Meet the four conductors online to lead the Missouri Symphony

Opera song

For the musicians and staff of the Missouri Symphony, summer is not a time to take it easy.

In about six weeks each June and July, they crank up an entire music festival – Hot Summer Nights – with a repertoire large enough to hold Broadway’s beautiful bombshell and intimate room offerings, masterpieces classics as well as American folk songs and hymns.

This summer’s festival holds a special potential energy. The Symphony will not just develop its own range, creating dynamic performances; he will choose a new leader.

The Missouri Symphony is a rare creative body, having only followed two musical directors in its more than 50-year history, said executive director Trent Rash.

Founding conductor Hugo Vianello led the orchestra from 1970 to 1998. Then ‘captain’ Kirk Trevor took the podium in 2000, providing an inspired and innovative presence until his retirement last year.

With a few special guest conductors lining up and a nudge from conductor sponsor Commerce Trust, this year’s Hot Summer Nights will feature four nominees vying to take on artistic direction. Each will lead concerts for the public and spend time with the Symphony community and the wider Columbia community.

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A committee of Missouri Symphony Conservatory staff, board members, musicians, and parents is leading the research. Initially, the band considered splitting the role, selecting separate directors for Hot Summer Nights and The Conservatory.

“We found that the people we were attracted to had the skills to do both,” Rash said, and they united the search again.

In its process, the committee examines how a conductor can both inspire and influence their audience from the podium, particularly in terms of performance, Rash said. An initial list of 30 conductor candidates included 22 people of color; about half were women, he said.

The Symphony’s next artistic leader will show a natural ability to connect with audiences, an interest in new music and a knowledge of how to “break down complex thinking” into understanding for young conservatory players, Rash said.

Knowing how rare Vianello and Trevor’s longevity is, the Symphony Orchestra sees the potential for his leadership to reflect the culture of the great college town of Columbia. There’s something exciting, Rash said, about bringing in a bandleader who’s already accomplished but is at the dawn of his career.

Most conductors sign three-year contracts, and the average length is around five to seven years, Rash said. He hopes the Symphony pick will stick around for at least a contract or two; any changes that ensue allow the Symphony to realize new and varied artistic visions, he said.

“It’s good for the conductor. It’s good for the orchestra. It’s good to have a change,” Rash said.

Around and after Hot Summer Nights, the search committee will enjoy a number of opportunities to observe and learn more about each contestant, including dinner parties, meetings with musicians, and surveys completed by both l orchestra and audience members,” Rash said.

Here’s a quick rundown of each contestant, in order of their appearance at the festival.

Wilbur Lin

Taiwan-born conductor Wilbur Lin will lead the Symphony Orchestra through his Laments, Romances and Dreams performances on June 22 and his Show-Me America concert on June 25. Rash appreciates Lin’s intentionality in choosing the repertoire and then in communicating the Why behind these parts.

“He’s really keen on engaging audiences through programming,” Rash said.

Lin’s work spans across music history, physical location, and genre. Currently, he works as assistant conductor of the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra and conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Youth Orchestras. He has conducted various operas, performed as a pianist, and founded the Chamber Philharmonic Taipei ensemble.

Michelle Di Russo

Michelle Di Russo

Argentinian-Italian conductor Michelle Di Russo will lead the symphonic concerts The New World and Beyond as well as Stars, Stripes and Symphony on June 29 and July 2 respectively. Columbia audiences will recognize Di Russo for his appearance last Christmas conducting the annual Symphony of Toys concert.

More recently, acting director of the Cornell University Orchestras and associate conductor of the North Carolina Symphony, Di Russo has also worked with ensembles in Arizona and Texas.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Di Russo helped found the Girls Who Conduct initiative, which exists to equip “the next generation of women, female identification and non-binary conductors”; the organization is empowering and offers female musicians a range of opportunities and options, Rash said.

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Chelsea Gallo

Chelsea Gallo

Chelsea Gallo will take the podium on July 9 for Symphony’s Women of Legend program. Gallo has carried his baton across the United States, working with ensembles such as the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Louisiana Philharmonic and Orlando Opera.

Gallo displays a commitment to programming new music, conducting premieres and newly premiered works. And Rash called her a “true Renaissance woman,” as evidenced in part by her work as music director of the Cosmos Chamber Orchestra, which her website calls “an orchestra dedicated to uniting the scientific and artistic communities.” The ensemble has worked with the likes of NASA and the National Aerospace Institute.

“She likes to make connections between things that people don’t think exist,” Rash said.

Darwin Aquino

Darwin Aquino

Dominican musician Darwin Aquino will close the season with An Uncommon Enigma on July 13 and Back to Broadway three days later.

Aquino has skills as both a conductor and a composer. He was Music Director for the last season of the St. Louis Philharmonic Orchestra and has conducted orchestras and opera houses in the United States, South America and Europe. Aquino’s compositions have been performed just as widely.

Aquino’s obvious passion for educating young people impressed Rash.

“He cares a lot about the upbringing of the whole person. Even beyond the music, how does that help us grow as humans?” he said of Aquino’s approach.

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Hot Summer Nights begins Wednesday with Symphony in Motion, a program directed by Trevor and performed alongside Missouri Contemporary Ballet. Singing In the Key of Freedom: A Juneteenth Celebration, led by University of Missouri professor Brandon Boyd, will follow on Saturday. Both concerts take place at the Missouri Theater.

For details on each Hot Summer Nights performance, visit

Aarik Danielsen is the Features and Culture Editor for Tribune. Contact him at [email protected] or by calling 573-815-1731. Find him on Twitter @aarikdanielsen.