Peter Stafford Wilson celebrates his 20th season of conducting the Springfield Symphony Orchestra

At the age of just 13, Springfield Symphony Orchestra (SSO) music director and conductor Peter Stafford Wilson knew he wanted to be an orchestra conductor.

Fast forward, and the SSO's 2021-22 season debuted at the Clark State Performing Arts Center (PAC) on Sept.18, with Wilson marking his 20th year as the orchestra's conductor.

“I’m kind of an anomaly,” Wilson says. “The shelf life of a music director is usually seven to 10 years max. There are a lot of reasons for that … there is a lot of growth within the orchestra that needs to happen periodically.

"I came to Springfield at a good time; personnel was stable, the orchestra was anxious for a new style of leadership. I think we evolved together, and that’s the reason we are still as successful now as we were in the first decade of my tenure.”

Wilson became the SSO’s eighth music director following a national search.

“With a conductor you have to go more in depth,” says Wilson. “An audition is a week-long process where the conductor comes in and does a series of rehearsals, a concert, and meets with the Board and community to see if it’s a good fit.”

Wilson says his audition week was the first time he had worked with the SSO, but he very quickly knew it was a good match.

“When they started the search for my position, the SSO got advice from national search firms. The advice included to look for staff conductors with major orchestras within a half day drive. SSO narrowed the list to four,” says Wilson, who resides in Westerville. “I was one of them.”

Before he began his career as a conductor, Wilson had the pleasure of listening to the Boston Symphony live at the Tanglewood music venue in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts. It inspired him to pursue his lucrative career.

“I really wanted to be a conductor,” he says. “I was a musician, played piano and clarinet, and I thought, ‘this might be cool,’” he says. “That conductor later conducted the Cleveland orchestra, and I was the cover-conductor, so I got to work with the person who really inspired me to do this.”

The SSO currently boasts 65 contracted musicians and welcomes guest musicians from the surrounding regions, including Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland. Wilson says the combination of available musicians, the venue and local support make him very happy to be in Springfield.

“We play in an extremely fine hall,” says Wilson. “The Clark State Performing Arts Center is a jewel of an auditorium. The hall should be an extension of the orchestra; it enhances their sound and enhances their ability to play together. The Kuss Auditorium is that kind of venue.”

PAC technical director, Dan Hunt, says it became clear from his audition concert 20 years ago, that Wilson was the perfect choice to take over for long-time conductor John Ferritto.

“Peter's musical energy, artistic enthusiasm, and personal rapport with the musicians and audience has kept the symphony thriving for these 20 years,” says Hunt. “It has been my personal pleasure to open the stage right door for Peter to make his entrance at the top of each concert. 

"To watch him guide the orchestra through challenging, lyrical, and many times bombastic pieces has been an inspiring, professional privilege. When not on stage, Peter has treated all of us at the PAC with kindness, decorum, and a wicked sense of humor.”

The SSO has staunch supporters who understand that tickets only take care of part of the costs of concerts, Wilson says.

“They are willing to step up and support the institution and support the orchestra to help us do great things,” says Wilson, who is a nationally acclaimed and multiple award-winning conductor.

Wilson's long-term goals include revisiting Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” and “Agriculture and the Arts Growing Together,” first performed in 2005, with a new concept.

“We have a board member who is a sustainable farmer. Not many orchestras can boast that - it’s something we should embrace,” he says. “I’ve probably conducted more concerts in the past than I will in the future now, but I intend for every concert I do between now and when I put the stick down to be an ‘event.’”

In Springfield, Wilson conducts about eight concerts per year but says he has conducted close to 2,000 performances throughout his career.

“My arm is sore just thinking about it,” he says.

Wilson also holds titles with the Westerville (Ohio) Symphony, the Tulsa (Oklahoma) Ballet, and helps to oversee the Springfield Youth Orchestra.

“Education is the most important thing we do,” he says. “Having a youth orchestra as a component of the professional orchestra in town is vital. The ultimate test of the mission of a youth organization is future governance and artistic excellence. I’m always thrilled to work with them.”

He advises youth – and adults – who may not be selected after an audition not to lose hope.

“It means ‘not today, not now, not here,’” he says. “It means that you’ll get another chance, and it may be somewhere else. In music, you hear ‘no’ a lot.”

Wilson says sometimes he leaves the stage following a performance and thinks, “They didn’t get it,” and other times he thinks, “That wasn’t very good,” and the audience is still screaming and clapping.

“You never know,” he says. “(Music is) such a subjective thing, the same experience can be felt in so many ways by different people, and that’s one of the great beauties of it.”

Wilson says the SSO has a remarkable way of evolving, and he is always amazed and humbled by that experience.

“That’s a testimony to them but also a tribute to me that they value my leadership and bring an extra ounce of ‘whatever it is that we do’ to the performance,” he says. “I’m very humbled by that. When that stops, when that ceases, then I will know it is time for me to go.”
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Read more articles by Darci Jordan.