Maestro Showcase

How do conductors on the rise gain attention? How do orchestras find gifted conductors? In the highly competitive world of orchestral conducting, simply getting exposure can be challenge enough. The League of American Orchestras’ Bruno Walter National Conductor Preview offers one answer to that challenge with a showcase of new talent. On March 13, six conductors led Florida’s Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra at this year’s Conductor Preview, before an audience of music-director search committee members, artistic administrators, and artist managers and agents from across the country. Each participant had 40 minutes on the podium, allowing industry professionals to check out rehearsal technique and abilities. This year’s Preview conductors, chosen from among more than 90 applicants, were Joshua David Gersen, Keitaro Harada, Gavriel Heine, Vladimir Kulenovic, Sameer Patel, and Benjamin Rous. The Preview typically includes a mix of male and female conductors, but this year the six chosen happened to be men. Since 1975, the Bruno Walter National Conductor Preview has showcased more than 75 conductors, and more than 50 orchestras have appointed participants to a variety of positions. The Bruno Walter National Conductor Preview is made possible by generous grants from The Bruno Walter Memorial Foundation and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

SymphonyNOW caught up with the six young conductors to get their unique perspective on the state of orchestras today, what it was like to watch other conductors at work on the same score, and the shifting role of the music director. All photos are by Bassel Jadaa.

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Joshua Gersen is winner of the 2011 Aspen Conducting Prize and the 2010 Robert J.
Harth Conducting Prize from the Aspen Music Festival. Since September 2012, Gersen has served as music director of the New York Youth Symphony. He is also the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Conducting Fellow of the New World Symphony

SymphonyNOW: What made you decide to apply for and participate in the Conductor Preview?
Joshua Gersen: When you’re a young conductor, you’re looking to start a career or advance your career. You’re looking for opportunities to meet new people, work with musicians, and be seen by as many people as possible. I thought this was a very good opportunity to do all these things. I got to meet orchestras, music directors, to network. I got to work with the Jacksonville Symphony, an orchestra I hadn’t worked with before. I got to meet the musicians and be seen by some people who had not seen me conduct before.

SymphonyNOW: What things stand out about the Conductor Preview experience, musically and otherwise?
Gersen: For me, I’m used to conducting at the New World Symphony and the New York Youth Symphony. Those are very good ensembles, but they are very young ensembles. I don’t have that much experience working with professional orchestras. So for me the really interesting experience was to work with a professional orchestra, which has much more experience. They just reacted so much more quickly to everything. When we stopped and I asked them to do something, the next time they would get it—and without even stopping. They would react and do exactly what I wanted. The fact that they were so responsive was a great experience. In Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, there was one really subtle thing I asked the violins to do at the beginning of one of the movements, and literally the second time we did it, it was exactly right. In the New York Youth Symphony we have about ten rehearsals before each concert, so we have a lot more time. This is a different experience, and it was interesting to see how much more quickly things can and did come together.

At the Conductor Preview I went on toward the end of the day, when I’m sure the orchestra was getting a little bit fatigued from doing the same repertoire with each of the six conductors! But you wouldn’t have known it. The orchestra is playing the same thing over and over again, but it really did sound a lot different with a different conductor on the podium. It was interesting how different each conductor’s interpretation of the piece was. It was a great experience for me, and it was not only wonderful working with the Jacksonville Symphony but with my fellow colleagues and people I hadn’t met before. I am glad I was part of it and would recommend it to anybody else.

The fact that they were so responsive was a great experience. In Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, there was one really subtle thing I asked the violins to do at the beginning of one of the movements, and literally the second time we did it, it was exactly right.

SymphonyNOW: Were you able to observe the other conductors while they worked with the Jacksonville Symphony?
Gersen: It was a pretty casual experience. They let us watch as much as we wanted, but we certainly weren’t required to. It was a relatively long day, and I was in the afternoon, so in the morning I would check out the other conductors were doing, and watch a little bit afterward. Everybody was very nice, welcoming, and supportive, from the orchestra to the conductors to the staff and the administration. It really was a great experience.

