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Reading the Score, And So Much More

Slatkin's National Conducting Institute Prepares Musicians to Direct an Orchestra

Tim PageWashington Post Staff Writer
June 24, 2001; Page G10

Conducting an orchestra is the most mysterious of musical vocations, demanding that a practitioner combine the attributes of coach, shaman, psychologist and traffic cop, all in quest of an elusive harmony.

It is an exceedingly difficult talent to develop, and it is especially challenging to make the transition from student to young maestro. Leonard Slatkin knows this firsthand; when the National Symphony Orchestra's music director was starting his career 30 years ago and stood before the Philadelphia Orchestra as a guest conductor, he was immediately aware that he was in over his head.

"Those first experiences were terrifying," he recalled with a shudder. "I simply waved my arms and kept my mouth shut, hoping that would be enough to carry me through. I'd been raised in a family of musicians and I'd led orchestras at Juilliard and elsewhere. But it's a very different matter when you're working with professionals, who are much more knowledgeable and responsive. They can give you exactly what you ask for, so you'd better be sure of what you want and what you're communicating."

Last year, in cooperation with the NSO and the American Symphony Orchestra League, Slatkin founded the National Conducting Institute to prepare gifted young artists for some of the challenges that may lie ahead. This week, the second annual Institute comes to an end, and four mid-level conductors will be given the opportunity to share a program leading the NSO at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Saturday night at 6. Admission is free.

Slatkin believes the Institute presents special opportunities for its participants -- notably the opportunity to lead a full professional orchestra. "Even the high-profile program at Tanglewood, with its outstanding conducting staff and wonderful student orchestra, doesn't get to the heart of the problem," he explained. "Their trainees never stand in front of the Boston Symphony. It is one thing for a young conductor to have an opportunity at universities and conservatories to tell other students what to do, but it is quite another matter to direct pros.

"To remedy the situation, we developed a three-week program in which four or five conductors based in the United States would come to Washington and experience the challenge of being confronted by a world-class, knowledgeable ensemble," Slatkin continued. "They would spend several days with me and with members of the National Symphony, trying to sort out the skills that would be required when they finally had their turn on the podium of a major orchestra. This would not be about learning how to keep time or how to read a score. Rather, it would be about what an orchestra needs from them and how a conductor must relate to the whole ensemble."

And so it came to pass that four participants, as well as six auditors (who would attend all the meetings but never take the podium) were selected from a pool of 70 applicants. They met for the first time in the Chinese Lounge of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall in late April for the first of a dozen all-day programs. It was a promising group. Eugene Castillo, 33, is already in his fourth season as music director of the Camellia Symphony Orchestra in Sacramento as well as the staff conductor of the San Francisco Ballet. Paul Haas, 30, is the principal pops conductor of the Corpus Christi (Tex.) Symphony Orchestra this summer and the assistant conductor of the Haddonfield (N.J.) Symphony. And Kenneth Allen Woods, 33, is the music director of the Oregon East Symphony Orchestra and the Grande Ronde Symphony.

The last of the participants, Awadagin Pratt, 35, stood out -- and not merely because of the long, intricately braided dreadlocks that make him look more like a reggae musician than a traditional classical "longhair." Pratt has been a leading pianist for the better part of a decade now, since winning the prestigious Naumberg Award. Yet from the beginning of his career, he has been open about his ambitions. "I would like to have a dual career as a pianist and conductor," he told The Washington Post in 1993.

"I never changed my mind," he said during the Institute. "In an ideal world, I think I'd like to spend 70 or 80 percent of my time conducting. I don't want to fall off the map as a pianist, because I think I'm still developing there, too. But my principal interest is now conducting. I'd like to do something along the lines of what Leonard did in St. Louis or what Gerard Schwarz did in Seattle -- go in and build up a musical tradition that is unique to its time and place. I'd rather do that than go someplace where everything is all established -- like Cleveland, say."

Pratt grinned. "Not that I'd mind conducting the Cleveland Orchestra, of course!"

Slatkin seems to offer a model for these young artists. They admire his energy, his commitment to new and American music, and the way he elevated the St. Louis Symphony from a respectable position in the second rank of American ensembles to world prominence.

