Alexander Prior and the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

Alexander Prior and the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

By Kyra Droog, Writer, ESO & Winspear Centre

Home means different things to different people. Home can be a place, a person, or a feeling; it can be anything from a bed to sleep in to a family that makes you feel safe, loved, and respected. Though it appears to be a tangible concept, home truly envelopes the intangible – the feelings that one experiences when they have found a place where they can learn and grow.

For Alexander Prior, Edmonton is home.

Before his arrival in Edmonton, Alex would describe himself as a shark – he never stopped moving, never had a home orchestra, or a city that felt like it was his. Now that he’s spent five years in one place, he doesn’t hesitate to say that Edmonton is, first and foremost, his home.

“The orchestra, our audiences, the landscapes of the area, they are all deeply ingrained in me now,” says Alex with a smile. “The climate is beautiful and poetic, and there’s a neighbourliness and friendliness in this city that’s really infectious.”

Of course, Alex’s time in Edmonton has been more than just conducting the orchestra and continuing to keep music alive in his community during a global pandemic. As Megan Evans, ESO Assistant Principal Horn, notes, it has given Alex time to truly experience what it means to live in Alberta. “I remember when he came and I asked him if he was going to get a car and a driver’s license, and he said ‘no, no, no, I never want to drive – I’m a city person, so I take public transport and walk,’” Megan laughs. “Fast forward a few years, Alex gets his driver’s license and basically spends the next two years in his Jeep. He would call me and go, ‘Hey, I’m driving to Jasper for the day. Do you want to come?’ It was crazy how much he enjoyed driving out, listening to country music, and exploring the true Alberta.”

That said, Alex’s time inside the concert hall has been nearly as explorational and inspirational as his time exploring all that Alberta has to offer. As an audience, we have come to know Alex for his wild hair, his colourful concert attire, and his love for the unconventional. If there’s one thing that stands out about Alex’s time with our Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, it’s his desire to open our minds, create new experiences, and take us outside of our musical comfort zone so we can understand music in new ways.

“Alex likes to challenge audiences, to take them to places that maybe aren’t so comfortable,” says Artistic Administrator Rob McAlear. “It’s like someone that enjoys particularly strong coffee – not necessarily to everyone’s taste, but people try it and find themselves in a very different place than they originally expected.”

There are so many musical moments that we could remember Alex for, especially the ones that brought audiences to the edge of their comfort zones. There was the occasion on which he sat when he conducted, the time he slowed down Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and the performance of Handel’s Messiah that featured a full, non-Baroque orchestra, allowing Alex to cheekily thumb his nose at convention. Alex took us, the audience, on an incredible musical journey that opened our ears and minds to sounds and experiences we would never have otherwise witnessed. By shining his unique light on the music he loves and thinking outside the box, Alex has truly left us something magical: new ways to experience symphonic music.

Consider, for example, Alex’s spearheading of the ESO’s 2019 Sibelius Festival. Never in our orchestra’s history had we taken on such a project, providing both audiences and musicians such a deep dive into the works of a single composer. D.T. Baker remembers the Sibelius festival well: “It was a labour of love for Alex – to curate and program and prepare,” he says. “Everything about the festival played to Alex’s strengths and passions. In terms of artistic pinnacle, those concerts were exactly that.” D.T. laughed as he recounted talking with Alex about Sibelius and his works. “I could have said to Alex, ‘so, Sibelius …’ started a video recording, walked away for six hours, and come back to find Alex in the exact same spot still talking about Sibelius. His knowledge on the topic is truly astounding.”

Megan Evans thinks Alex’s legacy exists within the orchestra. “I feel like he pushed our boundaries in terms of repertoire, and in our sound and dynamic. Dynamics are more extreme. Musical moments are made more intense. Powerful experiences are pushed to the edge, the limit, the capacity of the orchestra and the listener. Alex pushed us to our very limits, and we are all better because of it.”

Rob McAlear argues that Alex’s legacy lives with his audiences because of how he stretched our ears, our musical horizons, and our intellect. “You come back a changed person from these sorts of concerts. It’s like returning from vacation after going somewhere you never would have thought to explore. Alex has really changed what a concert experience in Edmonton means.”

D.T. Baker believes it’s the future of music in our community that Alex is leaving us with. “Contemporary music,” he says. “I think contemporary music is a bit of a crusade for every conductor because it’s important to get our audience to come along with us and realize that it’s not all dead European white guys. It’s a living, breathing, continuing, evolving process. Alex managed to get it onstage with a frequency that really helped bring our audience along with him; I think they were a lot more accepting of that kind of programming by the conclusion of Alex’s tenure with us.”

What does Alex think he’s leaving behind? He’s not entirely sure, but he wanted to share a few heartwarming words for the audience and community that welcomed him with open arms.

“Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I know it sounds cliché, but it’s really true: it’s been such an honour. It’s a very special privilege to build a relationship with such a wonderful audience and a beautiful and talented orchestra.” Alex smiles widely. “The active listening and open-mindedness shows how much our audience cares about art and music and learning. I’m just filled with gratitude and love. The ESO is a treasure: this orchestra brings our community together in the most international language. Please, continue to advocate for it, to keep the music alive.”

Plans are underway for Alex’s return(s) as a guest conductor; until that time, we’re all sending the best and brightest wishes as Alex embarks on a new adventure as the Music Director of the Erfurt Theatre in Germany. When we think of Alex’s time here in Edmonton, we will remember many things, but on the top of the list will always be his wild hair and his penchant for outside-the-box musical experiences that genuinely reflect the emotional nature of human existence.

“No matter where in the world I go,” says Alex with a grin, “I’ll always hold my time here in Edmonton, in my home, close to my heart.”