- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 6, 2004

The passion for conducting is a desire for self-expression,” says Jordan Brown, a young orchestra conductor taking part in this year’s National Conducting Institute at the Kennedy Center.

“More than good ears, you need ideas — intellectual and artistic ideas and feeling for music that you can share in some way, hopefully on the podium.”

It’s like being a coach, he adds — a coach with a team of 50 or 100 quite different talents.

“An orchestra has a voice, a collective mind of their own; that is a powerful thing,” notes Mr. Brown, 26, a graduate student at Yale University and an assistant conductor of the Waterbury Symphony Orchestra in Connecticut.

Most conductors also are music directors charged with a great many demands offstage. Like coaches and athletic directors, they usually work at the behest of an institutional board and juggle several roles — employer, performer, public relations executive, even sometimes librarian. Acquiring impressive degrees from prestigious academic and musical institutions is the minimum requirement for a job to which many are called but few are chosen.

Recognizing that much gets left out of their education as undergraduates and graduates is what, in part, inspired maestro Leonard Slatkin of the National Symphony Orchestra to organize the institute, now in its fifth year.

Four gifted young conductors are chosen each year from a field of applicants and are invited to spend time in Washington working with Mr. Slatkin and members of the orchestra, who act as mentors. Mr. Slatkin, director of the program, worked in cooperation with the American Symphony Orchestra League’s Orchestra Leadership Academy with funding provided in part by the Geraldine Ford Foundation. Successful applicants are given scholarships in addition to expenses. Preference is given to those who have completed most of their training in the United States.

“There is no shortage of conductors; there are a lot of talented people out there,” Mr. Slatkin writes by e-mail, responding to questions put to him through an NSO spokesman. “The problem is that most of them are not equipped to enter the professional workplace with the information they need to be productive music directors in this country. That’s the reason I started the institute, and ultimately what the conductors come away with.”

In addition to learning management functions to see what makes an orchestra tick, the young conductors also profit by working directly with composers and guest artists and mark their formal debut in front of a major symphony orchestra.

“Starting out as a young conductor, you have limited options,” says Paul Haas, 33, an institute alumnus who is music director of the New York Youth Symphony. “It’s not like we have our own orchestra for practice. You can imagine what you are doing all you want, but it is only when you get in front with players that you find out what you are doing is effective.”

Jason Weinberger, 29, music director of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony Orchestra in Iowa and a 1999 participant, praises the institute’s emphasis on the importance of communication — “getting across to an audience” — and the music director’s role in the community.

Getting a leg up on a very demanding profession is the ultimate benefit. “One of the things told me by a teacher was to stay in school as long as possible to protect myself,” Mr. Brown recalls. “‘Once you are in a professional environment,’ he said, ‘You won’t get feedback. They smile and say good work and either hire you or not.’”

Apart from Mr. Brown, who is attending the institute for a second year, the other participants are Kelly L. Corcoran, a conducting and voice student from Nashville, who is assistant music director and director of education of the Nashville Opera Association; Damon Gupton, a Detroit native living in New York who has a degree in trombone from the University of Michigan and a drama diploma from the Juilliard School; and Carolyn Chi-An Kuan, a Taiwan native and graduate of Peabody in Baltimore, where she has been assistant conductor for the Baltimore Opera for three years.

In addition, three so-called seminar conductors have been invited to attend all sessions and conduct the NSO in rehearsals. They are: Taras Krysa, a master’s degree student at Northwestern; Catherine Sailer, associate conductor of the Denver Young Artists’ Orchestra; and Daniel Alfred Wachs, music director of the Swarthmore College Orchestra and an artist-in-residence with the New York City Ballet.

Called “Leading an American Orchestra: The Role of the Music Director,” the curriculum for the first segment included meetings with Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser and orchestra staff members as well as discussions on topics such as “Leadership and Interpersonal Skills Development” — skills that help keep an orchestra alive.

The secret of learning to be a good conductor, says Miss Kuan, 27, is “a lot about leadership and how to excite other people. I haven’t had the opportunity to think as a music director [before].”

Last week’s segment — “Mentoring: Working With Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony Orchestra” — gave all seven conductors, scores in hand, a chance to observe the NSO in action and work directly with key players in the orchestra. A portion of every day was spent observing NSO rehearsals and concerts between round-table meetings with Mr. Slatkin and orchestra members, hearing from the maestro such “insider” tips as: “Every piece you do, be sure you know what beat you want. Make sure you’re convinced before you start anything….The more convinced you are, the more you have in your arsenal.”

They are told about the importance of physical posture onstage — how to make an entrance and even how to bow.

The institute’s last segment takes place June 23 through 26 and will include feedback based in part on videotapes of participants’ work during rehearsals.

“Where else can you have a violinist with some 30 years experience say, ‘I don’t quite know what you are doing and maybe you should try this other way’?” Mr. Brown says.

On June 26, each of the four so-called debut conductors gets to stand in front of the NSO with an assigned piece from the repertoire for a free public performance at 6 p.m. in Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall.

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