Conducting Class At The Peabody Conservatory With Marin Alsop

Sep 23, 2017
Originally published on September 26, 2017 11:13 am

This week, I went to the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore to sit in on a conducting class led by Marin Alsop, the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The Maestra was showing several Peabody students — aspiring young conductors — some of the fine points of leading an orchestra, as they led musicians through Don Juan, the dramatic tone poem by Richard Strauss.

One of the students, Gonzalo Farias, from Chile, says he has long been curious about conducting.

"For me, it's a question that I've had all my life," he says. "Because it's so hard; you put your whole life into [conducting]. At some point, you think that, I love it so much, that it's not enough; [it's] the connection with other people."

Another student — Jonathan Rush, a first year masters student — agrees that the connection with the audience, and with the orchestra, has a powerful effect.

"I had my first experience conducting in eighth grade, but I didn't necessarily have a dream to become a conductor until I actually got the experience to stand in front of the ensemble and make music with other people," he says. "I had this sense of unity. And after that, it felt like something I had to do. So I wanted to get more into it: started researching it more, reading tons of books, trying to look at myself in the mirror with a chopstick and conduct whatever tune is inside my head. My parents loved it — they used to record videos of me. And my sisters used to laugh at me."

In fact, a conductor has an important role in the music, maintaining a relationship with the orchestra and the audience. And as the class goes on, it's clear that a conductor's attitude can shape how a piece is received.

As Rush conducts one part of the piece, his excitement to be at the head bleeds into the music, and the resulting music sounds, well, happy and fun.

Alsop jumps in and asks, "I wondering why it's so happy?" Rush quickly realizes that perhaps his gestures didn't match the correct tone of the music.

"I started out smiling, cheering," he says. "And then once you think what the music is about, that poem about Don Juan, you have to get yourself in a different state of mind. I actually took an acting course last year that helped me express different emotions."

So, how does a conductor know he is doing a good job — that he's effectively communicating with the orchestra and audience?

One Peabody student, Alex Amsel, from Argentina, says that he knows he's succeeding when it begins to feel effortless.

"When you feel that you're having to get too involved in it, it almost feels like babysitting," he says. "You have to play traffic cop, almost. You can feel that everyone is walking on eggshells. You can tell it's going well when you feel like the orchestra doesn't need you as much."

"You know, sometimes when it doesn't go well, people are playing on their own," Farias adds. "But when it goes really well, it feels like everybody is like looking at you, and they're collaborating as one."

Rush seems to agree. He says that when everyone's working together, it's almost like "a spiritual thing with the orchestra."

Then, I took my turn behind the music stand. The Maestra lent me her baton, which is a little like Babe Ruth tossing you his bat and saying, "Take a few swings, kid." I gripped the baton in my right hand and pulled down my closed fist — as if to mash an avocado — and the musicians began to play. I tried to wave my arms in time to the music, and looked like a cartoon duck trying to take off, but the musicians played the right notes in all the right places.

I was asking myself, "Do I want to guest conduct the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra this summer, or the Leningrad Symphony?" when Maestra Alsop revealed that the musicians had been indulging me.

We tried a second time with the players actually following my baton movements, and the music quickly fell apart.

"This is the thing about conducting," Alsop explains. "The orchestra can really save you, or they can follow you. Those are the two choices; I tell that to my students all the time."

It was exhilarating to be behind the stand and understand a scintilla of what it must be like, standing in the crowd of attention, amid all of those talented musicians. But Maestra Alsop says that that exhilaration is not easy to come by. It requires hours of tremendous amounts of work, she says, to become a good messenger for a composer's work.

"It's not about us," she says. "We have almost a higher reason for doing everything. Every gesture we make — even from walking to the podium — sends a message to the orchestra and they're developing an impression. So for Don Juan, you know, you can't really come up and be all smiley and happy and jumpy. You have to come up and be a little bit conceited, or it doesn't work — full of yourself, you know. I mean, that's how Strauss is trying to convey it. It's an incredibly abstract art form — and it's very, very, complex for the conductors to master, because we're actually not making any of the sound. It's all about motivating people to be the best they can be. And what greater privilege in life is there than to be the messenger for genius, and to motivate people to be the best they can be?"

