What classical music conductor Garrett Keast remembers most from his first major international appearance isn’t the prestige of the organization (the Opéra National de Paris), the size of the crowd (some 3,000 audience members) or the fact that he was a relatively unknown 39-year-old American directing a French opera on a stage that draws the world's top talent.
Instead, it was the rapid-fire questions orchestra members began peppering him with as soon as the curtain dropped for a set change.
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"Maestro, maestro," one musician asked, "how do you like the orchestra?"
"Maestro, maestro," another chimed in, "we heard you live in New York City?"
But a first violinist piped up with a remark that still makes Keast chuckle a decade later: "Maestro! You look like Joey from 'Friends!'"
"That really broke the ice with that orchestra," Keast says. "They were really interested in me, this American conducting this big famous French opera. It's moments like that working internationally where you realize that there are good-natured people everywhere. Ever since then, it's felt like this dream career could come true."
In many ways, it has.
Keast, who's originally from Houston and is now based in Berlin, has since become a sought-out guest conductor for major orchestras and operas around Europe and the United States: the Tonkünstler Orchester Vienna, the Finnish National Opera & Ballet, the Atlanta Symphony and NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra, just to name a few.
The pandemic hasn't slowed him down much, either. When most of his 2020 performances were cancelled, Keast decided to immerse himself into a longtime passion: music from his homeland.
With the help of Rosie Salvucci , another Berlin-based classical musician originally from Texas, Keast founded the Berlin Academy of American Music , a chamber orchestra focused on American repertoire. The initiative features some well-known talent in Europe's classical music circles and has already recorded its first CD, which is scheduled to be released in October.
"I'm always trying to be a cultural bridge between the U.S. and Europe in a more thoughtful way," Keast says. "It's important for European audiences to recognize that there is great American music, and that the U.S. is still a beacon for creativity and thought, even through these difficult political times."
On Familiar Turf
Keast's next appearance brings him back to the familiar turf of his home state. On Friday and Saturday, he will guest conduct with the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. Watch a livestream of Saturday’s performance here with access starting at $21.
Keast, who doesn't own a car in Berlin, has to get used to Texas's notoriously aggressive drivers every time he comes back.
"I'm going 80 in the left lane and this guy is literally inches from my bumper," he reports while heading west on I-10. Even so, Keast cherishes every trip to Texas — tailgating motorists and all. "This is where it all started," he says. "Texas is home."
Growing up in Spring Branch, Keast remembers being "fascinated" by music from a young age. In elementary school, he sang in several musicals and choirs, but his interest soon shifted to instrumental music — and, more specifically, the person on the podium holding the baton.
Keast met two of his most influential mentors in Houston: Stephen Stein, then the Houston Symphony's conductor in residence, and Christoph Eschenbach, its music director from 1988-1999.
"I was around this very high level of music making day in and day out," he says. "Being around these world-class musicians became normal for me."
Keast then moved to New York in 2000, eventually becoming associate conductor of the New York City Opera and resident conductor of the Queens Symphony Orchestra.
"The connections I made in Houston made things like that happen," he says.
Things were happening in his personal life, too. He met his wife, Meghan, while they were both working at an upscale Midtown restaurant: she as a sommelier; he, secretly waiting tables until he could support himself full-time as a conductor.
"Meghan recognized early on in our relationship this was going to be a big undertaking with a long time frame, to build a major career," Keast says. "I could not be more fortunate or thankful to have Meghan supporting me. I don't think I would have made it this far at all without her."
New Global Goals
Keast's Houston connections continued to elevate his career on a global stage. With Eschenbach's help, Keast secured an assistant conductor position in Paris and then Hamburg. Then, Keast won a full-time conducting position at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. In 2011, he and Meghan, newly married, moved to the German capital.
In a normal year, Keast conducts dozens of performances. But when the pandemic hit, Keast used the unexpected free time as an opportunity to dig deeper into his love of American composers.
Over the summer, as the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum in the United States, Keast took a closer look at Songfest, by legendary American composer Leonard Bernstein. Originally commissioned for the 1976 American Bicentennial Year, the work features poems from prominent American writers and poets conveying themes of racial injustice and inequality, which deeply resonated with Keast.
"As a white, middle-aged American man, I feel it's important for me to step up to the plate and shine a light on these things as well," he says. "It's not just about Brahms and Beethoven — it’s about highlighting the cultural moments we're living."
The performance of Songfest in the fall, when Germany's lockdown restrictions were temporarily lifted, offered a natural segue to Keast's next move. Inspired by its success, he and Salvucci started approaching top musicians around Berlin about the opportunity to play and record together as the Berlin Academy of American Music.
Fortunately, flutist Stathis Karapanos already had a sponsor interested, which meant they could pay musicians and cover studio costs. They also had to adapt to the challenges of the pandemic: spacing musicians out and securing Covid-19 tests before rehearsals and recordings.
"We just went for it, and in two and a half months, we'd organized an orchestra and recorded a CD," Keast says. "Usually that takes six months' preparation or more."
Salvucci says beyond the thrill of playing in a group again, the project struck a deeply personal chord. "For me, it was a very emotional thing," she says. "There had been such a negative vibe about all things American for the past four years. This was a way to say hey, this can be a new beginning."
Keast, too, is hopeful for what's to come. "We're just starting to make a name for ourselves," he says. "It's just the beginning, but it's a great way to start."
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