SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Sitting in a dimly lit coffee shop on West Temple, Conner Covington began to cry.
He was reflecting on his past year and a half with the Utah Symphony, and when his favorite memory came to mind, the 31-year-old conductor couldn’t help himself. The moment was so vivid. Just two weeks ago, he stood on the Abravanel Hall stage conducting the horse-galloping finale to “William Tell Overture” and a scene from the opera “Die Fledermaus,” among other works.
The pieces were standard, but this was no ordinary concert.
Called “Access to Music,” the performance, held each year in January, was for children with special needs and their families.
“For so many musicians, this is a highlight of the year. It’s loud, it’s raucous and nobody cares! It’s so great. I’m conducting and getting so much energy from behind me; (the kids) are so appreciative,” Covington said with visible emotion. “This is a performance where they can come in and be loud and not feel judged. … That’s really special.”
That moment more than any other has filled Covington’s busy position as associate conductor of the Utah Symphony with meaning. This week alone, the conductor, who is heavily involved with the symphony’s education programs, put on an immigration-themed concert for fifth-graders across Utah and has led rehearsals for the symphony’s upcoming performances of “My Fair Lady,” Feb. 15-16 at Abravanel Hall.
Covington, who joined the symphony in September 2017, estimates he led about 80 performances during his first season. This 2018-19 season, that number will be closer to 100.
“It’s a lot that they put on me. It’s kind of sink or swim and they keep giving me more to do so I guess my head’s still above water so far,” he said with a laugh. “My position … may be the busiest in the country in terms of amount of conducting for a staff conductor position. … But it forces you to be really efficient and it’s good training. If I were at a bigger orchestra like Philadelphia or Boston or New York, (I’d) hardly ever (be) conducting.”
‘I was hooked’
When he’s leading an orchestra, Covington feels right at home. But he didn’t always want to be a conductor. Growing up just south of Knoxville, Tennessee, Covington had dreams of attending Princeton and going into the foreign service to be a diplomat like his stepfather.
He also really liked to golf — a passion his mom leveraged by offering to pay for monthly rounds of the game if he took up an instrument. So for the love of golf, an 11-year-old Covington began playing the violin in his public school. By the time he got to high school, all dreams of diplomacy and golf had subsided.
Getting serious about his music studies, Covington — the youngest of three children and the only musician in his family — decided to move to Houston, where his aunt and uncle lived, to complete his last two years of high school at a performing arts school. It was there he found conducting.
“I came to the violin relatively late, but I came to conducting quite early, comparatively speaking,” he said. “I got to do it once and I was hooked.”
Covington still remembers the first piece he ever conducted — the first movement of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Symphony No. 29. Even though he was just an 18-year-old senior, the thrill of guiding an orchestra was palpable. After studying violin performance at UT-Arlington, Covington went on to pursue a master’s degree in conducting at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.
Before winning his position with the Utah Symphony, Covington was the assistant conductor of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and a conducting fellow at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. But when the Utah Symphony opportunity came about, he welcomed the 2,000-mile move to Salt Lake City for one reason in particular: He wanted to hit the slopes.
“When I was growing up, we used to come out West to ski — usually once a year — and this was actually our favorite place to come,” he said. “So when I came to audition … my dad was like, ‘You gotta get this job.’ … (We’re) so close to the ski resorts, so there are days when I can have rehearsal in the morning and go ski in the afternoon.”
But since moving to Utah, there’s something else the conductor has come to love about the state even more than its abundant snow: an equally abundant passion for the arts.
“People (outside of Utah) don’t realize the quality of the orchestra here or the amount of support from the community for the orchestra. But it’s not just the orchestra — you’ve got Ballet West and the theater companies here,” he said. “When you consider the size of the budget from the symphony and opera and you compare it to the metro population size, it’s astounding when you compare it to other orchestras around the country in terms of how big of a support there is. … Per capita, the support for the arts (in Utah) is really astounding, and it’s a pleasure to work in (this) community.”
‘A stepping stone’
At the end of this season, Covington will have conducted close to 200 performances during his time with the Utah Symphony. But he’s just as busy off the podium, introducing ideas about programming, learning the art of fundraising and helping to shape the organization’s overall direction. Ideally, all of these skills will help him land his dream job as an orchestra music director — a position he’s actively seeking with smaller orchestras throughout the country.
“I think maybe all of my predecessors — at least the past several of them — have gotten musical director jobs after they left (the Utah Symphony). The staff conductor role … is a stepping stone. Everybody knows that the ultimate goal for basically anybody in a position like mine is to be (a music director). We’re all control freaks,” he joked.
Covington’s contract with the Utah Symphony currently runs through August 2020. He’s not opposed to extending his contract, but he did admit he’d like to live closer to his fiancée, who is currently attending medical school in Philadelphia. With a wedding coming up in August, the long-distance game for Covington is getting old. But in the meantime, he’s found a way to channel those emotions into his work, and he cherishes every moment he gets with the Utah Symphony.
“It’s so important to read poetry, fall in love, get your heart broken in order to do (these works),” he said. “As an artist, you can’t perform these pieces about life experiences if you’re not having them.”