"I like Slatkin's practicality," Castillo said. "To build a career, you need much more than vision, charisma, or even talent. This is about dedication, about details. This gives us the opportunity to observe the day-to-day duties of a music director, which are a lot more than just conducting."

Woods concurred. "This is the best thing to come along for conductors during my time in the field," he said. "I can't believe it -- I'm actually going to be able to conduct the NSO!" Yet he is in no hurry to move on from his present positions. "I want to stay put, the way Slatkin stayed put in St. Louis all that time. In five years, I like to hope that the orchestras I'm with now will be on an entirely different level. I have a very deep commitment to those orchestras, and I want to leave something behind. I want to make music with the best musicians I can -- and learn and grow with them."

The opening session of the Institute was called "The Structure of the Orchestra," a group meeting with those members of the NSO who don't play instruments for a living -- representatives from the library, operations, marketing and public relations departments and the board of directors.

Over lunch, NSO President Bob Jones offered several reasons why affluent concertgoers can sometimes be persuaded to join symphony boards. "First and foremost, these people love the arts and want to do something to support them," he said. "Second, they want to give something good to their community. And finally, a lot of the time there is some sort of social role, whether parties or galas or something else." An ideal board president will "fundraise, fundraise and fundraise some more," he said. The cardinal sin for a board president, in Jones's estimation, is "micromanagement."

"I believe in letting my colleagues do their work," he said. "I step in only when I am needed."

Stephen Jenks, a management consultant and a former faculty member at the business school of the University of New Hampshire, gave a hardheaded talk about the mechanics of running a company and how they apply to the orchestral world. "It used to be that somebody would join Exxon right out of college and stay there until retirement," he said. "No more. People move around a lot more. Now the average UNH faculty member has about the same length of tenure as the average student."

Orchestras, however, are an exception. "You look at the major American symphonies and you will find a lot of people who have been there for 25 years or more. They have seen and heard a great deal. And so you have to ask yourself: Why are you there? What are you going to give them?"

Richard Evans, an orchestra consultant based in Bristol, England, stressed "courtesy and cooperation." "You must respect the musicians as artists," he said. "Obviously you can't solicit total input from 107 musicians, but some sense that you are in this together will make a difference."

Jesse Rosen, vice president of management development of the American Symphony Orchestra League, picked up on this point. "In general, established orchestras are not interested in change, while smaller ones just might give a young conductor more freedom. They just might give you a chance to show what you're made of."

After a time, the participants broke into groups to discuss the problems of a made-up "Bay City Symphony." They debated the proper way to build a season that would satisfy a conservative audience yet stimulate interest from critics and tastemakers. They wondered what sort of orchestra might be appropriate for this mythical medium-size American city, with a foundering economy and a limited endowment. They offered possible ways to deal with a fictional feud between a beneficent donor and an estranged president. It was the music management equivalent of strategic war games -- and it served the purpose of putting would-be conductors directly into situations that they might well be playing out in real life.

In late May, the conductors and auditors returned to Washington to meet with Slatkin. The Kennedy Center British Festival was about to begin and a furious week was in store. Slatkin was dressed casually, in slacks and a plaid shirt; the mood at the meetings was both informal and intense as the group addressed some of the purely musical issues that come with a music directorship.

"We have more than a dozen pieces to perform in the next few days," Slatkin said, "and it means that I have to be unbelievably clear in both my gestures and in what I say to the orchestra. Nuts and bolts. This is not the week to give long soliloquies about the meaning of life or in exactly which measure the sun comes out. No. We only have time to lay out the music, learn it and play it -- period.

"Professional musicians want to see the goods, through your hands and gestures," he continued. "They don't want lectures. They need to hear from you what is wrong -- and why. They're not so concerned with what is right -- although a compliment here and there never hurts. They want you to tell them about the balances, about whether a note is sharp or flat. If something isn't together, you have to tell them why that is and offer a solution. And that's not always so easy.

"Remember that the musicians know a lot of the music in the repertory very well. If you are going to do something radically different with a famous piece, you want to let them know right away. In some ways, a newer piece gives you more freedom, because you'll be learning the piece together."

