On a balmy night last July, Alan Pierson conducted the Brooklyn Philharmonic at a free outdoor concert for an audience of some 4,000 people in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. An eclectic dance group followed the orchestra on the program, along with an interdenominational choir. Yet Pierson had to leave early—another group he leads, the Crash Ensemble, had an engagement in Cork, Ireland, the following day, and he had booked the night’s last flight to London.
“I thought that experience was emblematic of where my life is now,” says Pierson, who is artistic director and conductor of the Brooklyn orchestra and of Alarm Will Sound, a contemporary music group. In addition to studying scores and organizing shows, he has made it his mission to weave his orchestra into the Brooklyn community and transform concerts into dynamic events. Local dance troupes and choirs make natural partners, but Pierson continues to search for new connections. His love of music—and inquiry—has been driving him since he was a dual physics and music major at MIT, where he was an assistant conductor of the MIT Symphony and Concert Band as a student.
“In those days, there were things like … MIT professor Elena Ruehr’s piece Sky Above Clouds, which she showed me during my freshman year and which I fell in love with,” he says. “It wasn’t that I was excited about being a conductor, but more that I was passionate about music and was always excited about facilitating big projects I wanted to see happen.”
After his MIT graduation, Pierson studied at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. There he produced concerts, played chamber music, and led ensembles. He moved to New York City in 2002 and since then has conducted the London Sinfonietta, Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, the New World Symphony, and the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. Over time, his conducting approach has shifted. Pierson says it’s only in the past few years that he has begun to embrace the performance side of conducting—“the excitement of connecting with performers in the moment, the joy of expressing music physically, the spontaneity and surprise of live performance,” he says.
Pierson has been conducting the Brooklyn Philharmonic since January 2011. “Increasingly, conducting is one of the few times that I really get to just focus on what’s happening right here, right now—to put aside everything else,” he says. “And the rarer that experience gets, the more a pleasure it becomes.”