Maestro Urs Leonhardt Steiner


Today I interviewed a very interesting guest Urs Leonhardt Steiner He shares his amazing story of becoming an internationally recognized conductor that helps mentor and teach musicians of all ages. From growing up in a small village in Switzerland to founding what is now the Golden Gate Symphony and Chorus. He shares the bricks he faced along the way, the  whispers that kept him going, the mentors that helped along the way and advice for anyone wanting to follow their dream. Most of all he shares why community is key.


Ari: Welcome to whisper bricks. My name is Ari show and I’m your host today I have a very interesting guest. His name is Urs, Leonhardt Steiner, URS is a music director and conductor. He is internationally renowned as a conductor, guitarist, educator and composer. Was was raised in core the city in Switzerland with civilization dating back as far as 3900 BC. As a child, his musical parents taught him and his nine siblings to sing on pitch, and the family sang in harmony every day, or his show talent early on. And as a teenager, he studied classical guitar in Zurich and Berlin. At the University of Tuebingen. He took Advanced conducting studies with James Weimer and Gustav Meier, as well as participating in master classes with Andre Previn. Eric lines, Dorf, Leonard Bernstein, and Herbert von carry on. Upon coming to the states he attended and graduated from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. In 1994. Maestro Steiner founded the orchestra that would become the Golden Gate Symphony Orchestra and chorus. Maestro Steiners compositions include the operas El Segundo centennial, and return of the Phantoms, which have been performed to critical acclaim in Switzerland and the United States. In addition to leading the Golden Gate symphony in local and international endeavors, he is a frequent guest conductor, a frequent guest conductor with orchestras and ensembles in Europe, the United States and Central America. Please help me welcome Maestro Urs, Lennart Steiner Urs how are you?


Urs: I’m doing good. i You give me all this accolades. You know, I feel a little guilty.


Ari: Well, welcome to whispers and bricks. Have you been


Urs: so much for having me? It’s a pleasure to be here.


Ari: I have to admit I never. I never met a conductor in my life. Oh, well. Wow. So this is kind of new for me, you know? Good. Yeah. 


As you know, the name of the podcast is whispers and bricks. Now the whispers are those voices telling us what the right thing to do is and represent the good in life. The bricks represent the bad things that we go through in life. And let me tell you, everybody gets hit with a brick, at a minimum, at least one brick, if not more throughout their lifetimes. So let me start by asking you an easy question. Okay. Like at what point in life? Did you know that being a conductor was going to be your career path? And how did it happen?


Urs: I was already at the Conservatory here in San Francisco. When I went let’s go backwards. I did conduct choruses already. When I was kid. In my teenage years, I sang in choruses and occasionally I got to take over when the directors were not there or something like that. So I had a little bit of a I already liked it then but then at the Conservatory, I was asked by my friends who I always organize all kinds of musical adventures with musicians by colleagues, student colleagues, and I would go with the composer’s they always needed somebody to conducted they didn’t have any resources in terms of money. So that’s where I started I started to conduct all this modern pieces of friends of mine and organize the concerts and and we had resources at the conservatory to have a hall and everything was there so wasn’t so complicated to make something happen. And then I was a pretty good I made a couple of dishes which were really good call one called sauce I had to do which is basically potato sauce was a bit with sausages, and a little bit of you know, greens in it and I could make that in big huge you know, pots and and then I could feed them and I would have brands donate beer and wine and that’s how they got paid. 


Ari: Wow. Yeah.




Urs: What that point I really decided okay, this is something I really like and I kind of agree to change my I started to really seriously investigate that career and and started anywhere I could, you know, all over the place I took any master class I could. And, and I did many of them. And so slowly but surely, you know, I got better and went to Aspen, Colorado a couple years. And for the Aspen Music Festival, which I had another chance to, in those places you could if you had an initiative, you could put an orchestra together and do all kinds of things, because there is, you know, four or five orchestras in Aspen every summer there are and so it just took some initiative to get people together to play.


