He is, in conversation, much as he is to the many musicians he leads: engaged, intense, brilliant.
Welcome to the world of Brian Asher Alhadeff, the Central Coast’s busiest conductor.
Artistic director and conductor of Opera San Luis Obispo, Lompoc Pops Orchestra and principal conductor of Civic Ballet of San Luis Obispo and State Street Ballet in Santa Barbara, Alhadeff rode into town in 2011 as a somewhat accidental agent of change.
“Working the Central Coast, I’ve really felt as though I’m a cowboy on a new frontier,” he said in a recent interview.
“There’s just been this abundance of opportunity.”
Alhadeff said, however, that his presence is no new experience to art on the Central Coast.
“There have been symphonies and operas going on here for a long time,” he mused.
“But for whatever reason,” he continued, “there’s just been no ambition to develop certain things.”
Alhadeff’s model has been what he calls countywide arts collaboration.
“When I was hired to take over the company here in 2011,” he said, “I looked at what was going on and I said, ‘You know, I’d really love to do an opera, but I don’t think it is financially beneficial at this point in time.’
“So,” Alhadeff continued, “I basically took 2012 off.
“We only did five recitals and we made a little bit of money, but the point was to bring in top, internationally acclaimed talent who could build an awareness of the opera company.”
It worked. Soon after, because of newfound awareness, Alhadeff was able to establish key relationships with Civic Ballet of San Luis Obispo and State Street Ballet in Santa Barbara.
Alhadeff now had the resources to bring his own idea for a countywide arts collaboration to life.
“We developed this thing we called Co-opera,” Alhadeff said, “and it sold out. It was outstanding.”
Arts have been central to Alhadeff’s life since the age of 7, when he was already a skilled pianist.
“Yes, I played piano. But I wasn’t a wunderkind,” he acknowledged.
“But when I think about when music and the arts absolutely took me, I remember a specific moment in my dad’s house in Redondo Beach.
“My dad was a lawyer -- a workaholic -- and my parents were divorced, so when I went to my dad’s house, I was kind of on my own to do whatever I wanted,” Alhadeff said.
“My dad had this whole row of classical records. There was something about listening to this music that just magnetized me to it, more than whatever was popular on the radio at the time.”
Alhadeff has been immersed ever since, and his career high came shortly after he received his Doctorate in Musical Arts from UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music.
He recalled, “I had a job, right out the door. I was director of orchestras at Grand Valley State in Michigan.”
Concurrently, Alhadeff founded an opera program in the Czech Republic.
“I was suddenly directing in different places -- I had dressing rooms -- it was great,” he said.
Then, in 2006, the bottom started to fall out of opera, and just as Alhadeff was becoming comfortable at being successful, he lost everything.
“My department at the school got a new chair. He was an ax guy and basically, he turned my position into a part time gig, because he could,” Alhadeff said.
“The Czech Republic program bottomed out as well -- they lost their funding -- so they replaced us with locals.”
Alhadeff soon had his hat in the ring for several full-time music director positions in Phoenix, Rio Hondo, St. Cloud, Minnesota and Whittier, but each job went to someone else. Even a try for principal ballet conductor in Tucson ended in disappointment.
It was then that Alhadeff had his flirt with what he calls “career disaster.”
“I suddenly had to completely reinvent myself,” he recalled.
“I had to move back in with my parents because I was unemployed and at EDD meetings once a week.”
Next to the EDD office was a Big 5 Sporting Goods store.
“I have always been a collector of knives,” he said.
“It’s just my thing.”
Tongue in cheek, he continued, “Weaponry and opera, you know. It’s a very common thing.”
He got to know the general manager of the store through his frequent visits, and one day, took some extra time to consider the Help Wanted notice for an assistant manager in the store window.
“I feel like it is my duty to the industry to tell this story loud and clear,” Alhadeff said.
“If I ever make it to the Met or the New York Philharmonic, I am always going to tell this story,” he said, half-jokingly.
When Alhadeff learned the new job -- selling shoes in the store’s shoe department -- was a fit, he said his mind suddenly flashed to a scene from the film Amadeus.
“There’s this scene when Mozart’s grandmother is screaming at him, and then suddenly, her voice is replaced by the sounds of an aria,” Alhadeff said.
“During my interview with the general manager at Big 5, I experienced a similarly cinematic moment, when I was guest conducting for the Tulsa Ballet. I was suddenly taking my bow again at the end of the show in front of four balconies of spotlights.”
He continued, “And that’s when I said to myself, okay, this is the end. I can’t do this. I’m just going to go for broke.
“I knew I had this creative cancer inside of me that said I had to create. I had to be artistically challenged.”
That is when, Alhadeff said, a series of miracles happened.
He ran into an ex-girlfriend who had a feeling that he should call Opera SLO.
Alhadeff contacted Opera SLO’s previous artistic director, Robert Ashens, and soon after, signed on as an assistant for Ashens’ production of La Boheme.
“I told him I’d do it for free,” Alhadeff said. “I just wanted to be able to shadow him. I just wanted to be back in the game again.”
Timing and preparedness were on Alhadeff’s side: Ashen’s contract was soon up for renewal.
“He was coming to the table saying he needed more money, but Opera SLO was really strapped, and they told him they had to reduce fees, so they ended up offering me the job,” Alhadeff said.
With a dream of establishing a summer Pops home for the Opera SLO grand orchestra at Vina Robles Amphitheater in Paso Robles, Alhadeff will lead that company’s debut there with a concert July 31.
On June 20, Alhadeff will conduct the Lompoc Pops Orchestra’s season closer (in Lompoc) and in October Alhadeff’s production of La Boheme will be staged by Opera SLO.
“Overall, my true focus and challenge as an artist here is to transform what is basically a five-letter word in art these days -- opera, which has a horrible stereotype -- and bring back its relevance and its value," he said.
“Trying to sell opera is like trying to sell vanilla ice cream to someone who has never had it before. How do I convince you? You just have to try it.”