Meet Chelsea Gallo, Florida Orchestra’s New Resident Conductor
Musician, professional athlete, conductor, a student of language and science. You might think I’m talking about a group of outstanding people, but in fact, I’m introducing Dr. Chelsea Gallo, the newly promoted resident conductor for The Florida Orchestra’s 2023-2024 season. Her list of accomplishments is long and all the more impressive when you learn she became a conductor quite by accident after a torn ACL changed her entire path.
Gallo’s love of music, however, has always been with her. She began playing the violin and piano at the age of four, and eventually chose to study music in her collegiate and post-collegiate years, earning a master’s degree in Vienna, Austria, where she also played professional softball. From there, she went on to earn her doctorate from the University of Michigan, which furthered her career as a conductor.
Gallo’s impressive resume includes staff conductor for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, conducting fellow with the Dallas Opera, assistant conductor of the Louisiana Philharmonic and Opera Orlando, and she has guest-conducted for orchestras around the world. She was previously the 2022-2023 assistant conductor for TFO, leading youth and community concerts, conducting Pops and Morning Coffee concerts, as well as assisting Music Director Michael Francis and other conductors.
On top of her new position at TFO, Gallo is also currently conducting with as many as six other orchestras. She graciously took time from her packed schedule to share with us unique insight into her background and creative thought.
For the 2023-24 season, you’ve got what looks like an intense schedule. How do you balance your time and creative energy?
Making music with others is something that gives us energy! Maybe the travel or the isolation becomes tiring, but certainly not the music. In the words of Taylor Swift: ‘I get tired, but I’m never tired of it.’ The appreciation I feel for every experience with these marvelous orchestras and musicians is indescribable. And to the other half of your question: Balancing my time is not something I have ever succeeded with. Quite a failure, actually.
Is there a particular work you’d love to conduct? What has been your most challenging piece to date?
When I was 12 years old or so, the Berlin Philharmonic released a DVD for Sir Simon Rattle’s debut season: Mahler’s 5th Symphony. My parents gifted it to me for my birthday. I was instantly hooked. Love at first sight and listen. I had no idea what was happening, but I was obsessed – I loved the conductor, I loved the music, I remember thinking that the space they were playing in looked like a church. That performance is one that I think had the most influence. I would love to conduct that symphony someday.
By far the most difficult music to conduct is opera. But it’s a fun type of difficulty – a beautiful, symbiotic challenge to align text, voice, music, lighting, acting, sets, and more. When it all works, it’s heavenly.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Slightly chaotic. I wish I were a person who regularly ate breakfast or had a morning routine. My days are adventures, but I’m thankful for all of the experiences. Fortunately, our incredible team at The Florida Orchestra keeps everything moving and on track.
What is the most unexpected moment you’ve experienced during a live performance?
One of the best things about live, living art is you never know what’s going to happen! There have been power outages, fires, fights, medical emergencies, broken batons, illnesses, and jump-ins. Every day in the theater is an adventure!
You’ve lived and traveled all over the world and the states, but where are you from? How did you get started on your path to conducting?
We are from California. I completed graduate studies in Vienna, Austria, and then my doctorate from the University of Michigan. After that, it was just picking which path to explore as opportunities arose. I never thought I would be a conductor. The whole plan was to go to college to play softball. A torn ACL changed everything.
Who or what inspired you to take up conducting and pursue a career in music?
I have been very fortunate to have guides at every step of my journey. When finishing undergrad, a teacher asked if I had ever thought about conducting. I was quite emphatic that it was not something I wanted to try. He saw something in me that influenced the rest of my life. Turns out, it was everything I needed to make sense of the world.
Conductors hold a sort of iconic place in our culture. What’s something that would surprise most people about your work?
Yes, the ‘Maestro Myth’ or the ‘Maestro Mystic’ is quite catchy and alluring. The one thing that people need to know, which is both the most obvious and most abstract, is that the conductor makes no sound. We make no music. We share a vision and invite the musicians to give us their sound to paint a temporal picture. We are the first listeners. Conducting is much less about authority and much more about absorption. It’s a balancing act of output and input and deciding how what you’re receiving fits into a hierarchy of order predetermined by you, the architect. The musical decision-making is filtered through your own lens of how a piece of music should go but achieved by the musicians who themselves have a pre-established hierarchy of what should be. It’s a union. And that’s in the first second of creation! That’s all quite convoluted. Perhaps I, also, am mystified by how any of it works.
What do you think is the place of classical music in our culture? What is its relevance outside the concert hall?
Classical music is our culture. It’s not only the mirror of our culture “now” but an indication of what our culture could look like “next.” This art form is everything we hope for our culture: an embodiment of empathy, tolerance, understanding, neighborly respect, achievement, introspection, and truth. If you don’t believe me, come to the concert hall. You’ll arrive as you are but leave changed.
You’ve been involved in musical projects for NASA, the National Institute of Aerospace, the European Space Agency, and other science and technology projects. Tell us a little bit about your connection to this work. What do science and music have in common?
They’re both pursuits of truth, beauty, and meaning. They’re depictions of teamwork and unified vision. They’re our attempts to explore the unknown and bring back answers. They’re two sides of the same coin.
What advice would you give to young or aspiring conductors/musicians?
Just two things:
1) Freedom is on the other side of discipline
What music do you listen to in your downtime? Do you have a favorite playlist?
The Smiths… The Killers… Taylor Swift… Bad Bunny.
You’ve been called a “rising star” in the conducting world, but you’re also an athlete who played professional softball in Vienna. How have sports helped your conducting career – and vice versa?
I love sports. Symphonic performance is a sport. I truly mean that. When you’re a top-level athlete, at some point you stop competing against an opponent, you ascend to the next level of competition, which is against yourself. After that, you ascend another rung to compete against the game itself. Symphonic musicians already exist on that last rung. We don’t have tangible opponents, but we confront the challenge with the goal of achievement through teamwork. It’s the greatest sports team to ever exist, really. Eighty people, all synchronized, with one goal – and we’re wordless. Through the loss of our most communicable sense, we transmit more than we could otherwise. Come to one of our concerts and see how much work, muscle-flexing, and exertion you see from our athletes – I mean musicians. They train like athletes; they perform like athletes. They just wear tuxedos instead of jerseys.
You’re a bit of a language nerd. What’s your favorite language to speak and what’s been the hardest to study?
At the moment, I’m trying to learn Catalan. My husband is from a town outside Barcelona. As his wife, I would like to be able to speak to him in his own language.
Name one or two contemporary composers we should all be listening to now.
Unfortunately, she just passed away in June, but the music of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho is hauntingly beautiful. Her opera L’amour de Loin has a time-bending effect that alters your reality. Also, American composer Missy Mazzoli; she has a very deep and geometric sound. Her opera Breaking the Waves is a horrible tragedy with sounds that somehow make the finality far worse than it otherwise would be. We will be performing some of her music in January. Definitely worth hearing.
What is your favorite thing about being in the Bay Area so far?
I love that everyone here calls it the “Bay Area.” Every time I hear it, I think of the Bay Area in California. The people are exceptionally kind. Everyone has been so welcoming. The Buccaneers, the Rays, and the Lightning are big highlights, for sure! Too bad about the Rays’ playoffs this year. If anyone is feeling bummed about our teams’ performances, you still have a world-class orchestra here in “The Bay.”