Ari: So, so my next question I was gonna ask is What prompted you to start the Golden Gate Symphony Orchestra? But it sounds like, and correct me if I’m wrong, it sounds like, if you want to be a conductor, you need to get people to conduct.


Urs: Yes, you know, concept of be in front of the mirror and wave your arms to reporting. But it doesn’t really work when it comes to actually learning how to really conduct and the, you know, the third deal with the people deal with the issues deal with the emotions. And so you definitely have to figure something out. And I, you know, coming from my background being, you know, not having really the hour, I didn’t start early to conduct I started fairly late when I was already my trainee. So that means that I needed to find my own way of doing it my own way, I realized quickly if I, I can, I’m good at getting people to play for me. So that is what I did. And when I came back to San Francisco, I, I had a guitar teaching job at a community music school called the Community Music Center, which started in 84, which is in the Mission District, and they didn’t have an orchestra. So I said, Okay, we’re good. That’s my first one. And at the same time, I got a job at a little Catholic school 7am Kids orchestra, you know, from, you know, where you had to do everything to the instrument, and I had to be there, but it’s sort of 530 in the morning, and anon would give me advice on how to deal with everything. So, you know, you took whatever you can. And, you know, in the CD I conducted whatever I could conduct just to get experience.


Ari: Wow. Wow. So that’s it sounds fascinating. And you started when did you start that? The Golden Gate symphony? When was that


Urs: the first inclination was Community Music Center orchestra that’s at nine. I wrote a kid’s opera The second seven years, a couple years earlier, and did that in Switzerland in a in a little valley called pray Gallia. Where Chuck omit the is from the big artist. And he anyway, I did this with a whole with everybody in the in the valley basically participated. And it took me a few years to prepare, but that also, at the same time, I founded the local professional orchestra in our state in robinton. And so you know, I initiatives to is really what it took. And same thing I will come back to San Francisco and get together. You know, these people in the mansion on a Saturday afternoon, one to four, nobody wanted to come to the mission, it was pretty crime ridden at that time. But slowly but surely, you know, people enjoyed what we were doing. And we you know, and here we go. And of course, I was always interested in creating community. That’s really what I’m a specialist in that. I love community. I love I don’t want to be I live in San Francisco intermission. And I build an orchestra in animation. And so hence, I have a huge community around me. You know, that’s sort of my concept is to, to wherever you live, build something where you live, and you it will work. You know, it wasn’t very sexy. We are in terms of being the famous conductors and doing the New York Film trying to have to be career by the very gratified when it comes to having building a community around you.


Ari: Mm hmm. It sounds like you know, I know my like one of my daughters is a teacher. She’s a second grade teacher. And it’s not sexy, being a teacher. Alright, but the satisfaction that you get from you know, watching kids grow, you know, teaching them and watching them grow. I’m assuming it’s the same kind of gratification that you feel You know, taking kids and people and building, you know, building up their confidence, I assume and building them up, but you know, it’s become a, a unit so to speak. 


Urs: Alright, I mean, if that’s what that’s what orchestras are all about, I mean, they’re all about, like, ordinances


or anything like that, you know, I mean, also what I really did, right, I have a lot of Chorus experience, you know, with singing with my family or the diamond and singing the choruses, and so on in my youth, but, and so I did that at the same time, I would also I directed the dollar, the San Francisco children’s chorus, in the same period. And then I got a job in a performing arts school for 20 years where I taught kids from from four to 14, five days a week, which was incredible, because you could really do something and build something amazing itself. All the same time as we build the Golden Gate symphony. I did the 94 I started the San Francisco Sinfonietta, which was the professional arm of the Golden Gate Symphony today. And then the Community Music Center, obviously, was I matures. And then 2010, I merged the whole thing together into the goal gates.


