The Search Is Over: Youngstown Symphony Hires Music Director

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – After a nationwide search of nearly four years, the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra has a new leader.

Sergey Bogza has been named conductor and music director of the orchestra, the Youngstown Symphony Society Board of Directors announced Thursday.

The 38-year-old Bogza signed an initial three-year contract and will take the reins of the YSO on July 1. He is currently the music director of the Panama City Symphony in Panama City, Fla., and will continue in that job as well.

In the past, Bogza has held music director positions with the Millikin-Decatur Symphony Orchestra (Decatur, Ill.), Willmar Symphony (Willmar, Minn.), and Heartland Symphony Orchestra (Little Falls, Minn.). He has also led orchestras for opera and ballet.

Bogza lives in Panama City, Fla., but said he will spend three or four months a year in Youngstown.

A native of Russia, Bogza and his family moved to Portland, Ore., in 1995 when he was about 9 years old.

He holds a master’s degree in orchestral conducting from Central Washington University and a doctorate in musical arts in orchestral conducting from the University of Minnesota.

The music director-conductor position at the YSO has been vacant since the unexpected death of Randall Craig Fleischer in August 2020.

Bogza said he has already begun preparing the 2024-25 season of the YSO and expects to announce it in July.

In a phone interview, he said he will spend a lot of time in the city to understand the audience and the musicians and will customize the YSO’s offerings to fit the city.

“I’m not interested in a fly-in and leave job,” Bogza said. “I can’t be that person. I want to spend chunks of time getting to know the city and creating opportunities for the young musicians, music education programs in the schools, supporting up and coming musicians. I want to be connected with the community and find a way for people to fall in love with symphonic music. I want to create an environment where, when people think of the Youngstown Symphony, they are proud and enthusiastic.”

The hiring of Bogza came as a bit of a surprise. The YSO has used many guest conductors over the past four seasons and considered several of them for the top post.

But in the end, the board selected Bogza even though he never was tapped to lead the YSO in a regular season concert.

Bogza had applied for the post in 2022 but wasn’t contacted for an interview until this year. He spent several days here in March, meeting with board members and YSO musicians, and even put together a private concert with the full orchestra for symphony patrons and season ticket holders.

Matt Pagac, chief executive and operating officer of the YSO, said Bogza has “a history of captivating audiences.”

Pagac was impressed with Bogza’s accomplishments in the two years he has been at the helm of the Panama City Symphony.

“He has increased their audience base, helped to attract donors, and has built innovative educational programing,” Pagac said. “When [Bogza] was in Youngstown in late March, those who spent any time with him commented on his energy and excitement.”

The chairman of the Panama City Symphony board and Bogza’s other character references all noted that the conductor accomplished more than they thought possible, Pagac said.

Looking ahead, Pagac said the YSO under Bogza’s leadership will continue to create programming that introduces a wide range of music.

Concerts in which a popular film is screened on stage while the YSO plays the score will again be scheduled, Pagac said. Past offerings have included “Ghostbusters” and “Home Alone.”

The YSO’s partnership with Ballet Western Reserve for the dance school’s annual performance of “The Nutcracker” will also continue.

Pagac also noted that the YSO will continue to present concerts at both Powers Auditorium and Stambaugh Auditorium, a practice it started in the past two years.

A Closer Look

When Bogza is not working with his orchestra, he challenges himself in several extreme sports endeavors.

He is an ultramarathon runner and long-distance bicyclist. An ultramarathon is a foot race that can be anywhere from 30 to hundreds of miles in length.

He has even done wing walking – climbing out of his open-air seat in a biplane during flight and moving about on the wings. In one YouTube video, Bogza is shown climbing onto the top wing during a flight, strapping himself to a metal stand and flying over the ocean while the plane completes a 360-degree loop at an altitude of 5,000 feet.

Bogza views the position of music director as a marathon and adopts that mindset in his quest for success.

“Every season, in a way, is like an ultramarathon,” he said. “The artistry, the energy, and all of the steps that one goes through.”

Bogza has always been drawn to tests of endurance, which he said lead to becoming a better version of oneself. That’s why he chose ultramarathons as his sport of choice. He will next compete in the Bigfoot Ultra Marathon race in August in the Cascade Mountains in Washington state.

“When running a 200-mile race, there is always a moment when you meet the weak version of yourself, the one who makes excuses,” Bogza said. “I love meeting that version of myself [and overcoming him].”

The experience also plays into his music making.

“Many want to do traditional programming, to follow the perception of what a conductor should or shouldn’t do,” Bogza said. “I don’t want to hold myself to any stereotype of what a conductor should do on or off the podium.”

Bogza is one of nine siblings. His mother is from Mariupol, Ukraine, and his father is a native of Moscow, Russia.

His childhood hometown of Taganrog, Russia, is on the Sea of Azov, about 50 miles east of Mariupol.

“I traveled to Ukraine a lot of times to visit my mother’s side of the family,” he said. Mariupol is currently occupied by Russia in its war with Ukraine.

As a child, Bogza was a gymnast and also studied piano. When he is not running, bicycling or performing, he can be found in his kitchen where he is mastering the art of preparing Slavic cuisine.

Coming to Youngstown

Most small- and midsize-market orchestras like Youngstown and Panama City have similar needs and goals.

They must please current subscribers while continuously creating new fans and building ticket sales. Doing so requires innovative programming and community outreach.

It can be a tricky road to travel, but a familiar one to Bogza.

To make it work in Youngstown, he intends to first learn the desires and habits of residents and musicians and then create programming specific to them.

“Some conductors [of multiple orchestras] might reuse what they do in one city at another city,” Bogza said. “But I don’t work like that. [Programming] must be tailor-made for the Youngstown Symphony and this community.”

He acknowledges that it will take time to get to know the audience here and create a relationship with the musicians.

“[In my second year,] we sold out all of our concerts in Panama City,” he said. Bogza expects it will take a season or two to turn things around in Youngstown.

When he was here for his interviews, Bogza explored the city and its restaurants. He also spent time with the members of the YSO and came away impressed.

“My first impression is that it is an orchestra with depth and exceptional and experienced musicians,” he said. “They play well and have depth. They have worked with a lot of conductors over the last few years and were flexible with a lot of styles. They were up for anything but wanted leadership and guidance.”

Bogza said he and the musicians will build a culture and an identity for the orchestra in his first two seasons.

Pictured at top: Sergey Bogza, the new conductor and music director of the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.