SymphonyNOW: How do you view the role of the music director? It has changed a lot from 50 years ago, and even ten years ago. I assume you hope to be a music director of a major orchestra.
Gersen: Sure, that’s the plan! I think the role of a music director has changed a lot in the past few decades. A music director has a lot more responsibility—it’s a lot more all-encompassing than what it used to be. In the past the main part of the job was preparing the music: rehearsing the orchestra and performing. That’s still a large part of the job, but of course there’s a lot more to it now, as far as fundraising and meeting and working with donors, and creative programming, and a lot of the things that conductors have to worry about now. Going forward, the things that keep coming up over and over again are a) the audience is shrinking and we have to find a way to expand it, and b) the way that people think we’re going to have to do that is by changing the concert experience, the concert format, in some way to attract a broader audience. Being down here in Miami at the New World Symphony, I have had a lot of experience dealing with that. We try different concert formats or use different media to present the music we’re playing in different ways, and hopefully to appeal to a broader, younger audience. So I think going forward the role of the music director is going to be centered around how we change the concert experience. And in some way you’re going to see that concerts are going to be different than in the past.

SymphonyNOW: Do you have any thoughts on what orchestras are doing well, what they could do better at?
Gersen: I think orchestras are experimenting right now with finding a new financial model. Seemingly we’re having problems with the way our model works, and I think a lot of the tension and disputes you see are a result of that. It’s also a result of the current situation in this country and the world right now. I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but going forward what we can do as music directors is provide a larger revenue stream for our organization. Where we can be the most effective is by finding ways of reaching out to more people, attracting more people to come and participate in the concert experience. If we’re successful in doing that, hopefully orchestras will see success from the financial side as well.

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Gavriel Heine is a staff conductor of the Mariinsky Theatre (formerly Kirov) in Russia, and music director of Northern Lights Festival Opera (Minnesota). Heine was born in America but educated in Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

SymphonyNOW: Why did you decide to participate in the Conductor Preview?
Gavriel Heine: The Conductor Preview is something you do at a certain point in your career, when you’re looking to make the next step. For me it was great, because a lot of what I do is in Europe, in St. Petersburg, Russia, at the Mariinsky Theatre. The Mariinsky is a wonderful place to work. I am totally happy, have been there almost six years now, but it’s really out of the public eye. I’m an American, born and raised in New Jersey, just outside of Philadelphia. I went to the Moscow Conservatory to study the cello, and to St. Petersburg Conservatory to study conducting. So nine years of schooling, a lot of my life is connected to Russia. I speak Russian fluently. Long story short, I’m an American, and my life has taken me different places, but I don’t really do much in America with the exception of conducting opera for five or six weeks of the year. So I’m very happy to have some exposure to the American market, to show American musicians and administrators what I can do. It’s an honor to be chosen for the Conductor Preview; not everybody who applies is chosen. That in itself is very nice, and is flattering. But it’s great to have a chance to work with the Jacksonville Symphony, a great orchestra, and to meet all the people who were involved with this. This was such an impeccably organized event. All the people who were involved, from musicians to administrators, were just super nice and helpful and supportive. It was a really positive experience, and I think everybody pretty much felt that way.

SymphonyNOW: How did the experience at the Conductor Preview compare to your other conducting experiences?
Heine: Well, it’s different because you’re not working toward a concert! You run some pieces, and then you rehearse each piece. If you’re working toward a concert with an orchestra, you’re the only conductor there, so of course the orchestra has no other different conductors asking different things of them, which can be funny. Tuesday was a closed session, and Wednesday was open to the public. Each conductor had 38 minutes with the orchestra. It’s an interesting, sort of peculiar experience. And it is a bit stressful you’re concentrated a lot, and you want to do your best. But that’s okay—concentrated stress is part of what we do!

SymphonyNOW: When it wasn’t your turn to conduct, were you sitting in the audience?
Heine: I came third in the order. Before my turn, my nose was buried in my scores! After my turn, I was happy to listen to my colleagues. I really enjoyed watching the other conductors. They are all really terrific. And they all worked in very different ways; each one wanted something different from the orchestra. Everybody’s technique was different. It was neat.

SymphonyNOW: Was there any sort of a professional dialogue? How about social events?
Heine: There were dialogues throughout. After the first day there was a feedback session behind closed doors with a small committee—three members of the orchestra, plus the music director of the Jacksonville Symphony, Fabio Mechetti. Everybody got about ten minutes of feedback with them, what they thought, what they liked, what I might want to investigate doing differently. That was very nice. Everybody was very supportive. We had a wine-and-cheese event with invited guests at the end of the first night. And there was another meet-and-greet after we had all conducted for the public the second day in the late afternoon.

