Published in the December 2010 Boom! NC Magazine
By Whitney L.J. Howell
Growing up in Wales, Grant Llewellyn really had no choice but to become a music lover. From the cradle forward, he was surrounded by the piano and singing as his family and friends used melodies as a form of social and community activity.
“Music was everywhere-at school and in church. Most families had a piano in those days,” Llewellyn said, talking with me after rehearsing with the symphony orchestra at Appalachian State University in Boone. “I grew up listening to my grandmother play badly, but even then, I responded as she hammered out a melody.”
Surprisingly, the piano wasn’t the instrument on which he cut his musical teeth. Instead, he first picked up the cello. His parents recognized his innate talent when he was ten years old, and they encouraged him to audition for the Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester, much like the Juilliard School in New York City, where he could study performance, composition, and conducting. He was accepted, starting his lifelong journey as a musician and conductor.
Today, Llewellyn, who turns 50 this month, speaks with the same palpable energy and enthusiasm you would expect from that 10 year old boy. He is the current music director for the North Carolina Symphony, but he often works with other acclaimed ensembles and frequently returns to Wales to be with his family. Given his hectic travel schedule, he needs every ounce of his abundant verve to maintain the pace.
That vigor has given him career longevity that has, in turn, benefited his professional and personal lives, he said. By immersing himself in multiple musical genres-whether it’s a Russian dance, a Chinese march, or a Brahms symphony-he’s learned how different voices in music interplay, much akin to being a solo actor on stage and playing all the roles.
As his ability to relate to heroes and heroines in music grew and he found it easier to translate his understanding to the general public, he also discovered the same skills could help him at home.
“I think when you’re just starting out, you’re desperately trying to juggle a young family, and there are many variables in motion at the same time,” he said. “But, as my experience as a director grew, so did my ability to navigate the kids’ activities. The wide swath of emotions presented in music also helped me negotiate my way through the wide spectrum of emotions that comes from children as they age.”
Although Llewellyn’s love of conducting is a driving force in his life, he readily admits it isn’t the only musical career he would enjoy. An extensive part of working with an orchestra deals with education as the ensemble learns to work together, and bringing that experience to students would be rewarding, as well as trying, he said.
“I take my hat off to the classroom teachers who battle to keep schoolchildren interested and engaged in music,” he said. “It’s a challenge with students, young and old, to make musical instruction fun and not sound condescending.”
Music isn’t Llewellyn’s only passion, however. When he’s not conducting in Raleigh or jetting across the country working with a myriad of prestigious orchestras, you can likely find him at his home in the countryside of South Wales. He passes his time watching his boys play rugby or playing soccer with his girls. He also devotes much of his focus to the garden adjacent to his house.
“It’s a bit like therapy. I fly around, stay in hotels, and jump from city center to center,” he said. “Then, I get to come home, pull up weeds, and get muddy.”