SEAL BEACH — When your father plays violin, your brother plays violin, your cousins play violin and your aunt plays viola, clearly the sounds of strings run deep in the family.
So it was only natural that Maxim Eshkenazy take up the family trade and pick up a violin at age 5. His mother — the engineer of the family — insisted. His father, though, wasn't so sure.
But it all worked out. That motherly insistence is what eventually brought Eshkenazy far from his European homeland and to Orange County audiences.
The 35-year-old musician from Bulgaria is in his third season as the assistant conductor of the Pacific Symphony. Eshkenazy's duties include leading the Costa Mesa-based orchestra's Class Act partnership with local schools, the Family Musical Mornings series and the Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra.
Eshkenazy, a Seal Beach resident, traces his family lineage in Bulgaria back 500 years. Before that, they were Spaniards.
His violinist father and clarinetist uncle both play in Bulgaria's Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra, the national orchestra of the formerly communist country. His cousin, Vesko Eschkenazy, is concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra — the Amsterdam-based ensemble considered one of the best in the world.
Eshkenazy's extensive music education also started at age 5 and through high school included studying acoustics, music history and stage psychology. But, like many teens, he got antsy, unsure about his future and a little rebellious.
"Did I want to do music? I didn't know," he said. "I had a lot of doubts and a lot of resentment against my parents from time to time."
He signed up for some pre-military training courses, but he soon realized music was what he wanted.
"I loved jumping off the airplanes with parachutes, but the training officer was not very nice to me!" he said.
Soon enough, the high-stakes decision came: enlist for Bulgaria's mandatory military service or get accepted to a higher education institution. So he prepped for the competitive audition into the Sofia Conservatory.
After some serious practicing, he got accepted and skipped the military.
His next musical milestone came later, while on tour in the United States with a German youth orchestra. Some teachers offered him scholarships if he came to study in the U.S. Liking the prospect of coming to America, he took the fast track and finished his four-year program in Sofia in three years.
Then he went to Los Angeles for graduate study at USC. He wanted an American experience and adventure.
"I love Europe," he said. "I've grown up in Europe and love its culture. But I wanted to go far away, to somewhere very different."
With master's degrees in violin performance and orchestral conducting fresh in hand, the Bulgarian immediately won the spot as conductor for the Pasadena Symphony Youth Orchestra.
When the time came to audition for the assistant conductor spot of the Pacific Symphony, Eshkenazy was selected from among more than 100 applicants in an ordeal that took more than a year.
He called it a "grueling process" of paperwork, submitting a bio and leading part of a rehearsal.
"It's a little bit like going on a date," Eshkenazy said. "You stand up in front of the orchestra and you start. In the first three minutes, you know if it's going to work out or not, if there's chemistry, if they respond to your feelings. You know if it's going to dance or not very quickly."
Fortunately for Eshkenazy — who for fun as a youngster used to conduct his family members — the orchestra danced during his audition date.
"It was incredible to stand up there for the first time in my audition" and lead the orchestra through a Mendelssohn symphony, he said.
Winning the spot in Costa Mesa was coming full circle for the young conductor. Carl St.Clair, the Pacific Symphony's principal conductor, once worked with a young Eshkenazy in Europe. The reuniting seemed like destiny.
Eshkenazy takes his duties with the Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra as seriously as he does with the professionals. He's planning to take his group to his native Bulgaria in the summer of 2011.
But just as important, he remembers how when he was young, music-making was so memorable. He said one has to approach instruction and conducting carefully with youth, some of whom will become professionals.
"Everything you say, you know it will stay in their minds," he said. "You can't just say to the horns, 'That's out of tune,' or it's a wrong note." Instead, he tries to use constructive criticism, sometimes through a joke.
When not working in Orange County, Eshkenazy conducts the chamber orchestra at the Colburn School in downtown Los Angeles and the Bakersfield Youth Symphony. He also directs Fortissimo Fest, an event in Sofia that interlinks Bulgarian and American music.
And when not conducting or studying, Eshkenazy learns acoustic guitar and flies high above the Southland in airplanes and helicopters — as a licensed pilot of both.
His thirst for classical music, whose repertoire spans 500 years, he compares to a vast ocean. Only a small percent of music written in that time span has really been discovered, he said. There's so much more to hear.
And while his musical enthusiasm ranges from '80s and '90s pop music to the music of Mahler, Tchaikovsky and Ravel, he can't pick just one favorite. Instead, he makes a celestial comparison.
"Look at the stars. Which one is your favorite star? They're all beautiful."
BRADLEY ZINT is a copy editor for the Daily Pilot and a classically trained musician. E-mail him story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If You Go
What: Maxim Eshkenazy leads the Pacific Symphony in the "Nutcracker for Kids," part of the Family Musical Mornings series
When: Dec. 11 at 10 and 11:30 a.m.
Where: Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall
Cost: Tickets start at $24