SymphonyNOW: What is your view on the role of a music director, and how it may have changed over the years?
Heine: Everybody can tell you that there are no Toscaninis or Karajans anymore, that the era of the superstar mega-conductor who is a god figure is over. Conductors have to be more democratic, and there’s a lot more at stake. The business model has changed, the recording industry has changed. For so many orchestras in the U.S. and internationally, it’s a difficult time financially. What does that mean for a music director? A music director definitely has to be aware of it, but the role of a music director is going to be different for every orchestra. The organization has to let the conductor know what they need, and the conductor’s got to be honest and show what he or she can do—and cannot do. I think that generally music directors these days, first and foremost, have to be great conductors. They have to be super musicians, and they have to bring the orchestra up to a level of excellence. They have to be inspiring. However, the music director also has to be aware of all the finances involved, and also what will and won’t sell. A good maestro can help with this. You can’t be stubborn about [repertoire], because you’ve got to know your market, you’ve got to trust the people you work for. You’ve got to trust your colleagues, and trust that the board knows what they’re talking about, that the treasurer knows what they’re talking about, and that you have a good feel for the pulse of the community you serve. You serve a community. These days some communities don’t have education; where I grew up, for example, we had orchestras, we had music education. But in communities without music education, an orchestra has got to take on that role. In a metropolitan area where you have a pops orchestra, you maybe don’t do so much pops, but if you don’t, then you have to do pops. If there’s an opera company in town, you don’t worry about opera, you do symphonic music. But if there’s no opera in the community, and you think the community needs to hear opera, then you do opera as well.

People have a right to see Rembrandts and Picassos. They have the right to hear Beethoven and Mahler. That’s why orchestras exist. It’s a human right to hear great art, because it’s part of what makes us human, what makes us whole.

SymphonyNOW: You talk a lot about music education. There are some who believe our great music institutions need to think of themselves equally as educational places, to serve communities that may have no opportunity to participate in this kind of music at all.
Heine: You’ve got to expose people to great music, and there are different ways to do that. The people in a specific community deserve to hear great music, and they’re not going to hear it if there’s no orchestra playing it. It’s just not the same as buying a recording. There’s a level of energy, and there’s something about live overtones that enter your brain that you can’t replicate. People have a right to see Rembrandts and Picassos. They have the right to hear Beethoven and Mahler. That’s why orchestras exist. It’s a human right to hear great art, because it’s part of what makes us human, what makes us whole. If you take somebody to a museum, show them a Picasso, that’s one thing. If the museum also has somebody talking about the Picasso, that’s another thing. If you have somebody setting up an entire program, showing in a basic way the history of art, and how Picasso is important and why, then it’s something different. I think orchestras can and should do that.

Education is one of the things I do at the Mariinsky Theatre. We have educational programs, called the Academy of Young Theatergoers. For the first grade, we have “how an opera is created” and “the magical world of opera,” and “how a ballet is created” and “the magical world of ballet.” And then we have “the orchestra comes onstage” and a gala concert. In the second year, we do entire operas and ballets in digest form. We even did a Ring cycle in an hour! Some people said, “Wow, that’s crazy,” or, “That’s a great idea.” The Ring is music that kids should experience, it has a cinematic quality, there’s a talking dragon, a guy who forges a sword, Brünnhilde is encircled by a ring of fire, and you don’t have to sit through 20 hours of music in order to hear these great things. We do that, and it sells like crazy! I’m so proud of what we’re doing in the education program there.

SymphonyNOW: Having spent six years working at the Mariinsky Theatre in Russia, do you have a different view of the orchestra scene in the U.S. than you used to?
Heine: There’s obviously very little state support in the United States compared to Europe. What does the NEA give, something like 4 percent of the budget? Wow, that’s a different model! The Mariinsky Theatre is hugely state supported. I’m a state employee, pretty much. In addition to vast state support, the Mariinsky is also heavily supported by private donors. Valery Gergiev is the administrative and artistic head of the theater, and he has cultivated great relationships with lots of corporate people in a position to help support the Mariinsky, from all over the world. One thing about Russia is that you have so many music schools, where kids are studying professionally from the age of five for quite a few hours after school every day at specialized music schools: music history, harmony, piano, other instruments. You have a lot of serious music education happening. This is very different from the system of musical education in the United States, where if you want to play an instrument you take private lessons. But who’s studying solfeggio or harmony, along with their private clarinet or piano lessons? Audiences love music in the United States, just like they love music in Russia. I think the tasks are the same, frankly: you have to make great music, and you have to make it accessible.

