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Conducting ‘The Nutcracker’: Tokay High grad to conduct New York City Ballet Orchestra

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Posted: Wednesday, December 13, 2017 11:30 am

Tara Simoncic has always played musical instruments, but a career in music was not in her plans when she graduated Tokay High School in 1990.

“It was kind of a last-minute decision,” she said.

During her senior year of high school, her band teacher left to earn his doctorate at Michigan State University. Before he left, he encouraged Simoncic to audition on trumpet for a spot at the school.

She did. It was the first step toward a career that has taken her all over the world, including to Manhattan, where she’ll be conducting the orchestra for the New York City Ballet’s take on “The Nutcracker” later this month.

“I feel really lucky to be doing what I love,” Simoncic said.

She began with the spot at Michigan State, transferring after two years to the New England Conservatory of Music.

“When I was still playing the trumpet at New England Conservatory, I really wanted to be a conductor,” she said.

She went on to get a master’s degree in conducting from Northwestern University.

Since then, Simoncic has served as an assistant, freelance or guest conductor for orchestras all over the world. One of those orchestras, Ballet West based in Salt Lake City, brought her on as their main conductor and music director in 2015.

That hasn’t stopped her from traveling. When she spoke to the News Sentinel last week, she was conducting Ballet West’s “Nutcracker.” Then, she was headed to Louisville for their own take on the classic Christmas ballet — a production she’s conducted for several years — before heading to New York.

Luckily, she never tires of the music.

“I love ‘The Nutcracker,’” Simonchic said. “It’s just so well-written and so magical.”

When asked to picture a conductor, those unfamiliar with the job might picture a man in a tuxedo, standing in front of a band and waving a stick around.

But there’s a lot more to the job, Simoncic said.

“When you’re waving your arms around, you’re communicating to the orchestra and musicians,” she said.

In a rehearsal, a conductor can give verbal advice and directions. During a performance, they can’t — it would ruin the music. So they use a baton — the “stick” — to tell the musicians when they need to go faster or slower, when they need more emphasis or to accent the music, when one section should be louder and one should play more quietly.

It goes beyond the baton, too, Simoncic said. She uses her expressions and body movements to express what she needs the orchestra to do.

“It’s a very energy-driven thing,” she said. “That’s kind of the unexplainable part to most people. There’s a palpable energy between you and the musicians.”

It can be very tiring.

Conducting a ballet orchestra brings its own special challenges.

With a symphony, conducting is all about the music — and with her love of music, Simoncic does have a special passion for it.

“If you’re doing the same piece of music with just an orchestra, no dancers, you can do whatever you want ... within reason,” she said.

When conducting a ballet orchestra, however, the focus is on supporting and accompanying the dancers. They’re the stars, though they couldn’t perform their art to its full potential without an orchestra.

Conductors must fit the music to the choreography, and play to the dancers’ strengths. Tempo is very important.

“It’s a very different experience,” she said.

But while symphonic conducting is her first love, Simoncic has found a niche for herself in ballet conducting. She loves the challenge of working with the choreographers, dancers and musicians to create a cohesive work of art.

Her niche has also helped her to land a full-time position with Ballet West — something that female conductors often find challenging, she said.

“It’s still very uncommon for women to be conductors and get jobs,” she said.

When most people picture orchestra conductors, they see a man, not a woman. Most musicians are willing to work with a female conductor, Simoncic said, but a lot of male conductors and music directors are still skeptical about the idea.

They shouldn’t be, Simoncic said.

“Women are amazing leaders as well,” she said.

When she’s invited to serve as a guest conductor, she’s often the first woman who’s ever conducted there, she said. But for the most part, the musicians don’t bat an eye once they’ve worked with her a little.

“I just view myself as a person and I go about my business. I know what I’m doing and I’m good at my job,” she said.

It was that confidence — and her energy — that helped Simoncic land the role as the music director at Ballet West.

“Once people trust you as a ballet conductor, then you’ll get hired a lot through word of mouth,” she said.

That’s how she ended up guest conducting “Bolero,” “The Lottery,” “The Rite of Spring” and other ballets over three seasons in Salt Lake City.

“I really liked her sound and what she was bringing (to the Ballet West Orchestra),” artistic director Adam Sklute told the Salt Lake City Tribune in December 2015.

The ballet company brought her back when her schedule allowed and built a relationship with her before inviting her to serve as the music director, he told the newspaper.

For Simoncic, the ability to have a career in music has been a dream — often literally.

When she’s working on a piece, sometimes she’ll dream about it and wake up with the music in her head.

“The job never leaves you, it’s there with you throughout the day and night,” she said.

While a musical career can have ups and downs like any job, she loves having a career she is passionate about.

And this month, she’s passionate about “The Nutcracker.”

Even though she’s conducting the music for three ballet companies, it’s a different experience for each one.

“You have to learn their choreography, because it’s different everywhere. Every ‘Nutcracker’ is vastly different, from the conductor’s point of view,” she said.

It’s fun, but it can also be maddening, she said.

With the New York City Ballet, there’s the added anxiety of not being able to rehearse with the orchestra first. There’s simply no time for rehearsals with each guest conductor; instead, they get a DVD from the ballet company that allows them to study the music and choreography.

Last year was Simoncic’s first time conducting the New York City Ballet’s production.

“It was nerve-wracking and amazing,” she said.

She expects more of the same this year, when she takes the baton for a handful of shows during the last week of December.

For Simoncic, who lives in New York when she’s not leading orchestras in far-flung locations, it’s also nice to be in the city at Christmas time.

“It’s great to be able to be home and conduct,” she said.

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