Conductors: my most admired two

This post is a continuing tribute to influential conductors in my curriculum vitae—literally, my “life’s course.”  The first post is here, spotlighting several conductors who influenced me to one degree or another.  In concluding that essay two months ago, I purposed to offer some more detailed praise of my two most admired conductors.  By way of commentating on the one I know less about, I’ll comment on her impressive concert offered at the recent CBDNA conference.  That concert was a shining example of gesture (among other attributes) that is at once beautiful and distinctly connected with sound.  First, some important background.

Most of the non-art-music world comes to have a shallow view of the conductor as a musician.  TV and movies that depict conductors almost invariably use actors who may have little sense of what a conductor does (and the producers seem never to bother to call in experts to help).  Some even appear in caricature.  Other professions or cultural subgroups may receive more negative treatment, but that is beside the point.  The point is that few people whose worlds do not include ensemble music appear to have much idea of a conductor’s training, abilities, or activities.  The sometimes-arrhythmic waving of arms in nonstandard patterns in the movies needs a corrective, so I’ll offer one in two sentences:

A good conductor’s gestures (and other nonverbal signals) are not only in time and in style, using conventional patterns and cues.  Beyond those attributes, what a conductor does should also be in the music to such a degree that the nonverbals play a major role in evoking group sound—sound that turns out to be connected directly to the composer’s musical creation.

“In time,” of course, denotes solid rhythmic connection.  Most Western large ensemble music needs a conductor to help keep players together, and this factor demands the use of standard gestural “beat patterns” and other conventions that are executed at specific points in time.  Beyond tempo and patterns, and surpassing the other qualifier I used above (“in style”), “in the music” is all-encompassing.  To be “in the music” is to comprehend—and then authentically to elicit—the musical content of a given musical work.  A conductor “in the music” will of course be in tempo, and in style (for instance, not using accented gestures for smooth, flowing music).  He will also be so wrapped up in the musical content at hand that every gesture, every change in facial expression and barely perceptible move of the eyebrows, and every explanatory word offered will serve a faithful recreation of the composer’s musical work.

In the previous post on conductors, I had spotlighted three conductors as particularly strong examples of impressive, beautiful, controlled gesture, well connected with sound.  Steve Davis, Cynthia Johnston-Turner, and Jerry Junkin have all struck me as inimitable leaders and strong musical interpreters.  Their conducting manner and other leadership expressions are passionate (at times Bernstein-esque!), engaging, and infectious, but sometimes less than efficient and not always connected to dynamics.  Of course there are many conductors in the world that I’ve never seen or heard in action, but of the 1000+ I have observed, these six are some of the very best.  I would travel many miles to listen to them talk about music or to be present for a rehearsal or concert.

There are yet two conductors I consider my most formative and/or most deeply admired conductors:   Mallory Thompson, of Northwestern University in Chicago; and Allan McMurray, recently retired from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Mallory Thompson
Mallory Thompson

Several years ago, I observed Mallory Thompson demonstrating rehearsal technique in a clinic and was impressed.  It was not Thompson’s impressive CV (including an Eastman doctorate) that made the difference.  No, it was actually what she did as a teacher, ensemble leader, and conductor—as well as how she did it.  I have never had the opportunity to be directly taught by Thompson, so I cannot say much in personal terms.  I will merely say that her ensemble’s concert at the CBDNA conference in Kansas City was the most nearly perfectly conducted concert I have witnessed.  I don’t remember a single moment that called for criticism, and that in itself says a lot for a natural critic like me.  Her convincing programming was comparatively simple, with an introductory work (by Richard Strauss, 1864-1949) and two more extended ones (by living composers Carter Pann and Joel Puckett).  The program showed shape and balance in terms of style and musical depth.  The Pann work, a programmatic symphony laced with intense human feeling, required a special combination of mature control, serene sensitivity, and sustained awareness of musical direction and the approaching points of “arrival.”  Throughout the program, Thompson’s gestures kept my eyes riveted, yet I was peripherally aware of various players.  My ears were enthralled not only with the gloriously expressive ensemble sounds, but also a precise, focused, almost inhumanly perfect connection between the visual and the aural.  My own view was from about 10 meters directly above the vantage point from which this shot was taken during this very concert:

A Northwestern University follow-up article about this concert is found here.  Reading just the first few paragraphs provides a good overview.  Should I ever have opportunity to seek more training/mentoring from a more seasoned artist-conductor again, I think I will first seek it from Mallory Thompson.