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Keitaro Harada is assistant conductor of Arizona Opera, music director of the Phoenix Youth Symphony, and principal guest conductor for Sierra Vista Symphony Orchestra. Harada has studied under Lorin Maazel at Castleton Festival, with Fabio Luisi at Pacific Music Festival Conducting Academy, and assisted Christoph von Dohnányi as a Seiji Ozawa Conducting Fellow at Tanglewood Music Festival.

SymphonyNOW: Why did you decide to take part in the Conductor Preview? What might it offer conductors, or industry professionals?
Keitaro Harada: The Bruno Walter National Conductor Preview is one of the most prestigious recognitions that young conductors can get and it’s a wonderful opportunity to get your name known to the industry. When orchestras are searching for new music director or guest conductors, a really good source to go to is the League’s Preview roster.

SymphonyNOW: Please talk a bit about what it was like to take part in the Conductor Preview—how it felt to participate, what it was like to work with the musicians of the Jacksonville Symphony, if the pressure of working in this type of situation was different from leading a concert with a regular audience.
Harada: I feel completely honored I was selected as one of the six conductors. It’s really a great feeling. I’m the youngest out of the six but I have been working diligently, polishing my craft every day, and for my work to me recognized is just wonderful. From day one of the Preview it was fantastic. The conductors had dinner together with Polly [Kahn, League vice president of Learning and Leadership Development], Richard [Naylor, general manager of the Jacksonville Symphony], and Stacey [Ridenour, Jacksonville Symphony vice president]. The discussions we had about the role of the conductor and the role of the orchestra in this country were valuable—sharing our experiences with different orchestras and how to engage the audience, etc.

I was the first conductor on the podium for both days. Jacksonville Symphony has a wonderful concert hall, it’s absolutely gorgeous. The moment I stepped into the hall, I was so excited that I can make beautiful music in this breathtaking venue. JSO musicians were welcoming and warm. They were extremely flexible to requests each conductor made, and they reacted beautifully to subtle changes we each had. The wonderful thing about the Preview is the lack of competition. The six of us had already gone through the competition of being selected. We were given the exact same scenario for two days in front of the orchestra, and we could do what we wanted to that would represent us well. For the attendees from orchestras looking for new conductors, the rehearsal process is so important. How does the conductor communicate to the musicians? What does the conductor hear from the orchestra and what can he add to what is already being presented? How can one inspire the musicians? It was nice that we each had one rehearsal that was closed to the guests so the orchestra and conductors could get used to each other.

SymphonyNOW: Did you observe the other conductors at work? What was it like to watch a quick succession of other conductors—did you notice qualities in this kind of situation that you might miss in a regular concert?
Harada:
I was so glad we were all encouraged to watch the other conductors on both days! We have all, in one way or another, crossed paths previous via workshops, masterclasses, and competitions which never allow us to observe the rehearsal process. I was so inspired by watching others conduct and rehearse. Definitely learned new tricks, definitely opened my ears to different aspects of the score each conductor brought out. It was just great. The six of us were a perfect fit. We got along very well. No drama, no competition. We were laughing a lot and enjoyed the time shared together. It was kinda fun to be all conductor-geeky and talk about stuff that I never get to about this profession.

For the attendees from orchestras looking for new conductors, the rehearsal process is so important. How does the conductor communicate to the musicians? How can one inspire the musicians?

SymphonyNOW: What’s your view of the state of orchestras today? How do you think they fit into the larger American cultural scene?
Harada: I believe that the orchestra continues to be the leader in the arts for every community. It’s the place where you can hear professional musicians perform live in an acoustic setting—this aspect of the art hasn’t changed over the many centuries. Nowadays the community has so many options for a night of entertainment. Honestly, it’s just pointless to compete with pop culture. People are going to see the Lady Gaga show or the Broadway musical tours. And there is no point in competing. The most important thing is for orchestras to remind their community that this is “their” orchestra. It’s no different from being a fan of their town’s football/baseball/basketball team. People take pride in them. And so they should with the orchestra in their community. Going to the symphony concert or opera performance does not have to be so highbrow. How to get the younger audience to be excited about “their” orchestra is the key to success and it requires a creative team that is willing to take risks and a board willing to trust new ideas.

