Aspen Times Weekly: Class Conduct |

Aspen Times Weekly: Class Conduct

by Andrew Travers | Photos by jeremy wallace
Conducting instructor Hugh Wolf offers advice to student Wilson Ng at the Benedict Music tent.
Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times |


What: Aspen Conducting Academy Orchestra

Where: Benedict Music Tent

When: Tuesdays, 4 p.m. through Aug. 16

How much: Free

More info: Upcoming programs include works by Dvořák and Bartok (Aug. 2), Berio and Tchaikovsky (Aug. 9) and Stravinsky (Aug. 16).



What: Aspen Philharmonic Orchestra

Who: George Jackson, conductor

Where: Benedict Music Tent

When: Wednesday, July 27, 6 p.m.

How much: $25

More info: The program features soloist Adele Anthony on violin and includes a world premiere by composer Weijun Chen, Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 and Elgar’s “Enigma.”



All of the 120 graduates of the Aspen Conducting Academy since 2000 are working conductors today. These are a few of them:

- Mei-Ann Chen: music director, Chicago Sinfonietta

- Aram Demirjian: music director, Knoxville Symphony Orchestra

- James Gaffigan: music director, Lucern Symphony Orchestra (Switzerland)

- Christian Macelaru: conductor in residence, Philadelphia Orchestra

- Tomáš Netopil: music director, Czech National Theatre (Prague)

It’s Tuesday morning in the airy confines of the Benedict Music Tent and the bright young members of the Aspen Conducting Academy’s class of 2016 are about to go to work.

As the Aspen Conducting Academy Orchestra warms up on the stage, its conductors are scattered around the blue-felted bench seats of the concert hall amid strewn cello cases and backpacks. They’re reading sheet music, humming to themselves, gesticulating with batons and without, practicing their cues. Dressed down in jeans and semi-casual garb – rather than the formal conductor concert attire – they look very much like the 20-somethings they are.

What follows for the next few hours is a symphonic equivalent of speed-dating. As the orchestra plays Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and then Strauss’ Horn Concerto, each conductor gets exactly 15 minutes on the podium to rehearse the movement they’ll conduct later for an audience. A clock is taped to a music stand at the rear left of the orchestra, its ticking hands keeping the conductor on time. An Aspen Music Festival and School staffer seated in the gallery reminds each conductor how much time he or she has left: “Five minutes!” then “Two minutes!” then an abrupt “Thank you!” and polite applause to usher them off the stage.

At that point, the teacher – usually Aspen Music Fest music director Robert Spano but on this Tuesday guest conductor Hugh Wolf – offers notes to the conductor on how they did, what they might change.

It’s fast and furious, with none of the pomp and circumstance and niceties of the concert the orchestra and its conductors will give seven hours later, when the stands of the Benedict and the lawn outside are filled with the Festival faithful.


Founded in 2000 by Festival music director David Zinman, the Conducting Academy is sui generis in the classical music world.

What distinguishes the Aspen program from others for aspiring conductors around the world – whether at full-time conservatories or summer schools – is that the conductors have a full orchestra at their disposal. Those 15-minute speed dates on the day of a concert are preceded by daily sessions where each conductor can learn by doing, working with an actual orchestra of 59 talented musicians who are also transitioning into professional music careers.

“They are working with the instrument they need,” says program administrator Asadour Santourian. “This is the rarity that distinguishes it from any other existing program.”

The conductors in the program make it here through a rigorous audition and application process. This year, the academy received about 200 applications for its nine slots. Three additional conducting students, who last year won Aspen Music Festival and School prizes, are back for a second summer in the program.

Some have compared the academy to a finishing school for conductors, taking young people who’ve been trained on the technical aspects of the art form and preparing them for a career with on-the-job training. For instance, a student may be technically well-versed but may have an emotional distance from the music. Time with an orchestra, and with an audience, can nudge them toward leading the kinds of transcendent concerts that can make a career.

Viewed from outside of the industry, it seems all but impossible to break into the ranks of symphony conductors. Think about the long odds of becoming a professional musician – how many kids dream of it and how many adults live it? Then multiply those odds by 50 to 100. There might be 16 violins on stage, but just one conductor. Maybe eight cellists. Still just one conductor. Fifty to 100 musicians in an orchestra, but just one maestro holding a baton on the podium in front of them.

Aiming to be a conductor, it would seem, is the equivalent of a young athlete not just wanting to play in the NFL, but to be a head coach.

And yet, since the Aspen Conducting Academy was founded in 2000, every one of the young men and women who’ve gone through the program has landed in the professional ranks of conductors, music directors and guest conductors.

“It’s a staggering fact,” says Music Festival president and CEO Alan Fletcher. “Every student – every one – is employed as a conductor. It’s 100 percent.”

Fletcher and Santourian credit that success rate to the close mentorship that Spano and others offer conducting students and the extensive time they spend in front of the orchestra here.

Members of the Aspen Conducting Academy Orchestra are all on full fellowships and – like the conductors – are usually transitioning between their education and full-time music careers. The orchestra gives these fellowship players, like the conductors, experience with the standard symphonic repertoire. Over the course of a summer, they play eight programs of the classics for their rotating conductors.

“These are students who are about to take major orchestra auditions,” says Fletcher. “And they are playing all the Brahms and Tchaikovsky and Beethoven symphonies that, when they go to these auditions, they’re going to have to play excerpts from.”

All the back-and-forth during rehearsals between conducting students and teachers also gives the orchestra members a rare and useful glimpse into what a conductor is thinking.

