The last day of the RCICW has a very different rhythm to the rest of the week. Gone are the regular conducting sessions with orchestra, and all the thrills and stress they bring. Instead, we spend the morning doing one-on-one coaching sessions with the students, followed by a brief discussion session to wrap up the week and a final concert.
The coaching sessions are something I always slightly dread as it’s hard to work without sound, but they do offer you the chance to work at a level of speed and intensity you can’t with an orchestra there. One-on-one, the teacher doesn’t have to worry that each time you stop the student they’re thinking that you are wasting their precious conducting time, so you can really put the laser on certain concepts. In my six sessions, I tried to balance preparing the concert excerpts with also using the time, within the context of preparing the concert, to point them in some good directions for the year to come. Some years, I’ve found these sessions to be either impossibly tough going, or, in the case of someone really advanced, a bit redundant. Not so this year- I felt like each session at least offered us chances to talk about and work on some interesting things.
The wrap-up session is exactly the sort of thing I used to dread as a student. This year’s exercise was for each student to given themselves one piece of specific feedback, but it ended up being more of a summary of each student’s experiences of the week (remember what I said about conductors in general not following instructions!). On one level, these kinds of things can feel contrived, but I’ve reluctantly come to realize how valuable they are in sort of codifying the ideas we’ve all been talking about, and they’re incredibly helpful for me in understanding some of what has stuck and what hasn’t throughout the week. Sometimes as a teacher you say something and get no response at all, so you’re tempted to just forget it the next time, but one such remark during the week, after which I could hear the pavement sinking outside the building and nothing else, seemed to get the most discussion in the wrap up…. Anyway, I thought everyone was refreshingly honest and often quite brave in what they said.
I began the final concert with a short chat to the audience, to explain to them what they were about to experience. The unrehearsed concert will always have moments of wide-eyed terror for performers and punters alike, but it also offers the possibility of moments of stunning magic and inspiration. There are bound to be train wrecks that will leave the responsible conductors rubbing their foreheads for months to come, but that’s how you learn. In the early years of the workshop, I used to really try to make the concert, you know, er, good. However, with no rehearsal, that doesn’t happen. However, take heart, the audience understood the vibe and was passionately supportive throughout the evening.
I now feel that the point of the concert is not to be good, but to be truthful, Everyone has a chance do see what they can do when they conduct well- phrases happen, colors appear, but everyone also finds out what happens when you conduct poorly without the chance to train the orchestra when to ignore you- things fall apart, tempos turn glacial, intonation sours, and people panic. Put another way, the unrehearsed concert is a remarkably precise BS detection and elimination tool.
There were lessons both positive and negative in every piece, as we saw what each musician can do and what they need to learn to do. Every conductor at every level has our list of things we do well, things we do okay and things we haven’t figured out. Rehearsals are partly there to make up for the imperfection of our craft, so the dividing lines between strengths and weaknesses were particularly stark.
Certainly, some performers far exceed the best I had hoped of them, while others had a tough night. It’s always toughest for a teacher when you’ve warned a student “whatever you do, don’t slow down here,” or “you absolutely must look at the violins here” who then falls into the trap you tried to keep them out of. Such warnings are not a matter of aesthetics (although a musically satisfying performance is less likely to crash and burn than a dull one)- you “don’t slow down” because the next section doesn’t hold together at a slow tempo, and you look at the violins because they might not come in otherwise, not just as a social nicety. We know these things at a price- if we’re lucky we saw someone else slow down or not look at the violins, but all too often, we learned those mistakes at a terrible price. Ah well, there must be a reason we say “live and learn” and not “listen and learn.”
Still, there were thrills aplenty- Brennen and Esther were marvelous in Butterfly, in which the conductors all got a powerful (sometimes too powerful) sound out of the band. Each of the other pieces had lovely surprises, but in the end, it was the stunning artistry of Rick Rowley in the Brahms that I’ll remember. At the end of a week in which he gave a seminar on opera direction, filled in for an orchestra on Beethoven 2 and played in the orchestra for Appalachian Spring, Rick sat down at a very average piano and played a poetic, powerful, virtuosic and mature Brahms D minor from memory, while five different conductors marched across the stage. He set the bar high for all of us- to really think about what it means to be a complete musician and a selfless servant of the art, completely free of ego. Even as one is tempted to say its unfair to expect a conductor to get through Appalachian Spring or the Brahms without rehearsal, Rick showed us that a great musician can deliver the goods under the most unusual of circumstances….