.”

The cybersphere hasn’t forgotten them, either. Google Stare’s or Fleming’s name plus “and,” and they’re automatically paired.

“She’s wonderful,” Stare said, “and we still have a very fine relationship. We don’t keep in touch regularly, but I have nothing but respect for her and she for me. And if she walked in right now we’d be very happy to see each other.”

But he isn’t one to dwell on the past. And he tries not to fixate on the future. At the moment, Stare said, he is in the moment — an admittedly unnatural state of being — and doing his best to focus on the work at hand rather than where it might take him.

“It’s hard for me,” he said. “I’m ambitious. I’m also very impatient; I want everything now. I always do. But I also try to take a step back and be objective about it and say, ‘No, I’ve got a lot to be grateful for and I’ve got a lot of fantastic work right now and I’m evolving as a conductor and I’m working on honing my own craft as well and I believe that things will come when it’s time for them to come.

“So I’m trying not to stress out about it.”

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