Ari: Oh, wow. Let me take you back a little bit. Because I think, you know, we had a discussion before we got on the show. And you mentioned to me about your, you know, when you were growing up that you, again, your BIOS has nine siblings. That’s a lot of a lot of kids. And you also mentioned to me that you weren’t exactly very well off. As a matter of fact, you grew up very poor. And I’m wondering, what was that like? And you know, what kind of, well, how did that affect you? And how did that help you or hurt you, in your pursuit of your of your career?


Urs: Well, I would say, we had our we had some years of doing pretty good. My parents build a travel business with buses, they had the first taxis and they were innovative, very innovative people. And my mom was the first woman who had a driver’s license in our state. And we back when she got the license, they called the police and said a woman is driving for the racing, and that was not, you know, that was probably 48 or something, you know. Wow.


Ari: And that was in Switzerland?


Urs: Yeah. That was in the Swiss in cooler in that town. Yeah. And so you know, we had a very slow process, we built a bit of business state built the business in the 50s and early 60s. And of course, there was not much money around. But in the other hand, we had a very, you know, we lived in a apartment of three bedrooms with 11 people. But at the same time, we lived right next in this this apartment building 10 families right next to the forest, great location overlooking the city. And to have the forest right next to us. We have this extended living room, which my mom and Sidley used to send us out there and do whatever you wanted to do. And so yes, we are but we learned we learned how to how to not have money, we learned how to work early. You know, we all had to get jobs, little jobs and after school before school and in the summertime and so you’re always know that money is something you cannot do you have to really work hard.


And it’s so funny because I think that that is something that today’s youth do not understand. Okay, what do you mean I have to work for a living I’m going to school or you know, I’m doing this I’m going out with my friends, whatever. And they don’t understand what it means to grow up without money.


Particularly I would say particularly in places like San Francisco and and and the Swiss is today in Switzerland, people are well off and but when I look I you know, I we support programs in Nicaragua still today, three, four music schools now. And the kids down there, they all have to work there is no money, there’s real poverty. So it’s it, you know, you you’ll see that what happens there and but it doesn’t end here. Of course, it happens in certain communities where people also don’t have any money. But nevertheless, overall, I would say we, I we were blessed actually, that we had this experience because we learned how to that things are not always like the bricks happen fairly often, you know, what you’re just mentioning so


Ari: Right, right, right. So while pursuing all these dreams of yours, and you know, trying to get all this stuff done the Jevon fall to a point so lucky that you that you said to yourself, you know what, I quit? I can’t do this anymore. I can’t deal with whatever’s going on. You know, I’m giving up my dreams, I don’t care, you know, I’m gonna call, you know, roll up into a little balls and you know, sleep the rest of my life away? I mean, did anything like that ever happened? And if it did, how did you manage to get out of that? And how did you make that comeback?


