Julian Kuerti at Boston's Symphony Hall in 2008

A lot happens in a decade, especially if you’re a talented young conductor like Toronto native Julian Kuerti, who is back in town to conduct the Royal Conservatory Orchestra at Koerner Hall on Friday night.

At the start of the millennium, he was fresh out of studies, creating fun musical projects from scratch in Berlin and apprenticing at the side of Ivan Fischer, founding music director of the Budapest Festival Orchestra.

From there he went to work as assistant conductor with the Boston Symphony, where music director James Levine’s ongoing health problems put Kuerti on the podium in front of one of the continent’s best ensembles. For conductors, who largely learn by doing, this was invaluable experience.

Kuerti, now a busy freelance conductor with a full concert calendar in North America and Europe, is eagerly anticipating his second concert programme with the Royal Conservatory Orchestra. He came away impressed from his first visit with them last year, when they tackled technically demanding music by Belá Bartók and Igor Sravinsky.

“I was thrilled at the level they played at,” he said. “Plus they get to work in the best concert hall in Toronto.”

Even though the school is relatively small, Kuerti says that the Conservatory orchestra is first-rate.

“The kids here are playing at the same great international level as students in schools in the States attain,” he explains. “I was so amazed by how prepared they were and how well they know the music. They run the show as a professional orchestra.”

Kuerti, who has worked with students at the New England Conservatory in Boston as well as at the Boston Symphony’s summer programme at Tanglewood, says it usually takes five or six rehearsals to whip a student concert into shape, but the Royal Conservatory players are fine with the professional standard of three general rehearsals, plus a dress rehearsal.

The better musicians know a piece, the more time the conductor can spend shaping the music rather than dealing with technical issues — “It’s a conductor’s dream not to muddle around with ensemble problems,” says Kuerti. Plus, it helps that the students are excited about what they’re presenting.

“That’s especially true with the old warhorses like Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony,” (which is on Friday’s programme) says Kuerti. “For most of these students, this will be the first time they have played this piece together. With professionals, it’s often hard to get them excited about a piece they’ve played so many times — except on the night of a concert.”

It’s the same story with a soloist.

In the case of Friday’s concert, it’s last year’s Glenn Gould Professional School Concerto Competition winner, pianist Minjoo Jo, who tackles Franz Liszt’s dashing Piano Concerto No. 2.

In Kuerti’s experience, veteran soloists have played the most popular concertos so many times, many eagerly look to their conductor for some sort of new insight into the piece. With a first-time soloist, “they have worked so hard at it, that they usually want to show me what they want to do with it.”

Kuerti is having his own first-time experience with the Toronto programme’s opening work, Dream(e)scape, by R. Murray Schafer.

The conductor admits that, although he knows Schafer from his days as a student at University of Toronto, he has never before conducted one of the Canadian icon’s compositions.

Kuerti describes the piece as a musical depiction of a dream state, full of episodes and strange, sudden transitions. “It has made me so much more conscious of the way I experience my own dreams,” says Kuerti of his personal process of learning and absorbing Schafer’s score. Kuerti wants the whole piece to sound, “like a believable whole,” but says that he, like most of us, doesn’t remember the beginnings of dreams, only the middle and the end, adding to the challenge.

But he’s as eager to test the result as the students are.

For full concert and ticket details, click here.

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Here’s a little clip of Kuerti leading the National Arts Centre Orchestra and piano soloist Jan Lisiecki during an Atlantic tour stop in Saint John, NB last fall:

John Terauds

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