Getting to know Daniel Stewart, the SF Symphony Youth Orchestra's new conductor

Getting to know Daniel Stewart, the SF Symphony Youth Orchestra's new conductor
Photos: Courtesy of Daniel Stewart
By Cedric Westphal - Published on November 15, 2019.

Though all of its musicians are under 20, the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra features programs that would do any philharmonic orchestra proud.

Now, the acclaimed youth orchestra has a new leader: Daniel Stewart, who recently relocated to the Outer Richmond from New York City, where he was an assistant conductor with the Metropolitan Opera. 

The move is a return home for Stewart, who was born in the city and raised in Rohnert Park. He played in the Youth Orchestra himself as a violist, commuting to the San Francisco Conservatory for chamber music lessons.

Though he still plays as a soloist and in chamber ensembles, he's gradually shifted to conducting, working under greats like Michael Tilson Thomas at the New World Symphony and James Levine at the Met. He also commuted from New York for four years to serve as music director of the Santa Cruz Symphony.

"Music has been a passport," he said. "It's taken me to 40 countries so far."

But with Stewart's wife, In Sung Jang, serving as the SF Symphony's first violinist, the chance to conduct the Youth Orchestra was "a perfect opportunity to put my roots back down here again," Stewart said.

These days, Stewart leads the orchestra rehearsals he used to attend each Saturday in his youth. He also auditions candidates for the orchestra, and plans the season's programs in collaboration with Thomas, the Symphony's music director. 

"I make the first draft of the pieces to play, then he says 'I like this' or 'that,'" Stewart explained. 

This Sunday, Stewart will conduct the Youth Orchestra as they perform selections from Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet," Grieg's piano concerto and a short piece by Thomas himself: "Agnegram," celebrating the 90th birthday of Thomas' friend and Symphony benefactor Agnes Albert.

"The themes in it are made of the letter of her name in solfege, the German musical alphabet," Stewart explains. He's also studied and conducted the work of Esa-Pekka Salonen, who will take over for Thomas as the Symphony's music director in the 2020-21 season.

Stewart composes as well: last season, he premiered a piece called "Social Media," and he has another in the pipeline. 

Sunday's concert will feature a particularly notable performance from Roger Xia, 17, who, in addition to serving as orchestra concertmaster, will be both the soloist in the piano concerto and the first-chair violinist for the Prokofiev piece. 

"It's incredible. It's so unusual, it's hard to believe," Stewart said. "He's really remarkable as a musician — his proficiency is a sight to behold, to listen to, to witness."

The San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra will perform this Sunday, November 17 at 2 p.m. at Davies Symphony Hall (201 Van Ness Ave.) Tickets start at $20.