SymphonyNOW: Do you think the role of the music director has changed over the years, or what are some important qualities for a music director to possess?
Harada: First and foremost, artistic excellence and the capability to achieve that from the orchestra. Trust: from the orchestra, from the staff, from the community. It’s important that the conductor never takes the back seat but is always innovative and brings fresh and refined ideas to the table. When the orchestra gets too used to the music director, then they check out. Charisma: the music director is the poster child for the orchestra, the most public person that the community will recognize. Like the way a child has a favorite player in the basketball team, I think it’s important that they are fans of the music director and the members of the orchestra. Accessibility: through pre-concert talks, interviews at intermission, post-concert receptions, fund-raisers, and any other events that involve the patrons, the music director has to accessible. I really believe that the audience experience is heightened when they get a chance to meet the conductor and the musicians at some point in their evening.

Has the role changed? I don’t really think so, artistically. Maybe the public aspect for the music director is greater than before. For example, if a conductor is on Twitter/Facebook, does it matter? Sure! Because you’re stepping into the area that the younger-generation audience is comfortable with. When a top pop star retweets your twitter post, it’s awesome. That same excitement can be achieved by concertgoers that get their tweets retweeted by their favorite classical performer. It’s just another occasion to put a smile on someone’s face and brighten their day. As musicians of 21st century, we can gain from adapting to what’s “in.”

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Vladimir Kulenovic is associate conductor of the Utah Symphony | Utah Opera and recipient of the Sir Georg Solti Award, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy Scholarship, and Bruno Walter Memorial Scholarship. Kulenovic has studied under James DePreist, Alan Gilbert, and Gustav Meier, among others, and held conducting fellowships at the Aspen Music Festival, Salzburg Mozarteum and Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music.

SymphonyNOW: Why did you decide to take part in the Conductor Preview? What might it offer conductors, or industry professionals?
Vladimir Kulenovic: The National Conducting Preview is an opportunity with a unique purpose: to display a diverse selection of young conductors at the critical point in their career, and allow us to answer the question—how will our work contribute to American orchestras in the coming years? This answer is only fully visible in a live rehearsal with a professional orchestra, and the format of the NCP allowed us an ideal environment in which to display it in front of leading industry professionals.

SymphonyNOW: Please talk a bit about what it was like to take part in the Conductor Preview—how it felt to participate, what it was like to work with the musicians of the Jacksonville Symphony, if the pressure of working in this type of situation was different from leading a concert with a regular audience.
Kulenovic: It was a true pleasure to work with everyone involved in the 2013 NCP and it really felt like everyone was working towards a mutual goal. In our quest for excellence, there was no stress present due to such a warm collaboration. It was replaced by collegial focus in which one felt that he is contributing to the whole. In this great environment, the wonderful musicians of the Jacksonville Symphony and its incredibly supportive management and staff members, the League leadership which organized the event, and my superbly talented five conducting colleagues and I gave our absolute best in every moment. We hope our audience enjoyed it.

Today more than ever, orchestras need to take the helm of the cultural life of their communities. This responsibility is more pronounced and broader today than ever before, since we have to be involved in every level of cultural life: from education, cultivation, and nurturing.

SymphonyNOW: Did you observe the other conductors at work? What was it like to watch a quick succession of other conductors—did you notice qualities in this kind of situation that you might miss in a regular concert?
Kulenovic: One of the great advantages of this format is the quick succession of six different conductors, and our diverse styles. I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated the work of my colleagues and could clearly see how beautifully we complement each other. One can’t help but draw the conclusion that the optimum contribution conductors are able to provide comes not from a single right approach, but rather in the universality the six of us showed together as one whole. I walked out of this experience with a clear feeling that the six of us together were much more than the sum of our parts.

SymphonyNOW: What’s your view of the state of orchestras today? How do you think they fit in the larger American cultural scene?
Kulenovic: Today more than ever, orchestras need to take the helm of the cultural life of their communities. This responsibility is more pronounced and broader today than ever before, since we have to be involved in every level of cultural life: from education, cultivation, and nurturing. It is only the perpetuity of giving to the community that we operate in, and providing our audiences with meaning and the means to understand it, that will ensure the perpetuity of their support.