“It’s like the curtain is drawn back,” says Fletcher. “Robert Spano or Leonard Slatkin, or whoever our guest teachers are, are saying, ‘Here is how you cue the oboe in this particular piece’ or ‘Here is a trick in Beethoven 7 that conductors use.’ But the musicians would never know that stuff.”

The same might be said for the public. Conducting Academy rehearsals in the Tent and on the Music School campus in Edlis Neeson Hall are open to the public and free. Neeson Hall, which opened last year, was designed with a small gallery, specifically to allow visitors. Sitting in on the rehearsals offers a fascinating behind-the-scenes looks at how concerts – and conductors – are made.

“I go to them all the time,” says Fletcher, “because I think it’s interesting to see how conductors talk to each other and to the orchestra.”

(The free Tuesday afternoon Conducting Academy concerts are also an ideal venue for those who may be new to, or skeptical of, classical music to get a bite-sized taste of an orchestral performance. Because the concerts stop and start after each movement, it’s not uncommon – nor frowned upon – for audience members or families with young children to come and go after a movement or two.)


So, what makes a young person want to be a maestro? And what does life look like for a young conductor leaving Aspen?

Consider George Jackson. The 29-year-old was in the 2014 Conducting Academy class, returned last summer as a prize-winner, then won the Aspen Conducting Prize, which brought him back for this summer in a professional role as the festival’s assistant conductor.

Jackson came to classical music relatively late. As a teenager in England, Jackson played guitar and drums in garage bands. A student at an all-boys school, at 16, he joined a local youth orchestra as a way to meet girls, after a classmate told him of the favorable girl-to-boy ratio in its ranks. (He indeed became the only male violin player in the orchestra.) Though he joined for social reasons, the program’s conductor sparked something life-changing in Jackson.

He recalls a breakthrough during rehearsals of Berlioz’ “Symphonie fantastique,” in which his conductor explained the dramatic story behind the Romantic epic.

“The conductor explained what all of this really meant,” Jackson recalls. “And what I thought of as kind of boring orchestral music actually had these rich stories behind them.”

He went on to study music theory and composition at Trinity College in Dublin, and fell into conducting friends and classmates, simply, he says, because there weren’t conductors around to lead performances of student work. Those experiences drew him away from his interest in composing and toward conducting.

“I was developing more of an opinion of how I wanted music to go, versus wanting to create it from nothing,” he recalls.

Along with his work in Aspen, Jackson has earned a name for himself conducting orchestras and operas in Europe, including stepping in as an 11th hour replacement to conduct the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra in 2013 during a high-profile premiere and founding an opera company in 2010 at age 22.

Jackson has become a familiar face in Aspen this summer. He conducted during the Take a Stand concert in June, at the Aspen Music Festival convocation that began the season, at regular education concerts for young audiences and at the ribbon-cutting for the new Music School campus, along with assisting Spano and visiting conductors.

On a recent morning on the patio at Victoria’s Espresso, the charismatic young conductor greeted a constant string of passers-by and music students who recognized him as they walked down Durant Avenue.

Jackson talks about his vocation as not only a creative expression – of making his mark on a piece of music – but also as a community service, in which he literally conducts energy between an orchestra and an audience.

“The idea that someone doesn’t know Prokofiev, or doesn’t know Beethoven’s 2nd symphony, I feel it’s my job to assure that they’ve heard it before dismissing it,” he explains.

He characterizes his time in the Conducing Academy as the equivalent of getting an MBA in the business world, “a medium point between being a student and getting experience as a young professional. It’s more about doing than learning.” Like his classmates, Jackson arrived in Aspen knowing how to study a score and lead an orchestra through a piece of music. What he developed here under Spano’s thoughtful tutelage, he says, was how to transcend the basics and how to say something new with an old piece of music – and how to harness the charged atmosphere of an orchestra on concert night.

“They’re like antennae,” he said of orchestra musicians during a performance. “They’re really receptive. The level of communication is so much higher than in rehearsal. It’s almost telepathic. You can think something and communicate it in a way that doesn’t happen in rehearsal. When people are really concentrated, you get these great effects.”

The main event for Jackson this summer is a concert with the Aspen Philharmonic Orchestra at the Benedict Music Tent on July 27 that includes Edward Elgar’s “Enigma.” He’s dug deep in researching his interpretation, thinking about what the composition’s variations say about humanity and friendship.

“I suggested it because I think it’s one of the pieces with which I can actually say something, not only to an orchestra but to a community,” Jackson says. “You can go and do any symphony and be happy with what you’ve done. But then there’s the way in which I can actually make this my version of the piece. That’s what I’ve tried to do with my dream ‘Enigma.’”

After this summer in Aspen, Jackson has a busy globe-trotting run ahead of him: he’ll conduct the opera “Billy Budd” in the Leeds in November, the Haydn Orchestra di Bolzano e Trento on a tour of northern Italy in December, head home to London for “The Nutcracker” in January and then to Romania for a concert with the Craiova State Philharmonic Orchestra in February.

It’ll be an itinerant life for Jackson until he can find a musical home, like the one he’s made in Aspen over the last three summers.

“As much as I want to be traveling around the world conducting, I do want to be in one place and have a normal life, to be with an orchestra and be part of a community,” Jackson says. “That’s why Aspen is so great. I feel that here.”

Aspen Times Weekly

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Aspen and Snowmass Village make the Aspen Times’ work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.