Learning to Lead

by Melinda Whiting

Seeking a smoother transition from conservatory to full competence

There are hundreds of orchestras in the United States of every conceivable variety, from youth orchestras to fully professional, full-time ensembles. And there are many more conductors. So why do we continually hear complaints of a conductor shortage?

The answer lies in a persistent, post-graduate training gap that can't easily be bridged. In America, "we train conductors the same way we train instrumentalists, which is to say they get an undergraduate performance degree and maybe a master's degree," says American Symphony Orchestra League Vice President Jesse Rosen. The nature of the job, however, "suggests that there's another level necessary before a conductor is really ready to assume professional responsibility." Robert Jones, who helped shape the National Conducting Institute as president of the National Symphony, draws a blunt analogy suggested by his Washington environment: "Taking a Ph.D. in political science doesn't mean you're ready to be a senator."

A number of short-term programs -- those mentioned in this article and others -- aim to address this training gap. But the ideal, Rosen believes, would be more extensive. He, too, presents an analogy, first suggested by the great conducting pedagogue Max Rudolf: "Doctors, when they finish their academic training, don't have sufficient knowledge or guided experience to assume full professional responsibility. They have an internship, then a residency, then they're ready to practice on their own."

There are several models for such conducting apprenticeships. Rosen's predecessor, consultant Donald Thulean, reflects on a past generation whose "skills were honed in the European opera house." Conductors such as Fritz Reiner and George Szell started as répétiteurs -- teaching singers their roles while playing score reductions at the piano. This allowed them, says Thulean, "to learn an opera score from the inside out. Those periods of apprenticeship were not necessarily long, but they were very intense." After a year or two, when he was closely acquainted with the repertoire and the orchestra players, a répétiteur "might be asked to step on the podium at any time, with no rehearsal," to fill in for an absent maestro. Later, having reached artistic maturity, he might shift to the symphonic repertoire for a change of pace.

Another European model for nurturing talented newcomers is that of the conductor's assistant. David Zinman's experience assisting Pierre Monteux was typical. "At first, I just carried his bags and gave him water, which I did gladly, and he would talk to me about the music he was conducting," Zinman reminisces. Soon the younger conductor was marking orchestra parts, "and then, after a year, he asked me to start rehearsing for him; he wouldn't rehearse on the day of a concert." Monteux's mentoring gave Zinman plenty of practice with professionals. "I actually conducted about twenty La mers [in rehearsal] before I conducted it for real," he recalls. "And a lot of Daphnis and Chloes and Berlioz pieces. All of his repertoire." Monteux rarely watched Zinman's conducting, but was available to answer questions and dispense advice.

This informal, intimate position of "conductor's assistant" shouldn't be confused with that of an orchestra's assistant conductor, who generally leads education programs, pops, and the occasional subscription concert, but may have little contact with the music director. Striking a balance between these two experiences was the Exxon/Arts Endowment Conductors Program, founded in 1973 and administered by Affiliate Artists until the organization's demise in 1990. Three-year residencies with a full-time professional orchestra allowed young conductors (including such alumni as Myung-Whun Chung, Andrew Litton, Christopher Wilkins, and Hugh Wolff) to gain hands-on experience on the podium, while also receiving "exposure to some of the necessary administrative knowledge that conductors need to function successfully in an orchestra," according to Rosen, who directed the Exxon program from 1978 until 1985.

Mentoring is a necessary part of future efforts to close the training gap, Rosen says -- a recommendation echoed by Zinman: "It's important that conductors take younger conductors in hand and help them. George Szell had this wonderful program where he had three or four apprentice conductors at one time" -- one of whom was the young James Levine, Zinman adds. But in an age when most major music directors travel constantly, few have a chance to observe many young conductors and thus take an interest in their careers. Zinman, who has cut back on travel since taking the musical helm at Aspen, hints broadly at his own desire to mentor more actively. Michael Tilson Thomas, too, has invited a young conductor from the January 2001 League workshop to work with him at the New World Symphony during the current season. It's New World's first move in developing an annual fellowship for a post-graduate-level conductor-in-training.

Another offering that holds promise is the international conducting competition announced earlier this year by Lorin Maazel and billionaire philanthropist Alberto Vilar. Winners -- there may be as many as six -- will receive a cash prize and orchestra engagements. But most influential to their development may be the mentoring promised explicitly in the competition's promotional materials: "opportunities to work with Maestro Maazel and other esteemed musicians on technical and musical preparation, to rehearse orchestras under Maestro Maazel's supervision, to study new repertoire and languages, and to address the administrative dimensions of a conductor's activities." On paper, it looks like the right recipe.

Rosen calls these varied developments "encouraging. We're in a good time, when senior conductors are turning their attention to the next generation to a degree we haven't seen recently." If even a few of these major artists take an active interest in creating residencies and mentorships, their successors have a good shot at duplicating their artistic successes in the future.