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Imagine taking on a prestigious job that requires you to appear regularly in large, crowded public spaces — something that has been an impossibility for over a year now. How would you feel? What would you do?

Paul Hodgins

A highly respected and award-winning arts journalist. In partnership with Heide Janssen, Hodgins has in just over a year established a community-focused, award-winning and widely respected Arts & Culture section at Voice of OC. In addition to his work here as an arts writer, columnist and editor, Hodgins teaches at USC. Previously, he was an arts writer and critic at the Orange County Register and the San Diego Union-Tribune and a professor at UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton. Hodgins holds degrees from USC, the University of Michigan and the Royal Conservatory of Music.

If you’re Jacob Sustaita, Pacific Symphony’s new assistant conductor, you figure out new ways to rise to the occasion and make yourself useful.

“I’ve definitely gone through a spectrum of feelings, but mostly I’ve been excited from the very beginning despite all this craziness,” said the San Antonio native in a recent interview with Voice of OC. “Early on, a lot of my colleagues would check in with me. They asked me, ‘Are you happy that you’re here at this point? We feel so sorry for you.’ But right away I was doing virtual meetings and a lot of planning. And as I learned more about (the orchestra’s) plans, I was getting more and more excited.”

Sustaita’s enthusiasm is well founded. He’s been angling for a position like this for his entire career, and has finally achieved his goal at 40 after spending years as a teacher and guest conductor — a point in his career that, by his own admission, was “almost too late.”

Conducting a major orchestra “has always been my dream job, ever since I can remember,” Sustaita said. He was hooked in high school, becoming proficient on the viola and conducting to recordings in his bedroom with a chopstick as his baton.

Working with Pacific Symphony music director Carl St.Clair was part of that dream. “I’ve known Carl since I played for him in the Texas All-State Orchestra in the ‘90s. When I first found out I would be working with him in this position, I was in heaven.”

Playing conditions have improved recently, allowing Sustaita to do more than take Zoom meetings. But he appreciated the challenges of the last year and what they taught him about finding creative solutions to vexing problems.

“We had to get creative, and we sure have had to stretch ourselves in every possible way. I’m learning so much about myself. You know, in a funny, weird way, this time that we’re living in has actually brought me closer to the organization because we’re having to work so differently. And we actually see each other a lot more now than we might have otherwise.”

Sustaita will get a chance to show off another set of skills with Pacific Symphony’s special production of “La Traviata.” Giuseppe Verdi’s beloved opera about a doomed love affair, reimagined for remote viewing by director Robert Neu, will be performed once only in a June 5 broadcast. Sustaita will host three one-hour sessions on May 19, May 26 and June 2 that will familiarize people with the opera and the details of Pacific Symphony’s upcoming production.

“We’ll talk about the opera, the narrative, the characters, the drama, the music, the ‘behind the scenes’ and ‘behind the score’ things,” Sustaita said. “And we’ll also have interviews with the director, with Carl, the singers, and a little bit of a video that will show the process leading up to the final recording of the performance.”

Drawing Kids in for Life

Sustaita started out as a violist — an unusual beginning for a conductor, he admits.

“As a string player, the trajectory to become an opera conductor was not common. Typically it’s a piano player or vocal coach who travel that route.”

But almost from the beginning, Sustaita was drawn to vocal music. “I’ve always been fascinated by the voice for as long as I can remember, and I’ve always loved singing, even though I never sang in a choir. My family loves to sing.”

Opera has always been a big part of Sustaita’s conducting career, and he never turned down a chance to conduct in that realm. He was drawn to Pacific Symphony partly because of St.Clair’s commitment to including opera as part of its annual season.

Sustaita will also be working with K-12 students on a regular basis, another activity that has occupied a large part of his career. 

“Working with young musicians has always been important to me. I’ve been blessed. That’s where most of my work has been — at the collegiate level and the advanced high school level. I think my love of teaching younger musicians goes back to my days as an orchestra member when I was in high school and everything that I did as a young musician. I had some of the most incredible experiences and greatest teachers.”

Working with students via Zoom and other virtual platforms has brought some surprising advantages to the teaching experience, Sustaita said.

“Of course, we’re not in session in the normal way right now. We’ve been doing online sessions and virtual events for our students, which has been exciting. We’ve been able to bring in guests from around the world to work with and talk to and have master classes for our students.”

Sustaita sees that as one of many silver linings to emerge from the pandemic year, and something that will hopefully remain part of the teaching experience long after COVID-19 has faded.

“There’s so many things we’ve gotten out of this pandemic, like the fact that we can have a session with the concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic. To have a master class with someone world famous — normally this is just something that they’re too busy to do.”

Sustaita thinks the most important aspect of music education is its power to draw kids in for life, whether as fans of classical music or professional musicians. 

“My thought is if I do my job right and I do it really well, and I work really hard, this is how we bring music permanently to people’s lives. Out of that experience, even if it’s just one concert, whether it’s the best of John Williams or something by Beethoven, it will light a spark that lasts for a lifetime and leads to, well, who knows where?”

Paul Hodgins is the founding editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at phodgins@voiceofoc.org.

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