SymphonyNOW: What do you see as the role of music directors today?
Kulenovic: Music directors of today have a great responsibility to be involved and contribute to every aspect of the organization. The type of leadership that the modern orchestra needs as an organization is for this individual to be the common denominator who brings everyone together and elicits passion and focus towards achieving our goals. It is essential that the music director’s vision is clear, and crucial that at the same time it is meaningfully contributing to the community which the orchestra is serving. We as music directors therefore are not only the face of our organizations, but also its heart. Both orchestras and audiences will only trust and follow a leader who demonstrates tireless commitment, competence of mastery, and a contagious passion on every occasion.

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Sameer Patel is assistant conductor of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic. As a Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy Scholar in 2011, Patel travelled to Europe to study with and assist Kurt Masur at the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. In the 2010-2011 season, Patel served as the Zander Fellow at the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra.

SymphonyNOW: Why did you decide to take part in the Conductor Preview? What might it offer conductors or industry professionals?
Sameer Patel: I was excited to conduct in the Preview and make music with a great orchestra. Additionally, it provided an opportunity to have stimulating discussions with colleagues and industry professionals about our orchestras and communities.

SymphonyNOW: What was it like to work with the musicians of the Jacksonville Symphony?
Patel: It was a great honor and privilege to work with the musicians of the Jacksonville Symphony. They made music with great joy, and their warmth and openness to discover a shared musical vision was the most exciting part of the Preview for me.

SymphonyNOW: Did you observe the other conductors at work? What was it like to watch a quick succession of other conductors? Did you notice qualities in this kind of situation that you might miss in a regular concert?
Patel: I really enjoyed watching my colleagues work. Each of us brought our own story and our own musical ideas to the podium, and it resulted in a great learning experience to observe their differing styles and ideas. Attending a live concert is about hearing the finished product after many rehearsals, but this provided a different experience—it was about the process. We transformed together, creating musical unity in a short amount of time.

I really enjoyed watching my colleagues work. Each of us brought our own story and our own musical ideas to the podium, and it resulted in a great learning experience.

SymphonyNOW: What’s your view of the state of orchestras today? How do you think they fit in the larger American cultural scene?
Patel: I believe American orchestras are at the very heart of our most cherished cultural institutions. What we offer is quite an incredible experience—where else can people be so tangibly moved and inspired? Music is without a doubt the greatest expression of our common humanity, and orchestras have the privilege and responsibility to offer a very human experience every time they perform.

SymphonyNOW: What do you see as the role of a music director today? Do you think that role has changed in recent years from previous ways of doing things?
Patel: The role of the music director is constantly evolving. I believe a music director should be the greatest enthusiast of music, artists, and culture in his or her community. This manifests itself in not just giving concerts of the highest quality, but also in being invested in the long-term cultural health of our communities.

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Benjamin Rous serves as associate conductor at the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and has appeared in concert with National Arts Center Orchestra (Ottawa, Ontario), Ensemble Orchestral de Paris (Vendome, France), Illinois Symphony, Cabrillo Festival Orchestra, and on St. Louis’s Pulitzer Concerts with musicians of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Rous has studied conducting with David Zinman and George Manahan, and has participated in master courses with Kurt Masur, Marin Alsop, and Lorin Maazel, and until 2010 was the assistant conductor for the Phoenix Symphony.

SymphonyNOW: Why did you decide to take part in the Conductor Preview? What might it offer conductors, or industry professionals?
Benjamin Rous: For the early-career-stage conductors it’s a chance to be seen and heard, which is the most valuable thing that we can ask for at this stage. It’s great that the League provides it. It’s a great service to us. And my impression, although I can’t speak for them, is that for the attendees who are there to watch and listen are there for a variety of reasons. Some are just curious to be informed about this group of six conductors, and others were there for very concrete reasons including current music-director searches that they’re going through. I believe at least two of those were represented. So they had either a specific or more general agenda.

SymphonyNOW: Can you talk a little about the experience? What it was like to work with the musicians of the Jacksonville Symphony? Did this situation feel different than a normal concert with a regular audience?
Rous: Yes, it was very different. I would first say that it was a great thrill to work with musicians who play very well in a tremendous facility. A fine concert hall—I mean “fine” in the British sense, a-okay, the best. Any time you can interact with a room with that type of luminous sound it’s a real treat, for performers and audience alike. The biggest difference here was that this was more about the work that goes into a performance, because we were encouraged to treat it as a rehearsal. We made a lot of music but we also repeated things and commented, and tweaked and changed and begged and pleaded—all of the things that conductors do. [Laughs] So it was more about the work that goes into a performance—that was of the topic of the session and what was on offer, what was on display.

