For two months last summer, Ashley Donaldson lived a life of immersion in music with the orchestra she most admires, the London Symphony Orchestra. As the recipient of a Stuart Givens Fellowship, the junior from Findlay was able to see firsthand the life of a musician and conductor, getting to know the symphony, traveling on tour and attending recording sessions, master classes and rehearsals.
Donaldson discovered this sign about a block from her London apartment.
It was a profound experience for the aspiring conductor, a trumpet player majoring in music education. “I had always wanted to do something like that but I never thought it would be possible,” she said—not, that is, until she read a notice about the fellowship. Created by Dr. Christopher and Ellen Dalton in honor of a longtime BGSU faculty member, the award challenges students to think about where they would go and what they would do if they had the money and the time.
To Donaldson, there was no doubt about what she would do. “If I were ever to play in or conduct an orchestra, the LSO would be my goal orchestra,” she said. Not only does the London Symphony “champion my favorite composer, Hector Berlioz,” but LSO President Sir Colin Davis guest conducted the first professional concert she ever saw—the New York Philharmonic.
Little could she have known then that she would one day have the chance to spend time onstage with him in London, talking about conducting, or that he would turn to her in the middle of a rehearsal and ask, “Did you hear that quaver (eighth note)?”
Except for the exchange rate taking a dive between the time she planned her trip budget and her arrival in London, and a bout of food poisoning on tour in Spain, everything else about her sojourn fell into place almost magically, she said.
This was presaged when she went to Chicago in May to see the LSO on its American tour. Walking down the street before the concert, Donaldson ran into bassoonist Joost Bosdijk, the player she most wanted to meet.
“I tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘Hello! This is incredibly awkward, but you look familiar to me. Are you by chance in the London Symphony Orchestra?’"
During her London stay, Donaldson attended every rehearsal of the orchestra except one (because she was ill) and every concert except one (because she was singing with a professional choir, through another chance encounter). At one point she spent nine consecutive 12-hour days with the symphony.
The musicians lead a fairly grueling life, she found, going from rehearsals to recording sessions (some in the legendary Abbey Road studios) to their teaching duties to performances. At one point, Donaldson found herself racing across London in a SmartCar with the tuba player and his tuba to a youth outreach lesson in one of the city’s boroughs.
A typical day in London involved waking up about 9 a.m., “sprinting to the concert hall” from her shared flat for three hours of observing rehearsals, followed by attending the evening concert and related events. Her dedication earned the respect of the musicians, who invited her to the exclusive Friends and Patrons reception in mid-July.
“Now, when someone tells me they really want to do something but it would never be possible, I just say, ‘Well, there might be a way,’” Donaldson said.