Of all the conductors from whom I have learned first-hand, Allan McMurray has topped my list since the summer of 2000 when I first submitted myself as a conductor-participant in a symposium at CU-Boulder.  The next two summers involved similar but increasingly rewarding experiences.  Allan’s teaching collaborators at these symposia were strong, too, but none so captivatingly, pedagogically on-point every time—in terms of both overall musicianship and conducting.  It would be a gross exaggeration to say I entered into a “discipling” relationship with McMurray, but following in his footsteps from afar has been something of a goal, and an ongoing teacher-student relationship of the apprentice type, unrealistic in my life, was something I nevertheless desired.

In my experience, McMurray is a sterling, relational teacher who goes to great lengths to help each student move to the next level.  While a student-conductor works with players through a musical passage, McMurray will stand off to the side or in the back, taking everything in.  He allows the music to proceed for a good length of time, then comfortably engaging the student in dialogue, imitation, or merely another attempt, as appropriate.  There is always a sense that nothing is important at that moment except helping this one conductor to progress in his/her ability to conduct that particular music better.  McMurray is not likely to call attention to his own masterful technique with long Image result for Allan McMurraydemonstrations, rather choosing to show something for a few seconds, patiently assisting the student to catch the vision, emulate the gesture, or embody some other conducting ideal.  I have not yet been able to part with VHS recordings of my own work in these workshops; they are priceless to me.  This brief video shows just a bit of Allan McMurray in his natural teaching habitat—possibly with his own graduate students—but cannot do justice to his teaching method and manner.

I distinctly remember a moment during the third or fourth day of a five-day symposium, probably 15 years ago.  At this point, I was playing horn when one of the other 19 conductors was on the podium leading the rehearsal ensemble.  We were nearing the lunch break time, and there was some question as to how to spend the next 15 minutes since all the scheduled conductors had received instruction for the morning.  Feeling we could all use a sort of synthesized lesson, I took the step of nearly begging McMurray to conduct us in a demo of an entire movement.  Unassuming as he is, he was difficult to convince, and I can hardly remember whether he actually did engage in conducting for 10 minutes or not.  I only remember the feeling of the moment:  (1) deeply wanting to be shown how by this master—through an extended example of his abilities to lead willing musicians, evoking sound with gesture and eyes and posture and all the rest—and (2) his humble spirit in the face of the public request I made.

Here, McMurray and CU colleague Matthew Roeder discuss an upcoming concert in a 3-minute video, providing insight into thought about music and programming.

And here is a rare find:  a video of a McMurray rehearsal with another university ensemble in his own rehearsal hall.  I would doubt that McMurray made any special preparation for the production here, but polish and glitz are not the point.  For him, music-making and connecting with real people playing real instruments are as natural as walking.  One deceptively significant practice I learned from Allan was the value of referring to the player by name in rehearsal:  e.g., “When Jacqueline enters with her line” instead of “When the 1st oboe starts playing.”  In the above-linked video and this one (part 2 of the same rehearsal), one might notice such aspects as McMurray’s complete, memorized command of the composition’s musical expressions and their “in the music” evocation, and his natural, unforced charisma.

Watching that rehearsal instantly took me back to the same room and the three extended symposia in which I participated there, plus a couple other times that Allan graciously allowed me to sit in for an afternoon even when I wasn’t a participant.  Far better players than I would also return, summer after summer, just for that unique, communal music-making experience.  I miss that kind of music-making, that kind of leader, and that kind of conducting in my life.

Allan, I am glad you are still active in your early retirement years.  The rest of us still need you. I didn’t presume on your time when I saw you in Kansas City, because twenty others probably wanted to talk with you at the same time, but if I had approached you, I know you would have received me with warmth.  I am grateful for your early patience with me, and your encouragement as I developed.  Your influence is extensive and has extended through many years.  As you often pay tribute to your teacher Bob Reynolds, I am paying tribute to you.  I am but one of many, but I will long remember your examples, your long-lived constancy as a musician and as a conductor-model, and your ability to make students know that you are genuinely interested in guiding, in helping each one move to the “next thing.”

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Conductors from whom I’ve learned

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:

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Carlos Kleiber

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Leonard Bernstein

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Frederick Fennell

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:

Gustavo Dudamel

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
Miguel Harth-Bedoya

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:

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Kenneth Davis, Jr. (Harding University)
Robert Streckfuss (University of Delaware)

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:

Richard Mayne
Kenneth Singleton
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)
Steve Davis
Craig Kirchhoff
Cynthia Johnston Turner
Jerry Junkin
Sarah McKoin

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).  For the others, 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.  Image result for allan mcmurray

Allan McMurray

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Mallory Thompson

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.

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