Honestly, Peter Bay was unaware that he had recently become the longest-tenured music director in the 108-year history of the Austin Symphony.

The late Ezra Rachlin, who also conducted in Fort Worth, Houston and elsewhere, led the Austin Symphony for 20 years from 1949 to 1969.

Bay won the highly competitive race to lead the Austin ensemble in 1998.

He officially took up the baton, however, halfway through the 1997-1998 season. So depending on how you count it, Bay, 62, has just launched his 21st or 22nd season.

We sat down with Bay at Café Crème on East Oltorf Street to discuss his tenure with the ensemble.

American-Statesman: What have you learned about Austin audiences during the past two decades?

Peter Bay: Before I came, I was told that audiences here can be conservative and that I should be careful with my programming. But what I have learned during my time here, audiences are receptive to hearing new things. And that's been very encouraging.

What have you learned about the orchestra?

That they are very willing partners in the music-making. They have a very strong work ethic. They don't settle for workaday playing. If it's not right, they want it to be fixed. They are also willing to make suggestions, too, about the programming and interpretative details. My first conducting teacher told me never to forget that the conductor makes no sound. The players make the sounds. Therefore, treat them with respect. I hope they feel that I do.

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What have you learned about yourself?

That I always have room to grow as a musician. That conducting an orchestra is far more complicated than it may appear. Keeping an orchestra musically and financially stable is a constant challenge.

Hasn't the financial shape of the orchestra improved?

Overall, I'd say it has. Sales have been very steady, as have been contributions. But we are a nonprofit, and as performance and production costs rise, we have to stay ahead of the game.

You are coming off a triumph with Bernstein's vast “Mass.”

It's so bizarre that it was more than year ago.

"Mass" was, along with the artistic accomplishment, a testament to the collaborative potential of Austin arts groups and individual artists.

There are very view pieces of music or theater like Bernstein's “Mass” that require such huge forces. The best residual of “Mass” is that it has solidified our relationships with other performing arts groups. The positive effect of “Mass” lingers. I feel closer to these groups and artists than ever before. I'm amazed that people still mention “Mass” to me after 16 months. It was one of the most meaningful productions of my career.

You were telling me earlier about a piece, "Compassion," that you are going to revive in November, only three seasons after you introduced it to North American audiences. Is it unusual to bring piece back so quickly?

Extremely unusual: It was co-written by Nigel Westlake, an Australian composer mostly known for his movie score for the movie "Babe," and Lior Attar, an Australian-Israeli singer-songwriter. It so overwhelmed the audience and the orchestra, it seemed prudent to bring it back, mainly because of the message that it sends. It grew out of the murder of one of Nigel's sons. And when Nigel was going through his son's belongings, he discovered a number of CDs by Lior, and that led to a collaboration in Sydney, and from that grew this 40-minute song cycle, “Compassion.” The texts alternate between Arabic and Hebrew. A friend of mine alerted me to a recording of the piece and it immediately struck me in a very powerful way. I then invited our executive director Anthony Corroa over to our house and he couldn't speak after hearing it. He agreed that we should give the North American premiere. That piece has attracted more audience response than any other piece, outside of “Mass.”