It would probably be a stretch to say that S. Shade Zajac knew from an early age he wanted to be a symphony orchestra conductor. Like every young person, he explored lots of interests growing up.
But then, there was that time his grandfather gave him a baton and he took it to kindergarten for show and tell.
"My mom got a note from my teacher saying, 'We understand that Shade really likes his baton, but some of the other kids are not mature enough to handle sharp, pointing sticks. So, we would ask you kindly not to bring it in anymore,' " Zajac recalled with a chuckle.
Zajac's obvious passion for music, his love of leading an orchestra and his sheer talent are why, at 22, fresh from earning his Bachelor of Music in Music Performance from Nazareth College, Zajac is the new conductor of the Genesee Symphony Orchestra.
He was selected by the GSO Board of Directors after a season in which he and three other conductor candidates each took turns leading the orchestra for one performance. All four shows were well attended and well received, but it was Zajac who was selected to lead the orchestra as it enters its 70th year.
Not too many young conductors get the opportunity to lead a symphony orchestra right out of college and Zajac is thrilled by the opportunity.
"It's an unbelievable experience and an unbelievable opportunity," Zajac said. "There's no substitute for having living people in an ensemble for you to work with. And not just for you to experiment and fail and to grow, but to learn from them and to learn 'okay, what works? What doesn't work? There's a problem. We're not playing this. It's not gelling yet. Why? How can I fix that?' There's only so much you can do on your own, just looking at the music."
It was Zajac's professor at Nazareth, Nancy P. Strelau, who told him about the opening with the GSO, but she warned him not to get his hopes up. His resume would arrive amongst other candidates with doctorate degrees and decades of experience.
"She told me, 'It's going to be really good for you to go through this process. Let's take a look at your resume, and you know, you won't get asked for an interview,' " Zajac recalled.
Then he got an e-mail inviting him to an interview, and he thought that was great, but "they're not going to ask me to do a concert because I'm 21 years old."
In truth, Zajac said, throughout the process, with the search committee, the board, the orchestra, he never felt like his age was an issue.
"I didn't feel like they're not taking me seriously because I'm so young," Zajac said. "They're just looking at me as a musician."
He admits he was nervous at that first rehearsal. Even for conductors in their 40s, he said, orchestras can look at a new conductor like, "Ok, who is this guy?"
"There's always going to be people who don't think I know what they're talking about or 'what is this?' " Zajac said. "They think, 'I can do better than this jerk here.' And I never, through this whole process, I never felt that. I think I said at the concert that I could have been working with these people for 40 years. It just felt, you know, we could get time to work, we could have a laugh, and we could make music, which is what we're supposed to do."
Zajac grew up in Ovid surrounded by music.
His grandparents were musicians and one of his earliest memories is being at their house and hearing Ravel's "Bolero." He was captivated.
"Just about every string player in the world, and probably other orchestra musicians, hate it because it's 15 minutes of the same thing," Zajac said laughing. "I'm probably the only person who loves it."
His next musical stepping stone was Yanni.
"My grandmother had a VHS -- whatever those are -- of 'Yanni Live at the Acropolis,' " Zajac said. "Say what you will about the man and his music but it was very helpful. It taught me that if you're going to be a cool drummer you need to have a lot of drums," which Zajac laughs at now. "So I actually really first started kind of drumming, and I was banging on pots and pans to Yanni. It sounds cliche, but I'm told it's true, and I was given a toy drum set when I was 2 or 3."
His grandfather taught in the Ithaca College School of Music and at his grandparent's house were more than Yanni -- there was Beethoven and Bach, too.
His father was a rock musician, playing guitar in bands, so he also heard a lot of Led Zeppelin, AC/DC and Rush.
"So I had these two very different musical paths and all of which I enjoyed," Zajac said. "Very rarely do I find something I don't like. When I was, I think, 3, my grandfather took me to my first orchestra concert at Ithaca College, and I barely remember it. It was the Stravinsky 'Firebird Suite' and apparently I went home and I just was all about, 'Oh, the timpani was so loud. I love that cello thing.' And I kept talking about the cello and I really wanted to play it, I guess. I started taking lessons when I was 3 or 4."
There was no string program at his middle school, so Zajac started studying with professors in Ithaca, but that duel interest in classical and rock came up again in seventh grade when some other boys asked him to be the drummer in their rock band, and they played together for several years.
"It's amazing how everyone always would freak out," Zajac said. "They only knew me as a cellist, classical music. 'You like rock music? You like jazz?' Absolutely. And it helps me so much with classical music, especially because playing in the rock band was, in a weird way, my first form of chamber music."
Nazareth College was a natural pick for Shade, both because he wanted to study under Nancy Strelau and it's perhaps the only college in the nation that allows undergraduates to conduct. As a result, he's already conducted a few symphony and chamber performance, including the Nazareth College Symphony Orchestra and the Chamber Orchestra, the Finger Lakes Summer Festival Orchestra and the Greater Rochester Women's Philharmonic. He's also participated in workshops, master classes and apprenticeships with the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra and the Northwest Symphony Orchestra.
