By Eric Dundon
At age 21, Stephanie Childress has accomplished quite a lot. She’s an acclaimed violinist, winning significant accolades. She founded her own ensemble and performed one of the biggest works in the classical canon for orchestra and chorus. She’s an award-winning conductor that counts the famed conductor Sir Simon Rattle among her mentors.
And she’s about to add another achievement: becoming the new Assistant Conductor of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.
SLSO Music Director Stéphane Denève appointed Childress to the position earlier this year. She’ll assume duties with the orchestra in 2021.
Among her responsibilities, she’ll conduct a variety of SLSO concerts and lead the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra as the 50-year-old ensemble’s next Music Director.
Childress succeeds Gemma New, who served as the SLSO’s Resident Conductor and Youth Orchestra Music Director from 2016 to 2020.
Growing up in Britain and France and currently living in London, Childress is well aware of the caliber of the orchestra.
“I know the SLSO is one of the oldest orchestras in America,” she said in a recent Zoom interview. “I also know it has a sterling reputation in the industry. Getting to know an orchestra doesn’t happen overnight. Getting to know musicians is a long-term project and I’m eager to get started in St. Louis.”
Although she hadn’t conducted the SLSO prior to auditioning for the Assistant Conductor position, Childress is fast-becoming one of the go-to rising conductors in Europe. In the 2020/2021 season, Childress is making her conducting debuts with the London Symphony Orchestra, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, and Orchestre de Paris.
Recently, she was the second prize winner at the inaugural La Maestra conducting competition in Paris, which attracted the world’s leading young female conductors.
Soon, she’ll conduct the SLSO and YO in concerts at Powell Hall.
“It’s a beautiful hall that I think contributes to the beauty and warmth of the sound,” she said about the orchestra’s historic home.
One of her audition pieces was the first movement of Beethoven’s universally recognized Symphony No. 5. Childress recalled giving the downbeat with Denève and other SLSO leadership looking on.
“The sound that came out was huge and warm,” she said. “It’s like what I imagine driving a Rolls Royce is like.”
Although she was the youngest candidate in the field, she never felt pressure while leading the SLSO. Since her appointment, she has regularly spoken with Denève via Skype about the SLSO, about conducting, and about music in general.
“He’s very warm, very personable—just like the orchestra. I’ve enjoyed getting to know him,” Childress said.
The daughter of an American father and a French-Vietnamese mother, Childress grew up in a home that listened to ‘70s and ‘80s pop and rock music. She remembers hearing artists like Queen and Tina Turner regularly. Neither of her parents are professional musicians, but both displayed a deep appreciation for a variety of music.
At a young age, she recalled seeing the famed violinist Nigel Kennedy perform Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Something about the performance captivated Childress, and thereafter she expressed a keen interest in music. She took piano lessons for a few months out of obligation, she said good-naturedly, before switching permanently to violin.
She devoted herself to the instrument, eventually becoming a finalist in the prestigious BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition in both 2016 and 2018. She enrolled in the University of Cambridge at age 16 and graduated at 19. Barely into her 20s, she formed the Orchestra Rheia, conducting its inaugural performances of Brahms’ A German Requiem just as the COVID-19 pandemic began sweeping the world.
The multilingual (she already speaks English, French, and Russian, but is currently learning German and Italian) Childress is now looking forward to her time in St. Louis. With already such an impressive resume, she stressed she still has a lot to learn.
“I think it’s important to walk before you learn to run,” she said, emphasizing that she is particularly looking forward to assisting Denève.
“He’s so highly regarded as an interpreter of French music; I can’t wait to see him conduct,” she said.
Her orchestral interests vary.
Childress credits opera with inspiring her to become a conductor. She has already conducted a number of productions, including Jeremy Sams’ The Enchanted Island with the British Youth Opera, Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia at St. John’s College (Cambridge), Lennox Berkeley’s A Dinner Engagement for the Cambridge University Opera Society, and the world premiere of Anna Semple’s opera The Next Station is Green Park at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.
She also has an affinity for Germanic and British repertoire, citing Richard Strauss, Benjamin Britten, and Michael Tippett as some of her favorite composers.
She also shares Denève’s interest in music of today, particularly as it fits into her role as Music Director of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra.
“What’s great about youth orchestras is that you can throw just about anything at them and they will have fun,” she said, noting that she already has some adventurous programming ideas for future YO concerts.
“For me, it’s important to program something I know very well and maybe something I don’t know very well,” she said about her approach to programming. “I’m sure I’ll learn a lot from conducting the Youth Orchestra.”
Until she gets the opportunity to work directly with the musicians of the SLSO family, she continues to work with orchestras in Europe and learn about the SLSO from her new mentor, Stéphane Denève.
A brief question-and-answer with Stephanie Childress
Aside from classical music, what music do you listen to?
T. Rex, jazz/bebop music, I’m always excited by what Billie Eilish does.
What are some of your hobbies outside of music?
I love reading and languages. I speak English, French, and Russian and am learning German and Italian. I run a lot; exercise is important. I also love jigsaw puzzles, which may make me sound like a grandma!
Name a book you’ve read recently.
Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol and Ulysses by James Joyce.
What kind of food do you like?
I love Vietnamese food! And despite having a bad reputation, I love British food.
Yes, I have a big furry Siberian forest cat named Sibelius.
Early bird or night owl?
I’m a morning person. I feel much more productive when I get out of bed.
Coffee or tea?
Coffee in the morning and tea in the afternoon.
Who is a composer who needs to be heard more often?
Grażyna Bacewicz or Bohuslav Martinů.
Favorite place to vacation?
I’d love to be able to go to New York City again.
What are you most looking forward to about St. Louis?
I’ve heard a lot about the St. Louis Cardinals and I’m looking forward to a traditional Midwest barbecue.
Eric Dundon is the Public Relations Manager for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.