Nine young men took their turns on two consecutive nights in Dana Auditorium leading two student orchestras in various excerpts from Sergei Prokofiev's popular ballet, Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64. Coming from diverse cultures and backgrounds, their styles and gestures differed considerably, but all seemed quite musical and effective with the two highly attentive student orchestras furnished by the Eastern Music Festival. EMF music director Gerard Schwarz was joined by resident conductors José-Luis Novo and Grant Cooper in guiding and refining the instincts and techniques of the nine budding maestri in the three-year-old program called Conducting Fellows. Unlike the past two years, this year there are no women in the class, despite the considerable incursion of ladies into what has traditionally been a man's career.
All the conductors are or have been students of American universities and conservatories, regardless of their national origins. The first conductor (of five) on Thursday night was the Greek-born pianist and conductor Dimitri Papadimitriou, currently on the faculty of Carnegie Mellon School of Music in Pittsburgh. Tall and slender, he led the spirited "Folk Dance," starting safely with two upbeats and keeping the high strings under tight control with a small, under-stated beat that corresponded to the music. The tempo seemed to slow a bit in the middle but picked up again toward the end. He was followed by Chinese pianist and conductor Shun Yao, from Flushing, NY, who conducted the "Madrigal," a slower legato piece that starts tenderly with only strings. Yao's arms conveyed the legato nature of the work clearly, and he paid great attention to phrasing. Flutist Elena Rubin shone in the livelier segments that alternated with the strings.
Cellist and conductor Maurice Cohn from Galesburg, IL, conducted the short "Scene" and the ensuing "Masks," both of a march-like character demanding a rather staccato beat that could have been crisper. Joseph Bozich, from Puyallup, WA, conducted the "Minuet" with gestures that clearly indicated all the musical events (accents, entrances, etc.) as they occurred, rather than predicting them. Nonetheless, the well-trained orchestra played very well for him. The final conductor of the first evening was Matthew Gurecki, from Oak Ridge, TN. In many ways, Gurecki appeared to be the most authoritative and at-ease conductor of the evening, even though the first entrance of the horns was not together. Somewhat later in this most familiar segment of the ballet, he appeared to be conducting behind the beat, while the flute led on her own. These minor details did not undermine his effectiveness, however.
The following evening we were treated to the last four (of nine) conductors in the EMF Conducting Fellows program, leading the other student orchestra in yet different excerpts, starting with Italian Cesare Depaulis, a tall, long-armed conductor with a long baton who studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music. All these lengths made for very large beats, indeed. (I found myself wondering how he would look using a Gergiev-ian toothpick for a baton!) However, the beat was clean and clear, if uniformly large, pulling a uniform dynamic from the orchestra. Zachary Ploeger, a trumpeter, composer, and conductor from Pipestone, MN, followed with the "Dance for Antillian Girls." His conducting is clean and clear – except for occasional accents that found both arms moving the same direction in parallel motion, looking more awkward than accented. The choreographed appearance of his cues and the ambling around the podium are habits that will probably disappear with more experience.
Ken Yanagisawa conducted "Juliet," the most difficult ensemble piece for the orchestra, cellos in particular. In either a fast three or a slow one-beat-to-a-bar, he bridged the gap gracefully and musically. His phrases were well thought out and well executed. The final conductor was the British conductor John Murton, currently residing in Washington, DC. Conducting the music of "Juliet's Death," he was imposing and powerful. Whereas several conductors pranced around the podium restlessly, Murton found his sweet spot and stuck to it, perhaps a bit stodgily. The orchestra well responded to his musicality and gravitas.
Those interested in seeing the conductors in different repertories will have two occasions:
I have been frequently asked what one looks for in a conductor – a question impossible to answer definitely. But the answer also depends upon the level of the orchestra. Herbert von Karajan seemed to move his arms in a voodoo fashion with his own Berlin Philharmonic while he conducted the Belgian National Orchestra with text-book clarity. Apart from starting and stopping, "good" orchestras rarely need a conductor to stay together, so beating time is not the primary function, either.
Showing where the music goes, where the tension rises, falls, and leads to the climax of a movement (the point of maximum tension) and then away from it, however, is definitely within the purview of the conductor. And several factors, usually written by the composer into the score, can be controlled by the conductor: tempo, dynamics, melodic and harmonic tension, repetition, and rhythmic tension. Whereas the orchestral musician needs to know "how" to play a passage, a conductor is more often challenged with "why" the composer choose to write in such a fashion.
When looking at conductors, the general impression ("gut feeling") is often accurate, especially to the experienced musician. Habits (head motions, curlie-cues in the beats, swaying from side to side) and gestures that are not caused by the music should be avoided, as should gestures not appropriate to the style of the passage, such as conducting large beats in soft music or smooth gestures when the music is rough – and vice versa.
The conductor also studies the works s/he conducts from an historical perspective, incorporating stylistic details from most recent scholarly research – or not! In addition, the conductor has the whole topography (score) in front of him to study, analyze, and learn, whereas the orchestral player has only his own part to play. Most orchestral musicians are almost instantly aware of how their part fits into the whole, from intuition and experience, but especially in the areas of balance (dosage of relative loudness) and subtle changes of tempo (shifting of gears), the conductor is better placed and better trained to take the lead.
As any chamber player will tell, the conductor-less performance is a psychological "high" that is hard to top – and so it is with the conductor-less orchestra, such as the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. The disadvantage with conductor-less orchestras lies in the longer time of preparation and rehearsal – and of course these groups are not leaderless, per se, because someone – often the first violinist, but not always – provides certain cues.
The students on the Conductor Fellows program are under excellent tutelage in preparing to take up the mantel of their predecessors.