The talk turned to the Elgar Violin Concerto, which Slatkin was slated to conduct with the prodigiously gifted Hilary Hahn. "This is a very tough concerto," Slatkin said. "There is a trap in every measure -- it's a very quirky piece and you can't relax for a moment. And I wanted to make sure that Hilary didn't try to drown out the orchestra. Some soloists do that, and it can be exciting but it would be fatal in this piece. So I asked Hilary to play fairly softly and bring the orchestra down to the volume level she wanted. The NSO is full of good supportive musicians and they can do that. But it means you have to watch the balances very carefully.

"The art of practical collaboration with a soloist is very important -- a much more important test of your abilities as a conductor than, say, proving that you have a really profound vision of the Mahler Sixth."

Talk turns to Beethoven's Symphony No. 8 -- a brisk, vigorous, good-humored and deeply classical opus that is too often overshadowed by some of the composer's grander creations.

"Okay," Slatkin said, his eyes darting from conductor to conductor. "What is the very first question you have to address in this music?"

Hmmmm. The edition?

"That's right! What edition are you going to use? There's a scholarly edition now, with all sorts of corrections in the text, but buying a new score is expensive and if an orchestra already has 70 copies of the older edition in its library, you may not have a choice in the matter. All right. What do you address next? That's right. You have to decide what size orchestra you want to use, and how many string players will play each part. How do you decide? Well, you think about the other pieces on the program. You think about the size of the hall -- obviously, a small orchestra can get lost in a big auditorium. You think about how you want to seat the players -- the first and second violin sections divided stereophonically or all on the left side of the conductor. All of these should be taken into consideration.

"Now Beethoven might have had about 50 players in his orchestra," he continued. "Does that mean you should stick to 50 players? Not necessarily. I believe in knowing about historical and musicological study, but I have a real problem with the attitude that 'Oh, this is the way it sounded in Beethoven's day.' We can't expect the audiences to listen in the same manner they did 200 years ago. Everything has changed." Only after talking for some 20 minutes about these concerns did Slatkin begin to address the actual conducting of the score. And then he went through it, bar by bar, pointing out trouble spots, suggesting ways of counting out the phrases, ways to make the music come to life.

"Remember, always correct the orchestra constructively," Slatkin said. "Put the performance together like a puzzle, with everything in proportion. And always assume it is your fault if there are mistakes in the first rehearsals. You can slowly shift the blame if the mistakes continue, but you don't want to embarrass anybody or come off as a showoff."

Slatkin asked all the participants to introduce themselves. "Well, I grew up in Los Angeles," an auditor named Brian Stone began.

"No, no -- I spent my childhood there, too, but one doesn't grow up in Los Angeles," Slatkin corrected him with a laugh. "One has to leave Los Angeles for that."

Pratt noticed that Slatkin had rehearsed a piece with nine violinists but then used only eight for the final performance.

"Good for you!" Slatkin said. "I did that because it was fairly unfamiliar material and if anybody got sick, I wanted to have a substitute right there on hand. It isn't always necessary, but it can't hurt."

Slatkin was asked about the pros and cons of pre-concert chats with the audience. "I think that you should do them if you are comfortable with them and have something to say," he replied. "You don't want to bore people, but, especially in a new work, you want to take things to the point where an audience member might leave saying, 'Well, maybe I didn't like it all that much, but I think I understood a little bit of what the composer was trying to do.' Sometimes that's the best you can hope for."

Of such minutiae are music directors born. The final part of the Institute -- the actual hands-on work with the NSO in preparation for Saturday's concert -- begins Thursday afternoon. It will be followed by a viewing of videotaped rehearsal footage from each conductor, with commentary by Slatkin, and then another rehearsal. And then, on Saturday night, Castillo, Haas, Woods and Pratt will make their Kennedy Center conducting debuts.

"What do I hope for these conductors?" Slatkin asked rhetorically. "Everything good. They are fine musicians and I'd love to see four more American conductors join the ranks -- there aren't very many, as you know. Now they'll know what it is like to conduct a great symphony orchestra. And, with any luck, they'll get to do it again."

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