Gregory Singer was destined for a musical life. The son of two musicians — his father was a violinist and a conductor; his mother is a pianist — he began playing the violin as soon as he was big enough to hold it. Although he admits that in his younger years he didn’t always enjoy practicing and the formality of a school setting, now he finds solace in music.
In fact, he created his own orchestra, Manhattan Symphonie, to share his and other musicians’ talents. “There’s so much ugliness and violence in the world that I really dreamed to have an orchestra that could bring attention to certain causes and share the beauty of life and counteract a lot of the negativity,” he explained. Singer, who also owns a high-end violin shop on the Upper West Side, transitioned from playing to conducting after realizing he was most himself when at the podium.
As the conductor of the Symphonie, who plays their fourth Carnegie Hall concert on February 10 in celebration of the Chinese New Year, he said, “I like to break down the fourth wall and talk to the audience. I feel like a lightning rod right in the middle of the audience and the orchestra.”
You grew up in a home where your parents were both musicians. When did they notice your musical talents?My mother is a pianist and she still plays the piano in her nineties. My father was a great violinist and conductor, so I’m following in his footsteps. When I was very, very little I was always trying to get the violin, but it was too big for me. But my father would always bring it down and put it up to my chin to see if my arms were long enough. He put it back many times because I was not big enough to play it, and finally, one day, it stayed down and was the right size for me. And I was very happy to be able to start to take lessons.
You studied at Juilliard. What was your experience like there?I personally didn’t like the regimentation of school very much. I enjoyed meeting a lot of the young students who were my age; we played a lot of music. But the experience at Lincoln Center ... the building was rather cold and not so warm. And I didn’t find the experience so pleasant. But after running away from classical music for a while, I ran back to it. Now, I realize I can program what music I love the most. I learn new music with new people. I just got back from a two-week tour of China. That was a huge success and a lot of fun. I went to 16 different cities. So music has enriched my life greatly. Now I don’t have to associate it with my teachers or people telling me what to play or how much to practice. To me, music is now a sanctuary.
When did you transition from playing to conducting?About 12 years ago, someone asked if I could conduct a concert for Castle Gardens, a building affiliated with The Fortune Society. It’s sort of like a halfway house for people coming out of prison. I put together a 15- to 20-piece ensemble and conducted with a string orchestra and really enjoyed the communication and having the orchestra as my instrument. And then a few years later, someone asked me if I would accompany them in a Beethoven violin concerto and I did that at Weill Recital Hall. So my real debut came at Carnegie Hall and I really loved it. And then I began to remember all the years I spent watching my father’s rehearsals and concerts, and all the music came rushing back to me. And I suddenly realized it. And as a friend once told me, I was meant to be at the podium. I am the most focused and relaxed and it seems like that’s where I am the most comfortable.
Tell us about the musicians who play in the Manhattan Symphonie.The members are really terrific. I sort of auditioned them over a 10-year period. The main thing I look for is attitude in addition to loving to make great music. So I collected musicians from the Lincoln Center Orchestra, virtuosos from the Manhattan School of Music, Mannes School of Music and The Juilliard School, and other professional musicians from around the city. So they’re young and old. I have some players as old as their late 80s and some young players as young as 17 and 18 years old.
Tell us about your violin shop, Gregory Singer Fine Violins. What is the atmosphere like there?It’s very quaint. It’s like a 19th century shop. We deal primarily with high-end violins though, so we’re not necessarily for beginner violin players. We’re selling Stradivarius and eighteen-century violins that are worth quite a lot of money.
How do you balance conducting with running the store?I spend about four or five days a week at the store. I don’t study music at the store. After five o’clock I study the music I’m preparing for the concerts in the evening. I meet musicians at the store all the time, so sometimes I’m auditioning new players for the orchestra. We play string quartets here sometimes. I get to play music with musicians who come to visit. People come from Europe and Asia to look at violins and talk about their recent concerts. And that’s how I meet people and sometimes select my soloists for the tours.
The orchestra is on the web at www.manhattansymphonie.com and the violin shop at visit www.singerviolins.com