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As the Eastern Music Festival approaches the final days of the 2022 season, the students show what they have learned during the six-week-long festival. This is the second time that the nine Conducting Scholars have presented themselves on stage in front of an orchestra during the 2022 festival, the first having taken place over two evenings, in front of one or the other of the two excellent student orchestras, leading assigned excerpts from the most popular ballet in the repertory, P. I. Tchaikovsky's beloved The Nutcracker ballet. Although all the scholars fared well with "Nutz," almost universally the tempos would have probably presented difficulties to the dancers – the faster tempos were often much too fast, and the slower tempos were too slow – especially the Arabian dance. No fear – the ballet mistress will set things straight immediately!
For the subsequent June 25th performance, however, the young maestri were allowed to choose more substantial works which can "stand alone" in the concert repertory, mostly overtures, ranging from the rarely heard Béatrice et Bénédict overture by Hector Berlioz to the familiar Overture to William Tell by Gioacchino Rossini. Even more important was the orchestra they had the privilege to conduct – none other than the outstanding EMF Festival Orchestra, composed of professional musicians from across the continent, the EMF faculty members-in-residence, many of them the principal players of major orchestras. The stage was set for fine music-making! Again, if there were a general comment, it would be that most of the young conductors had difficulty balancing the orchestra, especially in the extremes: the soft passages were not really soft, and in the loud passages, the woodwinds were covered by the brass.
Opening the concert (as he had the previous Nutcracker concert) was tall, lanky Julian Gau from Wilton, CT, conducting Carl-Maria von Weber's Overture to Euryanthe, one of three frequently played overtures by Weber. Casting an aura of shyness, Gau was musically endearing, conducting with a clear and precise beat and a lovely smooth legato.
Next followed the most popular overture on the program, Rossini's Overture to William Tell, conducted by Chloe Calvino (Bowling Green, OH) with clarity and calm. Her tempos were ideal, with the rapid "Lone Ranger" tempo leaving enough room for the accelerando called for in the score, but frequently ignored. Hats off to the principal cello, Neal Cary, for his gorgeous solo, as well as English horn player Karen Blundell and flutist Jake Fridkis for their duet in the Swiss yodeling passage!
Nicholas Bromilow of Bristol, GB, whose height and long arms reminded me of the great Anglo-German 20th century conductor, Otto Klemperer, chose to conduct one of Felix Mendelssohn's most perfect orchestral pieces, The Hebrides, Opus 26, also called Fingal's Cave. He was off to a great start, with the mysterious cave obscured by mist and dark, musically speaking! Lovely light staccato filled the middle section of the piece (although it could have been even softer) before the fog returned to envelope all.
Richard Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) is a one-act opera dealing with the redemptive powers of love. All the important musical themes and Leitmotif(s) are introduced in this mysterious overture which starts in the midst of a storm at sea. Kyle Elgarten (Morristown, NJ) conducted with clarity and great control of dynamics, although he could loosen up a bit, to his own advantage.
Having accepted an honorary degree from the University of Breslau, Johannes Brahms was persuaded to write a work dedicated to the university, hence the Academic Festival Overture, Opus 80. More a potpourri of student drinking songs than a formally structured work, it is one of Brahms' most frequently played works. Sam Chung (Boston University) was very much the agitated student portrayed by Brahms, stepping around the podium, yet maintaining control over the progress of the overture until the final chorus of "Gaudeamus igitur" ("Therefore let's rejoice!").
After intermission, the concert resumed with a moving performance of Ludwig van Beethoven's Overture to Coriolanus, Opus 62. Iranian Asieh Mahyar, who completed undergraduate studies in Armenia, showed sensitivity, control and spontaneity in this dramatic masterpiece which depicts a Roman general who yields at the height of power to preserve the safety of his family. The ending actually felt tragic!
Minchao Cai, currently an advanced student at the New England Conservatory in Boston, is perhaps the most experienced of this year's class of conductors, judging by his ease on the podium and his popularity with the audience! The Overture to Oberon by Weber was clean and musical, although the relationship between tempos could have been tighter, to strengthen the structural unity of the work as a whole. Cai may wish to re-evaluate how much of the musical results he seeks are improved by mid-air pauses, ballistic gestures and fancy footwork on the podium; sometimes simple is more effective than elaborate, and spontaneity more expressive than choreography.
Clancy Ellis, NYC, had perhaps the most difficult job of the nine conducting scholars for two reasons: first, Hector Berlioz' music is always more difficult than it appears; second, this particular piece by Berlioz, the Overture to Béatrice et Bénédict, is not often played and therefore requires more personal practice and attention than the rest of the evening's pieces, many of which show up annually somewhere in the repertory. As a result, and also because of Ellis' clear, discreet, and precise conducting, this was the best executed work by the orchestra all evening.
The final conductor of the evening was Harris Andersen from Bonita Springs, FL, conducting Antonin Dvořák's Carnival Overture, Opus 92, probably the most substantial work of the evening. Anderson handled it very well, although he occasionally resorted to a prepared choreographic slow motion that felt at odds with the dynamic rhythm in the music – a little like shifting into overdrive when the curvy mountainous terrain really demands a low gear! However, I sense a real talent in Andersen and will look forward to seeing his next performances… hopefully!
So – what does the conductor do? The orchestra is capable of starting, stopping or changing tempo without a conductor. (Occasionally the conductor even makes it harder to execute those events!)
The conductor is a highly paid specialist who turns her/his back on the audience and leads 80+ highly-trained musical specialists through 100 minutes of music they have probably already played. The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra plays without a conductor, although an artistic coordinator is chosen for each program to arrange artistic details as they arise, but not to conduct! The Norwegian Chamber Orchestra is led by its concertmaster, who leads with his body while playing – and the whole orchestra plays by memory!
I propose that the conductor is much like a driver, traversing a known countryside in ever-changing conditions, crossing broad open spaces, navigating mountainous curves all while alerting the participants of details of the countryside, the changes wrought by weather and the seasons. Except the countryside one traverses is not hills and trees, but emotions, evoked by sounds, mostly beautiful but sometimes exciting or starkly compelling. The voyage must feel complete and satisfying. That is the work of the conductor – to guide orchestra and audience through the musical topography created by the composer – to show us where the music is going.