Maestra Alsop will conduct Don Juan this weekend with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Ned Wharton and Sarah Lucy Oliver produced and edited this story for broadcast.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF STRAUSS' "DON JUAN")

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

What does an orchestra conductor do anyway - wave around a small stick and throw a theatrical fit now and then? You call that playing? Agh. Conductors probably wonder what I do, too.

Well, this week we went to the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore to sit in on a conducting class led by our friend Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The maestra was showing several Peabody students, aspiring young conductors, some of the fine points of leading an orchestra as they led musicians through "Don Juan," the dramatic tone poem by Richard Strauss. I already knew how to say that name, by the way.

MARIN ALSOP: That's good. OK. That's better.

(SOUNDBITE OF STRAUSS' "DON JUAN")

ALSOP: But you know, this is something you have to work on...

JONATHAN RUSH: Yeah.

ALSOP: ...The independence of your...

RUSH: My name is Jonathan Rush. I'm a first-year master's student here at Peabody.

GONZALO FARIUS: I'm Gonzalo Farius. I'm originally from Chile. And this is my second year in diploma with Marin.

ALEX AMSEL: My name's Alex Amsel. I'm originally from Argentina. And I'm a first-year master's student as well.

SIMON: Why do you want to be a conductor?

FARIUS: For me, it's a question that I've had all my life. Because it's so hard. You put your whole life into it. At some point, you think that, you know, I love it so much that it's not enough - that connection with other people.

SIMON: You mean the relationship with the orchestra?

FARIUS: And also with the audience.

SIMON: You're both nodding about the audience part.

RUSH: Yeah. Well, you know, I first had my experience conducting in eighth grade. And I didn't necessarily have a dream to become a conductor until I actually got the experience to stand in front of the ensemble and make music with other people. I had this sense of unity. And then after that, it felt like something I just had to do. So I wanted to get more into it - started researching it more, reading tons of books, trying to look at myself in the mirror with a chopstick and conduct to...

(SOUNDBITE OF STRAUSS' "DON JUAN")

RUSH: ...Whatever tune is inside my head. My parents loved it, used to record videos of me. And my sisters used to laugh at me (laughter).

SIMON: Look who's laughing now. Right?

RUSH: Exactly (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF STRAUSS' "DON JUAN")

ALSOP: OK. All right, good. So it's really fun because you're very happy. But I find it almost - I'm wondering why he's so happy. Is that - is everyone else - everyone's kind of...

(LAUGHTER)

ALSOP: But...

RUSH: I think I'm enjoying the sound too much (laughter).

ALSOP: Yeah, I think - I mean...

SIMON: No doubt about it, there's acting that goes into this, isn't there?

RUSH: Yeah. I experienced that today with "Don Juan" actually. You know, I started out smiling and cheering, enjoying the moment (laughter).

SIMON: And you were delightful. I was enjoying that. But then I realized we should be hearing the music.

RUSH: Exactly. And once you think about what the music is about and you know that poem about "Don Juan," you have to get yourself in a different state of mind. And so I actually took an acting course last year to help express different emotions.

ALSOP: One more spot, let's do...

AMSEO: The stringendo...

ALSOP: ...The stringendo.

AMSEO: ...after N.

(SOUNDBITE OF STRAUSS' "DON JUAN")

SIMON: How do you know when it's going well?

AMSEO: When you feel that you're having to get too involved and it feels almost like babysitting. You know, you're having to play traffic cop almost. You can feel that everyone is kind of walking on eggshells. You can tell it's going well when you feel like the orchestra actually doesn't need you as much.

FARIUS: You know, sometimes when it doesn't go well, you know, people are playing on their own. But when it goes really well, it feels like everybody's, like, looking at you and they're collaborating as one.

SIMON: You're all nodding your head.

RUSH: Yeah. It starts to feel natural. You know, you get that one cue, and somebody comes in with you. You're like, oh, yes, we're doing something now. And you keep going, and you realize everybody's focused on the music. And you're all working together. You feel connected. It's like a spiritual thing almost with the orchestra.

(SOUNDBITE OF STRAUSS' "DON JUAN")

ALSOP: And oboe...

(SOUNDBITE OF STRAUSS' "DON JUAN")

ALSOP: ...That was beautiful. (Clapping) yeah. Very nice, very nice.

