Few performers receive as much attention as the orchestra conductor, entering the hall to applause, mounting the podium, turning their back to the audience, and silently sculpting sounds with their arms, while the instrumentalists join together to bring life to the score, a stenography of the composer’s musical ideas, crafted into a composition which the audience hears for the first time.

The meaning and qualities of this auditory experience depend first and last upon the acoustics of the hall where the concert takes place, but also on the technical ability and experience of the musicians on stage, and the intent, originality, creativity and craftsmanship of the composer. And, the conductor? What about the orchestras which play without conductors, such as the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra or the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra? Being the exception rather than the rule, suffice it to say that more rehearsal time is usually required and a single person will occasionally be required to make a decision for the entire group, in the spirit of the conductor.

Standing in the center of the orchestra, having eye contact with all the musicians, the conductor is in a relatively good position to coordinate several important aspects of the performance: setting and modifying the tempo (speed of the music) and dynamics (loudness), including the balance of one group of musicians relative to another. Whereas each player on stage has only his own part written out in front of him, the conductor has access to the collective outline of the whole ensemble – the score, frequently committed to memory.

Primarily, the conductor is charged with indicating to the musicians where the musical piece is going in terms of structure – building to a climax or holding back, as the score implies. The shape of the composition is revealed through study and experience to the conductor, who in turn explains and teaches it to the orchestra in rehearsal. Finally, the last-minute changes are indicated or emphasized by gestures during the performance. These gestures must be clear, timely, and precise. In our modern technological world, recordings and audio-visual streams project symphonic performances into our living rooms using earbuds to approximate the acoustics of Carnegie Hall, the Concertgebouw or La Scala, indiscriminately. However, we only experience the “real event” when we are present in that hall with its natural acoustics, and where that orchestra is performing under the direction of a maestro who is sensitive to the score the composer has given them.

Mindful of the fact that conducting is a métier that can only be learned and practiced in a real concert hall with the cooperation and complicity of a real symphony orchestra, for the last half dozen years, Maestro Schwarz has added the advanced study of conducting to the Eastern Music Festival curriculum for a handful of Conducting Scholars. Instruction from the conducting staff (made up of three outstanding conductors, Grant Cooper, José Luis Novo, and EMF Music Director Gerard Schwarz) allows the nine scholars prepare two performances, one with the student orchestras, each presenting an excerpt from Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, and the other with the Festival Orchestra (fully professional) presenting a full overture or similar work.

Quinn Mason, (Texas) opened the July 24 concert with the Overture to The Magic Flute by Mozart. Ignoring the confusing notations of rests and fermatas in the two bold Adagios, he produced a warm rich version of this difficult but popular overture.

Alfonso Piacentini, from Boston, who had given a stirring performance of the death of Juliet 10 days earlier, had to deal with ambiguities of dynamics in Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont, Op. 84 and then, whether or when to shift gears (switch from streamlined “one beat per bar” to agitated “three fast beats per same bar”) in the fast and treacherous passages leading figuratively to the scaffold!

Gordon Cheung, Bard College Conservatory of Music, had trouble reining in a stray English Horn in the Roman Carnival Overture of Berlioz. However, once subdued, the climax of the overture was excellent!

Tall Austin Lin, from Taiwan, was elegant in his formal tails as he led the orchestra in the Euryanthe Overture of C. M. von Weber. Balance was a problem in the recapitulation, where the wind and brass punctuation came across like blasting caps, blowing away the scurrying strings – perhaps in response to Weber’s own tempo instructions: “Allegro marcato, con molto fuoco” [markedly fast, with lots of fire]!

The first half of the concert came to a satisfying conclusion with the excellent performance of Humperdinck’s Prelude to Hänsel und Gretel, led smoothly and with confidence by Kyle Elgarten from Palm Beach, FL.

Mengru Zheng, currently enrolled at the Eastman School of Music, led the less well-known Overture to Nabucco by Verdi very lyrically and with excellent dynamic control. She might want to pay attention to the unintentional left/right weight shift that added nothing to her otherwise exemplary musicality.

Weizhe Bai, currently at the New England Conservatory, was outstanding in leading the William Schuman orchestration of Charles Ives’ original (1891) organ set of Variations on “America.” He has a lovely legato and the tempos flowed into each other organically, leading to a taut Fandango and a virtuoso trumpet solo.

Oliver Yan, currently a Stephen F Austin University (TX) Master’s degree student, led a rather brisk version of Claude Debussy’s masterful Prélude to The Afternoon of a Faun (1894), one of the most difficult works in the repertory. The difficulty lies mostly in maintaining a slow enough tempo at the opening and in the concluding moments to allow for the playful rubato so typical of this period of French music.

Claire Lewis, beginning her graduate level studies at the Peabody Institute, had the smoothest and most confident “stick technique” of the evening, giving ample information especially about dynamics, articulation (staccato and legato), and phrasing, although I still haven’t figured out why each third unison half note at the beginning and for the next few bars should be any longer than the preceding half notes!

It is encouraging that so many gifted young musicians are interested in learning the art and techniques of conducting. May the audiences keep them busy!