SymphonyNOW: So it had kind of an open-rehearsal feel?
Rous: Yes, I would say it was basically an open rehearsal. But one in which you also, even more than a regular working rehearsal, want to give the music a chance to shine as if it were a performance. So it was an interesting hybrid in that respect.

SymphonyNOW: Did you observe the other conductors at work? What was that like, watching the different styles or individual qualities in quick succession?
Rous: Yes, I did. I was in the room just about the entire time. I watched everyone both days. I brought my Ravel score, even though I wasn’t conducting that piece, because I knew some others were, and I was interested in learning what they were doing with it, just as I would if I were assisting any of the music directors I’ve assisted in the past. I learn something every time someone rehearses an orchestra, especially because this was a deeply talented group and I admire all of their work—and with very different styles. It’s fascinating how many ways there are to conduct and that you can observe quite concretely what different things the different conductors and different styles brought out of the ensemble. Gavriel Heine—fantastic conductor, he is from this Russian School, which is very individuated from what the rest of us were doing in certain technical ways, and you can hear the results. And then Sameer Patel has this particular ease with his arms that sets the musicians at ease in a certain way. I admired each of the conductors in their distinct way.

What can we as music directors do to help orchestras adapt to the digital age? I think we absolutely need to be at the forefront of that push.

SymphonyNOW: A broader question: what’s your view on the state of orchestras today? What’s their role in society?
Rous: Well, people would probably think that all American orchestras are embattled just because we’ve had a series of very high-profile, publicly discussed crises at various orchestras across the country. That’s far from uniformly true. Where I work, at Virginia Symphony, I would say we’re healthier now than we were three years ago, and that three years ago we were healthier than three years before that. Each orchestra is in its own situation and has its own relationship to its own market. I can’t speak for all of them but the general observation is that America has a robust orchestral life, and there’s still evidence of that everywhere you look. With the possible exception of Minneapolis-St. Paul. But that will absolutely come back and at some point in the very near future, undoubtedly be a fine orchestral town with two outsized orchestra talents serving it. But one thing I observe is that as school districts tighten their belts as far as what arts education, especially at the elementary and junior high school levels, it falls more and more on arts organizations to step in and fill that void. And I’m sure all the other guys at the preview and of course dozens of other conductors working around the country are at the front lines of that. We in many ways have become the primary source of educational experiences in music. And that happens in the formal concerts and in all the informal ways in which we interact with students. That is one of the things we see day to day, and that is perhaps the main benefit that communities value and desire and support orchestras for providing.

SymphonyNOW: It sounds like this shift in orchestras’ place in and contribution to the community impacts the role of the music director. Do you see the role of the music director changing along those lines as well?
Rous: I think everyone pretty much agrees how the role of the music director has changed over the past 30 years. The question is: how has it changed in the last seven years? Specifically, in the YouTube age. And that’s not just for the music director but for the orchestra as a whole adapting to the digital age. We’ve adapted fine to email; we have not adapted fine to YouTube. And we’re doing sort of okay with social media, not great. But the biggest question is, what can we as music directors do to help orchestras adapt to the digital age? I think we absolutely need to be at the forefront of that push. I don’t think that responsibility should be sequestered in, say, the social media arm of the marketing department. I think that the music director should absolutely be involved in that, right at the center. The music director is uniquely situated to bring the musicians along with adaptive models and evolution. I think that’s how it should change and probably is changing but not fast enough.

SymphonyNOW: How do you think orchestras and music directors in particular could be using social media and YouTube better? Are there experiments you’ve had success with or just ideas you have?
Rous: I have not personally reshaped an orchestra in this way. And you see some organizations figuring this out, you see self-released recordings starting to become the norm. Philadelphia was really on that and that was even before digital distribution—they realized they needed to press their own CDs. Berlin has done a similar thing with its digital concert hall. So there are sparks of that going around. There’s not yet a standard practice or a formula, and I think that’s great, I think it’s fantastic to be in the Wild West and it’s a great opportunity for us. But I’m not going to claim that I know how it all should look, but when you’ve performed an amazing concert on a Friday night and you’re still selling tickets for Saturday and Sunday—why isn’t it up on Friday night? And not the whole thing, but this is just one example. Why is it not up on Friday night? Because our model is too cumbersome, and that’s why the music director needs to get involved.

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