(APPLAUSE)

ALSOP: That's the time. Good job. All right, Scott, you ready?

SIMON: The maestra lent me her baton. It's a little like Babe Ruth tossing you his bat and saying, take a few swings, kid.

(SOUNDBITE OF STRAUSS' "DON JUAN")

SIMON: I gripped the baton in my right hand and pulled down my closed fist as if to mash an avocado, and the musicians began to play. I tried to wave my arms in time with the music and looked like a cartoon duck trying to take off. But the musicians played the right notes in all the right places.

ALSOP: (Yelling) And stop. I'm sorry. That was a little early. (Shouting) And go.

(SOUNDBITE OF STRAUSS' "DON JUAN")

ALSOP: (Laughter) OK, wait. Now - all right.

SIMON: (Laughter).

(APPLAUSE)

ALSOP: (Unintelligible).

SIMON: Call me any night.

ALSOP: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: I was asking myself, do I want to guest conduct the Vienna Philharmonic this summer or the Leningrad Symphony, when Maestra Alsop revealed that the musicians had only been indulging me.

ALSOP: Let's just try it once with you really following him.

SIMON: Oh, no.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Oh, no.

ALSOP: No, just try it once...

SIMON: All right.

ALSOP: ...So that you see - just so you can feel it, all right?

SIMON: Yeah, no, no, no. This is...

ALSOP: Just for fun, just for fun.

SIMON: OK.

ALSOP: OK. So whatever he does, I want you guys to do. OK? Just so you really know - because this is the thing about...

SIMON: Yeah.

ALSOP: ...Conducting is the orchestra can really save you, or they can follow you. Those are the two choices. No, I'm just kidding.

(LAUGHTER)

ALSOP: So I tell my students that all the time. All right, so...

SIMON: Just remember how much we've meant to each other over these last...

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: ...These three minutes, won't you?

ALSOP: All right, here we go.

SIMON: OK. Stand tall.

(SOUNDBITE OF STRAUSS' "DON JUAN")

ALSOP: (Laughter) All right. Well, we - I just didn't want you to get, you know...

(SOUNDBITE OF BATON HITTING METAL)

ALSOP: (Shouting) Aye, aye, easy with my baton.

SIMON: Excuse me. Excuse me. You...

ALSOP: So Scott, I think all of my students want to know - how did it feel to conduct the orchestra for you?

SIMON: I felt at one with the orchestra and the greater...

ALSOP: I felt it was a Zen experience on a whole entirely new level.

SIMON: (Laughter) It - you know, it was one - my heart was racing. It's wonderful. I do understand a scintilla of what it was like to be standing kind of in the prow of the attention of all of those talented musicians.

ALSOP: I think when you talk to my students, you hear that conducting is - it's more than a skill for them. It's a calling. And those are the people that need to be conductors, you know. It's a passion. And it requires a tremendous amount of work. You know, you spend hours and hours and hours as the messenger of a composer. So it's not about us. We have almost a higher reason for doing everything.

Every gesture we make, even from walking to the podium, sends a message to the orchestra. And they're developing an impression. So for "Don Juan," you know, you can't really come up and be all smiley and happy and jumpy. You know, you have to come up and be a little bit conceited or it doesn't work, you know, full of yourself. You know, this is just who I am. I am this character. I mean, that's how Strauss is trying to convey it.

So it's an incredibly abstract art form. And it's very, very complex for the conductors to master because we're actually not making any of the sound. It's all about motivating people to be the best they can be. And what greater privilege in life is there to be the messenger for genius and to motivate people to be the best they can be?

SIMON: Maestra, thank you for everything.

ALSOP: Well, great to see you, Scott. And I'll save you a ticket in the audience.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Wait, where's the baton?

(SOUNDBITE OF STRAUSS' "DON JUAN")

ALSOP: No, I hid my baton. I'm sorry.

(SOUNDBITE OF STRAUSS' "DON JUAN")

SIMON: You can see a video of my conducting debut on the WEEKEND EDITION Facebook page, on Twitter and in my dreams. And Maestra Alsop will conduct "Don Juan," this weekend a couple of times with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. I promise to be nowhere near.

(SOUNDBITE OF STRAUSS' "DON JUAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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