PORT ANGELES — For Port Angeles Symphony conductor Jonathan Pasternack, March is a kind of madness. This month, everything is happening at once.
In his fifth year as music director and executive director of the orchestra, Pasternack hosts its major fundraiser, the “Applause!” Auction, this Saturday at the Red Lion Hotel; on March 20 he’ll lead the Symphony’s performance in the 50th anniversary Ballet Gala with Port Angeles’ Ballet Workshop; March 28 brings the orchestra’s own spring concert featuring Brahms’ Second Symphony. Those last two events happen in the 1,100-seat Performing Arts Center at Port Angeles High School.
On March 29, Pasternack will fly to the Czech Republic, where he’ll conduct the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra in a 500-seat concert hall in the city of Olomouc. After three days recording with the ensemble and pianist Josu de Solaun, he’ll return home to prepare for the Port Angeles orchestra’s three May concerts.
When he travels across the world to lead an orchestra of people he’s just met, Pasternack must strike a fine balance: taking charge but not posing as a dictator. The Czech Republic was, after all, not so long ago laboring under a Stalinist regime.
He knows this from experience, having traveled to eastern Europe four times in 2019: to Olomouc for the first time in March and to the Romanian cities of Timisoara in February, Bacau in August and Ploiesti in October. In each locale, he and the orchestras had three or four rehearsals before giving their public concerts.
In his years of conducting, Pasternack has built a reputation that has landed him these engagements, some of which have him working with de Solaun, his longtime artistic partner. The Spanish-born pianist just visited Port Angeles to perform Franz Liszt’s Romantic piano concertos with the Port Angeles Symphony Orchestra last month; he and Pasternack spent time preparing for the Czech recording project. The result will be a CD on de Solaun’s own Melos label.
The pianist, known for his dramatic stage presence, heaped praise on Pasternack.
“Jonathan is a musician from head to toe. Music is the air he breathes, the clay he sculpts with,” said de Solaun. He noted too that Pasternack has an ability to connect with his musical partners — wherever he is.
“Every orchestra in the world has its own internal culture,” Pasternack said. “My idea, wherever I go, is to establish a chamber-music feeling in the ensemble,” a close-knit sense in which each musician inhabits the performance.
Ideally, everyone is as prepared as can be, having practiced well before Pasternack arrives. Whether they have or not, it’s his job to create a whole out of the many parts.
“So much of conducting is about the psychology of leadership, especially the leadership that can come without any words,” he said.
“It’s really up to me to inspire the musicians,” to transcend differences in culture and experience.
The bottom line, he said, is to “find the joy in making music.”
This conductor began practicing his art at age 18, when he was a music student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He later earned a master’s and a doctorate in conducting, and went on to teach at the University of Washington and other U.S. and European colleges and conservatories. In Port Angeles, he’s expanded the orchestra and, with choral director Joy Lingerfelt, established the Port Angeles Symphony Chorus. These ensembles, composed of teenagers on up to retired professional musicians, give 14 concerts per season.
Linda Dowdell, the Sequim-based arranger, pianist and composer, has worked with Pasternack on a number of local concerts in recent years. She touted his ability to bring out the strengths of each player — and to call on guest soloists such as de Solaun.
“When he does,” she said, “he guarantees that the orchestra’s bar will be raised exponentially, to the great enjoyment of the audience.”
The conductor, for his part, credits four people for preparing him “extremely well” to lead any orchestra, anywhere in the world.
They were the late Hungarian conductor Peter Erös at the University of Washington; the late James DePreist, with whom Pasternack was assistant conductor and apprentice in Oregon; the Estonian-American conductor Neeme Järvi and renowned Finnish conducting teacher Jorma Panula.
Artistic pursuits aside, flying from Seattle to the Czech Republic or Romania can be taxing, said Pasternack, 51. The fee he earns merely covers his travel expenses. Other aspects, though, make the trip utterly worthwhile.
“As an artist, you never stop developing. These experiences teach me so much,” Pasternack said, adding he learns new repertory and works with soloists he wouldn’t have otherwise met.
“I’m able to come back to Port Angeles and share these things.”
A few weeks ago Pasternack received another invitation: to conduct one of the premiere performances of de Solaun’s own new piano concerto next February. He’ll lead the State Philharmonic Dinu Lipatti in the Romanian city of Satu Mare, close to the borders with Hungary and Ukraine and not far from Poland.
“As far as I know,” Pasternack said, “my ancestors hail from this part of the world.”