A Tanglewood Conducting Master Class — My Bird’s Eye View

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Jonathan Berman conducting the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in concert. Photo Hilary Scott.
Jonathan Berman conducting the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in concert. Photo Hilary Scott.

The conductor’s arms froze mid-air. The musicians stopped playing. Stefan Asbury,   leader of the Tanglewood Music Center conducting program, had stopped the class.

“They’re not together,” Asbury told Jonathan Berman, the student conductor. Berman gave a small nod. It wasn’t the response Asbury wanted.

“Do you want them to be together?” Asbury pressed, invoking a bit of tough love. This time a bigger nod from Berman.

“Continue,” instructed Asbury, Chief Conductor of the Noord Nederlands Orkest, who has recently conducted the Orchestra of St Luke’s, Concertgebouw Orkest Amsterdam, and the London Symphony Orchestra. Berman began the Beethoven Third Piano Concerto again from the top.

As a guest at the Tanglewood Music Center’s final conducting class of the 2012 season, I observed this teaching moment from the first row of the behind-the-stage balcony high over the musicians on the stage of Ozawa Hall. In front of me was the red-teak auditorium with row after row of empty, green-cushioned seats.

When in the audience, I see only the conductors’ backs, part of their arm gestures, their postures, and their faces in profile. Never their expressions. Today the conductors were facing me, and I hoped to understand more about how they obtain the music they seek — how they communicate with the orchestra using only their hands, faces, bodies, and breathing. Every conductor has the same musical directions written into a score by the composer. Yet each has a different interpretation that he or she hopes to elicit through direction, energy and inspiration.

The soloist for the class, Emanuel Ax, in a blue polo shirt and khakis instead of his usual concert tux, sat at the piano at the front of the stage. Ax and the other world-class musicians who both perform and teach at Tanglewood are one reason why conducting fellowships here are extremely prestigious and difficult to win.

Just as the class was about to begin, I noticed a stooped, gray-haired man with a walker inching his way onto the stage. Ax rushed over to hug him and help him onto a chair next to Asbury’s. It was conductor, pianist and composer André Previn.

“Two teachers are better than one,” Asbury announced as soon as Previn sat down and called Berman to the podium to begin the concerto’s first movement, Allegro con brio, with the small orchestra of Tanglewood Music Center Fellows.

In a light-blue shirt, the young, husky Berman, an Englishman, walked to the podium, adjusted the music stand to the height of his hips and placed his music upon it. He stood up straight but appeared tentative. His motions were small and somewhat close to his body. When he gave a downbeat, I heard the gorgeous first notes of the Beethoven concerto. Asbury soon stopped Berman a second time.

“Don’t worry so much about the downbeats. The pickup’s the thing,” Asbury instructed.

Just before Berman resumed, Ax turned to Asbury and asked, “Am I rushing?”

“Yes, a lot.” Asbury responded. (I hadn’t a clue!) Ax grimaced.

Berman was also the conductor for the first part of the third movement, Rondo-Allegro. Asbury’s major comment to him in this movement concerned his changes in tempo:

“If you want abrupt changes, you have to show them (the orchestra).”

Berman was invited to participate in the class as a special guest after distinguishing himself as a conductor during Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music. He conducts several small orchestras throughout England.

Alexandre Bloch at the master class with Emanuel Ax, piano. Photo Yska Benzakoun.
Alexandre Bloch at the master class with Emanuel Ax, piano. Photo Yska Benzakoun.

Conducting Fellow Alexandre Bloch, a tall, thin Frenchman with curly, dark hair and a bright pink shirt was second to conduct. He bounded onto the podium, pushed the music stand down to knee level, held his arms out far from his body and using wide gestures began the concerto from the beginning. His tempo was faster; he asked for more volume. He was exciting to watch. The orchestra felt his passion and responded with their own. The music sounded more alive.

Soon my attention was drawn to Ax, trilling with his right hand while watching the orchestra and Bloch with the nonchalance of the master he is. Once again Asbury stopped the music. He instructed Bloch not to conduct the orchestra with such large movements while Ax was playing with them. It wasn’t necessary.

When Asbury next stopped the class, he told Bloch to raise his music stand and not reach over it so far. He said (I believe), “They know you know they don’t know.” The musicians laughed. Bloch raised the stand to hip level.

Ax played a few notes of the first movement cadenza then stopped, deferring to the conductors in this conducting class. Probably as a treat for the orchestra and the invited guests, of which I was one, Asbury asked him to play the entire cadenza. Ax smiled and obliged. Earlier in the summer I had heard a magnificent performance of the same work in the Tanglewood Shed with Ax and the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Charles Dutoit. Now I sat very close as his crisp notes floated up from the piano. It was a rare treat.

When it was Bloch’s second turn at the podium — the last half of the third movement — his first direction came from Ax. The soloist held up his hand during a short cadenza to indicate to Bloch that he should wait a moment before bringing in the orchestra.

Ax also repeatedly mouthed “fantastic” to the orchestra during a contrapuntal passage. After a clarinet solo in this movement, Ax told the soloist “do what you feel like. Make it fun.” He did and received a thumbs up from Ax.

Bloch has conducted at Tchaikovsky Hall in Moscow and will be a Junior Fellow at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England, for the next two seasons.

Vlad Agachi leading the TMCO in concert. Photo Hilary Scott.
Vlad Agachi leading the TMCO in concert. Photo Hilary Scott.

Conducting  Fellow Vlad Agachi, a slender Romanian in a green polo shirt and jeans, was the final conductor  taking part in the class. Agachi raised the music stand to his waist and began at the top of the second movement, Largo. Under Agachi, each section of the orchestra sounded more distinct. He looked at Ax more frequently than either of his predecessors. Asbury let Agachi conduct for a few minutes before stopping him.

“Try to keep the faster tempo you had at the top,” he said. Then added “If tempo is really the point here, pay more attention to the cello section (which had the melodic line) to sustain it.”

“Sing a bit more,” Previn added.

Ax, who had been playing without a score, had to get up from the piano and look at the conductor’s score to locate the place where they would resume playing.

A few measures later, Asbury told Agachi to get out of the way during the bassoon and flute duet with the piano.

“You have to learn how to be in control and still let it be their moment,” Asbury said. When the musicians repeated the duet, Agachi used only one hand to conduct.

Previn then stopped the music at the same point to suggest to Agachi that he not conduct at all during the duet. This allowed the two musicians to appear more as soloists.

Agachi was a confident and polished conductor recently appointed to lead Romania’s Pitesti Philharmonic Orchestra: instructions to him seemed to be at a more advanced level.

At the concerto’s conclusion, applause and foot-stomping for the orchestra, soloist, conductors and teachers filled Ozawa Hall.

The class was a revelation. I had never before considered the height of music stands, thinking they related more to the conductor’s eyesight than his conducting style. Nor had I known about conducting the orchestra during a solo accompaniment, or which instrumental section to focus on to achieve an effect. The conductors weren’t the only students in this extraordinary class.

See also Michael Miller’s “TMC Nights, including the Festival of Contemporary Music.”

Stefan Asbury
Stefan Asbury
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