Urs: Well, I think I think in my case, because, you know, I got my first music job, when I was about 16 and a half, I was hired as a guitar teacher, in a music school in Switzerland. For me, that was an amazing success, actually, because suddenly, I made about 17 bucks an hour, which is probably around 48 or $45, today. And suddenly, I made a living doing plucking this guitar, you know, livable. So actually, I had a different experience in that sense, because I quickly learned to make a living and made a living in music since then. And, but what of course, in a way, when you start going to conservatories, and you go to the higher level of education, you’re, you’re basically these places are not places for Community Music, these places, you’re supposed to be coming out of the Conservatory, and become, you know, in the conducting world, either have a big career, you know, touring or whatever, and are, or in the conducting world, you’re supposed to have become an assistant conductor of a big orchestra, and then you’re going to, and you have that crazy route. Well, that crazy route was not happening. You know, in my case, this is not happening, you know, I was already about five years too old in that whole scheme of things, I guess, if I would have been, you know, 22 and graduating and conducting, and then maybe I would have had a chance to get into some bigger orchestras, Assistant, but I was too old, I was already 27 When I finished my, my degree at the conservatory because I started this whole education thing a bit later, because I was a maverick of doing music, learning it and, and being a professional before I actually had my, my formal education. So that’s the part I had to learn that, you know, I had to remember what was important to me, I had to remember that communities what I want to do, you know, I want to, I was fond of to go and take the classes with Pravin and Bernstein and, and those big people and, and go to the classes with carry on in Berlin. I, you know, I felt I felt good about that. But the point was that that’s not what how the how the world works. Right now, the world works when you have to be young. And you have to have the right doors open, everything is about somebody has to open the door for you. So I learned that pretty quick that the doors are not quite open for me. And but I’m not going to worry about it. That’s I’m going to go and do my thing. And so I started this little orchestra, it was really horrible. It was horrendously bad. In fact, my wife Kay and her friend TJ came to the first show when they met me. And and actually no, no, not TJ he’s her girlfriend, Betsy. And they walk. She wanted to walk Betsy wanted to walk out into an intermission and say, this is horrible. I don’t know, what am I doing here? And Kate said, Okay, no, no, we’ll stay to the end. And in this case, we always had two shows. And then Kay told me after show that, you know, how horrible it was, and said, and I said, Okay, well come back tomorrow. And she said, Well, you’re crazy. Come back. I’m not gonna do that. So we It’s okay. You’re not coming back tomorrow. We don’t ever live together. I’m going to talk to you like a hot potato. She came tomorrow and experienced a transformation because when you work on the edge of life, you know, when you were classical music is really difficult, you know, really difficult. You can either through the UK, Diabate Beethoven, whatever, or you can also screw it up. Everybody had noticed this music being beautiful. Well, this music can also be really badly executed in this case, but people want to play it. So we would play little excerpts of symphonies. But still, you need the violins to be in tune in the air, but it’s not quite there yet. And in music when you’re not quite into it. It’s a horrendous oral experience. Oh, anyway, and so that’s and she came back and the next day would always be quite a bit better than the first day because the first day would be hold Nervous and people would freak out and have anxiety attacks and stuff like that. And then the second day, he was a little more respectable, she did see that, oh, I get that. I understand that that’s, you know, and many, you know, you say I’m a conductor. Well, that means in everybody’s mind that I could, you know, I’m good. You know, I played the part I got the long hair. And that happened.


You know, and I had that then do when I was young, like, it was a good looking guy and had lots of spirit. And so people thought that I was definitely, you know, major conductor somehow. But you know, also because I did all these things, I, I wrote my own operas, and I got professionals together to play with me. And then in it for me, I formed that chamber orchestra called San Francisco Sinfonietta. And so, pretty quick, I realized I need to marry amateurs with professionals. You know, that would be the best if I can find a way to do that. And that’s what we are, we have probably 25 professionals in our sections when they coach the amateurs. And so the level is pretty damn good. And now we can have a very respectable, you know, it’s good, it’s


Ari: fine. Wow, that’s it’s certainly is inspiring, really, is to come from like nothing and nowhere in and then just to, you know, to to accomplish all the things that you’ve accomplished. It’s just absolutely amazing. Let me ask you this. Who is the one person that you would point to that you would say had the most influence in your life in your career?


