This post is a tribute to influential conductors. I’ve learned things from all of these; in some cases, the impact has been broad and deep.
I’ll start with men I never had the opportunity to learn from in person but whose conducting has, in one way or another, had strong impact on me. Of the conductors I have only seen on video, three deceased men rise to the top as those I would like to have learned from, had I the opportunity:
Kleiber is perhaps most admirable for his depth of score knowledge (albeit, reputedly, with a limited repertoire) and ability to show the music’s character; Bernstein and Fennell, perhaps for their unbridled passion and command. If I knew his work better, one living composer might fall into a similar category for me:
I played or sang under these next two only once or twice, back in the 1990s. Those occasions are now in my distant memory, so I am not altogether sure how I would assess them as conductor-musicians at this point:
Mary Woodmansee Green
Green and Harth-Bedoya have the distinction of being conductors who had multiple, standing appointments (as opposed to being a principal guest or regular guest conductor) in different cities. That always struck me as a goal to which to aspire, but I’m not so sure anymore. A life of perpetual flux and travel is not very desirable.
Of all those conductors under whom I have performed on a regular basis for some period of time, the next two seem the most exemplary to me at this juncture. One is deceased, another in his seventies. Their personalities were markedly different, and I learned very different things from them in vastly different scenarios and phases of life. In their respective idioms and milieux, they were strong leaders and rehearsers, and they both had impact on me:
There have been many conductors that I do not feel I have learned much from. Some of these seem to be viewed by others as iconic, and at times, I have been unable to discern why. Other times, I happen to have had similar skill sets and values, so I didn’t particularly take anything from them. I suspect the strengths of some lie not in conducting per se, but more in their musicianship or program leadership effectiveness or administration than in their conducting and artistry on the podium. I will not list names in this category, because it is not my desire here to be critical of any individuals in the slightest. There are actually two or three from whom I learned negative lessons, i.e., “Brian, do not do as s/he did!” Like many others, I witness unhelpful and/or stylistically inappropriate division of beat, spasmodic gesture, and other nonverbals that should be checked in a mirror or on a video recording.
Other lessons have been interpersonal in nature: one has consistently modeled, as a gentleman musician, how to treat people with dignity; another once displayed in the starkest terms what a travesty can be made of the communal music-making experience when a conductor shows no human concern or care for what an individual musician is going through in life.
Leaving generalities and negatives behind . . . the next group is short list of conductors whose work has impacted me in unique ways. They have affected me for good and have been particularly exemplary in one or more respects:
H. Robert “Bob” Reynolds
I never had the opportunity to play under Reynolds, a true prince of conducting pedagogues, but I did spend a little time with him, both personally and in a group. At summer symposia, he shared a lesson or two I won’t forget. Here, I honor Reynolds (who taught some who taught me) along with two graduate professors who were and are examples of generosity, teaching, and devotion to music-making and students.
The next list includes a few more I’ve learned from at symposia, plus others I have observed on only one or two occasions. These conductors strike me as highly artistic, but they have not been specifically formative in my development.
Patrick Casey (no relative)
Cynthia Johnston Turner
In some of the above instances, chronologically distant memories are still strong of impressive, beautiful, controlled gesture, well connected with sound (McKoin, Casey, and Kirchhoff in particular). From Lynch I learned the necessity of correlating baton “travel” distance with the relative duration of pulses in asymmetric meter. In all of these, the traits I admire include visible, artistic passion.
These last two conductors exhibit different yet overlapping sets of strengths. Among all those I have played under or observed on multiple occasions, I have learned most from these two, who rise above all the rest, in my estimation. One knows me, and the other doesn’t. These are the two most formative, most deeply admired conductors in my experience.
Above, I have opted to show McMurray and Thompson doing one thing they both do very well: teach younger, aspiring conductors. In the next post on this topic, I will offer some more detailed praise of these two, as well as the concert offered at the CBDNA conference by Thompson’s ensemble, the Northwestern University Symphonic Wind Ensemble.