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As violins cry, drums rumble, flutes whistle and piano keys plink, North Carolina Symphony director Grant Llewellyn stands poised above the orchestra in Meymandi Concert Hall.
His back is turned away from the audience. He wears a tail suit and bowtie, his grey and white hair slicked back, and he waves a baton in his hand, to and fro, to the tune of the instruments the musicians are playing in front of him. It’s where he’s stood for North Carolina Symphony performances through the past 16 years, and where he’ll stand during his final performance as the symphony’s music director in May.
A native of Tenby, a picturesque harbor town in southwest Wales, Llewellyn possessed an extraordinary musical talent from a young age. He grew up playing the piano and the cello, and at age 11, he won a scholarship to a prestigious music school in Manchester, England, which he recalls as the most significant chapter in his music education.
During high school, Llewellyn sang in choirs, performed in piano recitals, composed and conducted; in 1985, he was one of only a handful of fellows selected for Boston’s prestigious conducting fellowship at the Tanglewood Music Center, where he learned under the conductor Seiji Ozawa. Ozawa later invited Llewellyn back to Boston where he served as assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony.
It’s no surprise, then, that the Cambridge graduate was selected for the North Carolina Symphony’s open music director position in 2004. But when Llewellyn first came to Raleigh, to guest conduct a program for the symphony in 2002, he was unaware that the symphony was looking to fill the position. “I came in with no expectations beyond just having a good week and making music together,” he says.
During his tenure, Llewellyn has played a major role in evolving the symphony into what it is today. As older members of the orchestra retired, he’s been responsible for appointing more than half of the current members and nurturing them into what the orchestra has become. “It’s been absolutely wonderful to see this new talent coming in,” Llewellyn says. “Growing the orchestra has been a significant thrill.”
Llewellyn has also introduced ambitious programming into the symphony’s musical repertoire, with a considerable emphasis on young, contemporary North Carolina composers, including women composers—both living and dead—who have been neglected or discriminated against in the past.
Llewellyn is also passionate about the North Carolina Symphony’s education program, the most extensive education program of any symphony orchestra. Every year, the symphony travels to a different community in the state to hold a special educational program in conjunction with local music educators for more than 70,000 students. In an effort to make the symphony’s performances accessible for all, Llewellyn worked with the BBC to create sensory friendly performances in which children and adults with autism, sensory sensitivities and other special needs can feel safe and comfortable during performances. Some of the performances featured specialists signing for the deaf community and executing an audio description for the blind.
“We feel a responsibility to all the arts,” Llewellyn says. “Music touches on every aspect of daily life. You can hardly get away from it.”
After 16 years as music director, Llewellyn says the key to the symphony’s success is camaraderie. “Goodness knows you need lots of humor and levity, in this world and in this life, but especially if you’re in the arts and in music where you’re working so closely [together],” he says. “If you don’t have occasional light relief, you’ll go crazy.”
Llewellyn says he is looking forward to having more free time once he leaves his position at the North Carolina Symphony, though he will take on a new role as music director laureate beginning in the 2020-21 season and will continue to perform with the North Carolina Symphony. He’ll also continue to direct the Orchestre Symphonique de Bretagne in France and hopes to do more guest conducting at symphonies throughout the world while continuing to build up his knowledge of music.
Llewellyn says there’s a well-known adage that a conductor only starts becoming effective when they reach the age of 65. So, really, he’s only just getting started.
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