Urs: What in my career definitely, there is a gentleman named James Weimer. And James was a natural conducting educating age education guru Tai Chi, he, he was in New York, working for, for the Juilliard School in the prep department. So you had some really amazing students there, but he was he was just really good educator. But he also was a total drunk. So he never got up to the top of the school because of that. And at some point, he moved to the Castro exam, but he’s also gay. And he moves to the cask of San Francisco, and started teaching it the prep exam. Conservatory where I met him. And he had always these people come back to this really very gifted, like, yo, yo, mom would come back to him and take some lessons. And really, even not what he’s already famous, and a whole bunch of other conductors who made it would come to clean up their ears every year, you know, stuff like that to get shot in the arm. Because conducting is a high pressure profession, you need to have your team around you to keep your ears in order. But you know, it’s like, if you don’t have your ears there, you’re screwed, you know? So, anyway, so this guy was really good at it, no man that graduated, I knew I had holes in my, in my, you know, hearing everything, the whole orchestra, the chorus and all that in front of me. So I, I went to him and said, I need you to help me out. And he said, he said, Okay, come to my house. And I went there at 9am. And it took a whole week, the whole full week, he worked with me, the whole day, whatever it was, all these exercises he went through. He didn’t say much about anything. And I answered whatever I thought it was right or wrong. And after a week, he said to me, Well, I’ll take you, you might have something. And he told me then, and then I said, You will never make it until you’re in your 60s, when I was really mad at him. I was 26 or 28. And you know, but the point is, that’s what it took for me to become to put my level up to an international level to something very I can go in front of anyone and do this thing. And he did it five years with him and and really great every difference in the world. The confidence, was there another possibility. So he was definitely musical director by far the most influential for me.


Ari: Wow. So you know this, this is a common theme throughout my shows every every guest that I talked to and I asked them that kind of a question like who is responsible or who you know, who was important in your life. They everybody to a man to a woman, they all pointed the same thing. They had a mentor. Yeah, had a mentor. And it’s it’s so important in life.


Urs: When I something I gave back, you know, I have I have tons of students around all over the place where I still mentor them now. They’re older and they you know, try to get their careers gone.


Well, that’s what happened. When you get to our age, okay, what do you do? You mentor the younger people, you try and help that, you know, you give back.


Ari:  That’s the opportunity you give people, you know, you give me a platform to talk to a lot of people about what I did, and, and how I handle my thing. So that’s another platform we all need.


Absolutely, absolutely. So let me just ask you this. Do you have any words of wisdom or anything you’d like to share with my audience? Before we go? You know, go for it.


Urs: Yeah, I think I think if anything, right now, what I’m teaching my younger students, in fact, I’m doing a residency program next year with lots of young people. Every single set, we have invite people to stay with us for a month and we give them the opportunity to look into our world. And actually help them to open doors for their careers. With the idea is you need to look around for your team. Check out your team. Don’t be afraid. Ask your professors ask ask anyone, if you ask a specialist or knows about money, because you need to learn how to fundraise because, you know, you’re not going to make it that’s conducted. If you don’t know how to fundraise. It’s impossible. So the point is as but if you can, remember, you need to create a team around yourself, like you have two parents who are supporting you, or whoever is supporting you to go to school to study have that privilege. But you got to go beyond that. You see, and you have to be humble and say, Okay, I need if I want to be successful, I need a serious team around me.


Wow, thank you so much. Let me ask you this. Last but not least, so if people want to get in touch with you, right, whether it’s for advice, whether it’s to work with you, whatever it is, what would be the best way for them to do that? Do you have like a website? It’s


www Golden Gate.


or the Golden Gate One word right


there can find me there. And I’m always open to I also do zoom session and I do lots of of consultations with those type of things. And people call me and when I professional device, and I do that regularly, wow. Oh, and anybody needs help. Get in touch with me.


There you go. There you go. Once again, www dot Golden Gate. Okay, if you want to get in touch with ors, you have questions you have you want to schmooze, you want to shoot the breeze?


Ari: I’m encouraging the schmoozing because I encouraging people not to be afraid to get in touch. Whether you’re looking for a solo gig, whether you’re looking for conducting opportunity, whether you’re looking for a opportunity to give send me a composition, do not hesitate to get in touch with me because that’s what we need. And that’s what we do. We are in that business.


That’s great. Thank you so much, Urs Thanks so much for sharing your story with me and my audience. Good luck going forward. You been listening to whispers in bricks and I’m your host, Ari Schonbrun. Until next time, listen to the whispers avoid the breaks and never ever give up on your dreams.