2023-24 – Set 3 Guest Conductor Interview with Kyle Dickson

By Lily O’Brien

At just 33 years old, conductor Kyle Dickson has already made a name for himself in the world of music. Raised in Detroit, he discovered a passion for classical music at an early age and became an accomplished violinist, but eventually switched his focus to conducting. Dickson is also a recent Salonen Conducting Fellow with the San Francisco Symphony and the Colburn School under the guidance of Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen. In September 2023, he started his new position as Assistant Conductor of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and Conductor of the Memphis Symphony Youth Orchestra.

When did you decide to become a professional musician?
Did you ever consider other career options?

Even after I had fallen in love with music when I was in the 8th grade, I was still toggling back and forth. For a moment, I wanted to be a politician because some of my family is really involved in Detroit politics. And I was a really big science nerd, so for a minute, I wanted to be a cardiothoracic surgeon or do something with kids like pediatrics. It wasn’t until my junior year of high school after I’d been taking violin lessons for about a year and a half, that I realized I couldn’t be happy doing anything other than music.

Did you ever consider going into another genre of music besides classical?

I grew up in Detroit surrounded by many different types of music that resonated with me like Motown, hip hop, and R&B, but classical music took a completely different role in my life than any other genre. I’m an only child, so I always wanted to be a part of a team, and classical music seemed to offer that in spades — the communal aspect of it, being able to perform with others. That’s what really captivated me.

What was it like studying with Esa-Pekka Salonen?

He is one of the most intelligent, thoughtful, and intentional musicians that I have had the pleasure to work with. Every single rehearsal was a real master class, and being able to see how he interacts with the artists was truly wonderful. It was such a blessing to work with a musician of that caliber, to hear his thoughts about music, and to really just see what he does. It was truly an experience that I wouldn’t have been able to get anywhere else.

You have worked with a variety of non-classical artists and groups, such as the chamber ensemble D-Composed, Common, Chance the Rapper, and John Legend. What drew you to that?

Classical musicians used to just perform in their little boxes and not know anything about other genres, and that was okay. But nowadays, people are moving towards the idea of musicians having many eclectic influences to draw from. And since I grew up in Detroit around Motown and hip hop, and I play the violin, I love being able to marry those genres.

You have worked with many youth orchestras and have been involved with teaching and helping Black and brown students get more exposed to classical music. What motivates you to do that?

I was really fortunate because I had the Sphinx Organization, which was based right in Detroit, where I was exposed to this wonderful art form. That sort of representation at point-blank range was all the inspiration that I needed to see myself in this field and to be inspired. So, I want to pass that forward and provide opportunities to students who might not have seen classical music as a viable career path for them. That’s really important to me and is something that will always be at the forefront of what I do professionally.

What do you think it takes to be a good conductor?

First and foremost, a good conductor needs to be a good leader and a person who can keep the big picture in mind for everyone. You have to have a very clear vision that you can draw everyone into and convince them to agree upon. It’s really paramount that you care about the music. The best conductors are detail-oriented and can change the sound of an orchestra because of the way they prepare.

What do you like to do for fun? Do you have any hobbies or interests that might surprise people?

Cooking is my new favorite hobby, and that might surprise people because I’m not a particularly good cook. But I love cooking with my partner. He is a fabulous cook, and I have learned a ton from him.

Is there anything else that you do that might surprise people?

I like to crochet. I used to crochet a lot when I was in Chicago and an undergrad at college. I was introduced to it in middle school, and it became a way for me to de-stress. I love the sensation of crocheting. It’s a centering activity for me.

Do you have any new projects coming up?

I just won a grant for a project I came up with called Music Represents, which will be launching fairly soon. A narrator will depict the stories of five Black composers — William Grant Still, Florence Price, Jessie Montgomery, Joseph Bologne (aka Chevalier de St Georges), and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor — over a chamber ensemble. We will be commissioning a composer to write the piece and a librettist. The idea is that this piece becomes a part of the canon and helps to spread the word about Black classical composers that many people hadn’t heard of. It will premiere in Detroit, and I will be conducting it.