When the curtain went up after intermission on Dec. 12 at the Oakland Symphony’s 29th annual Let Us Break Bread Together holiday concert at the Paramount Theater, 16-year-old Roman St. Gerard stepped out on stage. Not even a wicked rainstorm could deter 2,000 people from attending what has become a joyous and highly anticipated holiday celebration of a wide range of music and cultures. For St. Gerard, standing on the conductor’s platform felt “surreal.” He said he was “nervous and scared,” but the dress rehearsal was actually a lot more nerve-wracking than the performance, since it was his first time on the big stage.
He lifted his baton and the symphony’s players launched into a masterful performance of Leroy Anderson’s jazzy classic Sleigh Ride.
In past years, the honor of guest-conducting Sleigh Ride has typically gone to the highest bidder at an annual auction supporting the Oakland Symphony. But this year, the symphony asked its major donors to bid on this opportunity for a student taking part in the MUSE program, an education and enrichment initiative in public schools. Heavily influencing this decision was the fact that Michael Morgan, the symphony’s maestro who died last year at age 63, dreamed of being a conductor at age 12. Morgan was a passionate supporter of MUSE, which has served thousands of kids each year.
A number of other things remained the same for this year’s concert. Circles of friends, families, and neighbors expressed obvious delight in re-connecting, particularly after COVID forced the cancellation of last year’s performance. The concert once again chose a non-traditional symphonic playlist to feature: the music of Ray Charles and B.B. King, as well as multi-choruses and guest performers. The audience, as ever, reflected the diversity of the region.
St. Gerard was a star of the show. He began his musical studies as a 3rd grader at Thornhill Elementary, having fallen in love with the tone, sound, and versatility of the violin. He served as the concertmaster of the Montera Middle School Orchestra, and for the past three years has been the concertmaster of the Skyline High School Orchestra. St. Gerard is also the concertmaster of the Symphony’s MUSE Vivo Orchestra, for youth from grades 7 to 12.
When he was invited to conduct the Oakland Symphony, he called it “an amazing opportunity,” and after talking with his parents, decided to accept.
St. Gerard was originally set to conduct Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus from The Messiah. But symphony planners later switched to the Sleigh Ride piece because it is considered more exciting and fun.
“It definitely was a challenge to pivot to a new piece with a lot of parts,” St. Gerard said about having only two weeks to prepare.
He received an important tip from renowned international Maestra Mei-Ann Chen, who guest conducted the Symphony’s season opening concert in November. Chen, a native of Taiwan, notes on her website that she has wanted to be a conductor since she was 10-years-old. Her advice to the young man? “Be the music, just feel and get into it,” said St. Gerard.
“Seeing Roman St. Gerard’s conducting debut with the Oakland Symphony at age 16, one is reminded of the legacy of Maestro Michael Morgan and that conducting helps young kids develop unique leadership opportunities and also deep appreciation for music,” said Chen.
St. Gerard met Maestro Morgan only a few times and wishes he had had more opportunities to talk with him. “I benefited from having someone that looked like me in a leadership position, providing opportunities for young musicians of color,” he said.
St. Gerard’s parents are both immigrants; his father is Haitian-American and his mother is Korean-American. Although he acknowledged a number of teachers who inspired him along the way, he said that he feels lucky that several of his music instructors are African American.
“My elementary music and current MUSE Vivo teacher, Linda Green, and my current high school music teacher Adam Green have had a positive influence in my musical journey,” he said.
St. Gerard’s interests extend beyond music. He’s an active member of Skyline High School’s varsity cross country and track and field teams. He also enjoys working as a Galaxy Explorer intern at Chabot Space and Science Center, leading demos and activities and sharing his love of science with the public. He’s just now beginning to research college opportunities, with UC Berkeley and Stanford on his list.
“Music has had such a positive influence in my life,” he said. “I’m not sure what I’ll do with it in the future, but I always want it in my life—and I’ll always play violin,” he said.
As he took the Symphony stage in December (and unbeknownst to the audience) St. Gerard was wearing a GoPro camera on his lapel, offering a rare conductor’s-eye view of the performance. As he prepared to enter the stage someone is heard urging him “to have fun.”
“I did,” he said after.
St. Gerard said it took a few measures before he felt comfortable, and forgot about the crowd behind him. “I was excited and nervous at the same time.”
The video ends exactly when the Sleigh Ride piece does, so you don’t see what followed the performance.
It was a standing ovation.