"All throughout high school, I had other interests," Zajac said. "I enjoy reading, and probably in another lifetime, I would fancy myself a writer, or a painter, but I have always known that somehow I wanted to do music for my life, whatever that meant. If that meant being a rock drummer and touring the world, or being an orchestral musician, or being a conductor. If any of those things happened, I would be happy.
"Conducting," he added, "what really drew me to conducting, I think is, for one, there's so much music in the world, that even if I listened to something new, if I just spent each day for the rest of my life listening to something new, I probably wouldn't begin to scratch everything that's out there. I didn't want to just limit myself to say, just the cello solo repertoire or the quartet repertoire because that is just a skin cell in a body of music that I'm sure is out there."
That vast body of music -- centuries of composers from all seven continents -- will give Zajac much to choose from as he begins to chart out each season of GSO's four performances. He must balance each performance to ensure the pieces work together, that there is the right mixture of audience-pleasing hits as well as new, challenging or unfamiliar works to help spark exploration and interest. That's important both for the audience and the orchestra members, who can grow even more bored than the audience if the same pieces are performed year-after-year.
He knows he's gotten into something special with the GSO, an orchestra that consistently performs at the highest levels and attracts talent from throughout the region, something rare for the few small community orchestras that still survive. He wants to cherish that and nurture it, providing pieces that both please and challenge orchestra members, but not take them further than they're able to go.
"Me and Professor Strelau sat down and said, 'Well, what's good for this orchestra?' And what I chose was a little risky to do. Capriccio Espagnol and Polovtsian Dances. They're meaty pieces. And, quite frankly, they played the hell out of them. And it has nothing whatsoever to do with me. I mean I can only do so much. The conductor is there to inspire and to guide, but they do all the hard work. I just wave my hands. You have to have good players, and then you have to pick a smart repertoire, an engaging repertoire. I think it's a great group."
So good, in fact, that Zajac went through, after the performance last fall, a spell of "post-concert depression." It's a real thing most conductor's experience, he said, because there is so much work and anticipation that go into preparing for a performance, and then just like that, it's over. It's done.
"You're on cloud nine for a little while if it went really well, and then the next day you go, 'Ugh. When do I get to do another one?' And I have not experienced such post-concert depression as after the concert in September. Not only because it was such a great experience, and I felt such a connection, and they played so well, and I thought, 'Even if I get this, I have to wait so long before I get to work with them again.'"
The ideas of what to perform in the coming seasons are already running through his head. Perhaps a whole show of orchestral pieces from movies.
"John Williams is obvious, but Bernard Herrmann is one of my favorite composers," Zajac said. "He did most of the Alfred Hitchcock movies. "Psycho' is obviously the one you think about, but "North By Northwest" and "Marnie" and "Vertigo," they have really stunning music."
He's also interested in exploring local composers.
"Dana Wilson, for example," he said. "I guess he just retired this year, actually, from Ithaca College. Very important composer, relatively local, in the area, and he wrote some really phenomenal stuff. One is called, "Shortcut Home." It's a three or four-minute overture that's vibrant. It's got some jazz influence in it and I think the orchestra would really like it, and it's exciting as a listener. Even for someone who's not into classical music, it's cool. There are trumpets with plungers."
Perhaps, someday, the GSO will even perform one of his own compositions. He wrote his first piece in seventh grade. But he isn't considering that any time, soon, he said. The performances should be about the music and the orchestra, and he's afraid that if he programs one of his own compositions, it will look like it's about him.
There's also a very good chance one of the professors from Nazareth, a world-renowned pianist, will perform Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1. The pianist was in Batavia for Zajac's performance with the GSO and was impressed with the orchestra. He said if Zajac got the job, he would perform.
At 22, with his first appointment as conductor for a symphony orchestra, it's hard not to think the GSO could be just a stepping stone for a young, passionate and talented musician, but Zajac said he doesn't look at it that way. He doesn't even like the term "stepping stone," he said. Maybe there will be opportunities down the road that are too good to pass up, but he said he's committed to helping the GSO grow and thrive, if not for the sake of the GSO, just for the sake of his own enjoyment of music.
"As long as I'm working with musicians who want to be working, and who are just as passionate as I am about what we're doing, I could be conducting the Berlin Philharmonic or I could be conducting the East Podunk Orchestra with five people in it," Zajac said. "My goals are just to make music every single day until I physically can't or die. I think it's very easy to set these goals, like, 'I want to be the new conductor of the Rochester Philharmonic or the Berlin Philharmonic,' and although they're really wonderful names, the name is not what's most important.
"I'm convinced that I can experience just as beautiful of an experience at the GSO or another orchestra."
DISCLOSURE: Howard Owens is a member of the Board of Directors for the Genesee Symphony Orchestra.