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X-Press Yourself: One-time cook has music on menu

Lesley Sabol, the Modesto Symphony Orchestra's general manager has held jobs ranging from restaurant manager to dog walker. (Steve Kosko / The Modesto Bee)
Lesley Sabol, the Modesto Symphony Orchestra's general manager has held jobs ranging from restaurant manager to dog walker. (Steve Kosko / The Modesto Bee)

Lesley Sabol has so many interests, it took her awhile to decide on a career.

The 29-year-old general manager of the Modesto Symphony Orchestra has done a wide variety of jobs, including cooking and animal care.

Raised in Marietta, Ga., Sabol majored in music performance at Boston University with a concentration on French horn.

Soon after leaving, she took a job as a personal assistant for a wealthy Massachusetts executive. As a Christmas bonus, her boss sent her to the first semester of culinary school, which led Sabol to eventually take jobs cooking and managing restaurants.

Then she worked as a professional dog walker and toyed with being a veterinarian until she realized how much additional schooling she would need.

She moved to San Francisco and returned to restaurants before getting burned out on the business and started working for orchestras. She started the Modesto orchestra job in March.

Her five-year break from the classical music world hasn't been a hindrance. "It all came flooding back," she said. "It was just like riding a bicycle. I hadn't lost it. It was just in a separate part of my brain."

Q: Why didn't you go into a performance career after getting your music degree?

A: From undergrad, had I continued on in the performance realm, I probably would have gone to grad school. I wasn't ready. I had taken a few professional auditions and not advanced. Nowadays, unless you spend all your time working on your technique in undergrad, you're not typically going to win an audition at the age of 21 or 22. You need to get more experience as a free-lance musician and getting more teachers to help you out with the things you're still stuck with. I realized that while I had talent, I wasn't going to get to where I wanted to be professionally.

Q: Tell me about the personal assistant position.

A: It started out as a live-in position. It was mostly cooking, light errand running and driving, and with that, you got a studio apartment with a separate entrance, plus a car to use whenever I wanted. Then she ... really liked me and she offered me the position of being basically her personal assistant. She had me do other stuff for her like household management and a lot of her scheduling — she's very busy — and then even more of a cooking role. I started throwing dinner parties for her and then doing all the shopping. I chauffeured her kids around. We joked that my title was basically "personal concierge."

Q: What was your boss like?

A: She was a single mom who adopted two Russian girls at the ages of 5 and 7. They'd been abandoned in an orphanage. She did it on her own. She had been married twice before. She wanted to give this gift and raise these girls. She came from nothing, went to Wellesley and then Harvard Business School. She became a chief financial officer and vice president of Continental Cablevision, which was her last career before she got to retire when they sold the company to MediaOne, and that was in the late 1990s.

Q: So no horror stories like "The Nanny Diaries?"

A: No, she wasn't like that at all. People ask me that a lot. Especially about the cooking, people ask if she made any extreme demands. No. Her credit card had a $50,000 credit limit and I would just go to Whole Foods every single day. I would shoot something to her in the morning and say, "Hey, how about halibut tonight?" She would say, "Great."

She's been fantastic, especially with this career and helping me develop myself. Recently, we've been talking a lot about leadership development. I spent Thanksgiving with the family.

Q: Tell me about your Modesto Symphony Orchestra job.

A: The bulk amount of time is spent producing concerts and activities of the orchestra and managing all daily operations. All these artists and their managers call me. I get schmoozed a lot on the phone and people want to talk to me for hours. This is the part of my job that I really like a lot.

Right now, we're finishing up planning the '08-09 season. It's kind of like designing a menu because you want to pick foods that complement each other but are also different that you wouldn't typically pair — like it's not always meat and potatoes. You want to throw in some different spices, and that's what you can do with classical music and even new music.

Q: You like to see artists live if possible before you book them for a concert. Why is that?

A: A recording is great, but you can't always trust that. It can be altered, especially in this day and age. You can't always trust people's recommendations, either. They may have an ulterior motive or they may have heard this person on their absolute best day. You also want to get a gist of their personality because we want our artists to interact with our patrons as much as possible. I don't want to hire someone who's going to be a diva.

Q: What do you do for fun?

A: I like to ride roller coasters — it's one of my favorite hobbies. A friend and I travel around the country actually seeking out different roller coasters. I like to work out. I did my first triathlon last August. In March, I'm going to surf camp to learn how to surf.

Q: What do you think of Modesto?

A: I'm really enjoying the quirkiness of it. I meet a lot of people in my job. It just seems that everyone interacts with each other or just plays off of each other. There's a ton of different personalities. It reminds me of that show "Northern Exposure," but definitely on a bigger scale.

Q: What needs improvement in Modesto?

A: I would say culture, although with the Gallo Center being here, that's starting to happen. I guess I'm more used to a bigger city and it's been a little bit of an adjustment for me, trying to find things to do.