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Conductor U.

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times Staff Writer

When Murry Sidlin was attempting to learn the intricate art of conducting a symphony orchestra, the lessons came in slow bits and pieces. Sidlin was a student and assistant conductor with the Aspen Music Festival and School from 1969-71, and studied under Leon Barzin in New York and Sergiu Celibidache at the Academia Chigiana in Siena, Italy.These were all top associations for an aspiring conductor, but a critical component was missing – actual time, baton in hand, in front of an orchestra. Sidlin says his early instruction consisted of sitting at a desk, studying and memorizing scores. He stood before an actual orchestra a few times a year.Sidlin considers himself lucky. In 1971, he was appointed assistant conductor of the Baltimore Symphony, under Sergiu Comissiona. It was then, at the age of 31, that Sidlin finally had the opportunity to take regular turns doing a conductor’s work.”That’s where I learned my trade, the realities and practicalities of artistic issues, under Mr. Comissiona,” said Sidlin, a 25-year Aspen Music Festival faculty member who conducted last Sunday’s performance by the Aspen Festival Orchestra. David Zinman, the music director of the Aspen Music Festival and School, had a different sort of educational experience. After early studies on violin and then composition, Zinman took up conducting. For seven summers, beginning in 1958, Zinman attended the Domaine School of Conducting, in Hancock, Maine, run by French conductor Pierre Monteux. At Monteux’s school, Zinman got one month of hands-on experience, leading a living, breathing, performing orchestra under the watch of experienced conductors. It was a rare opportunity. Though there were other notable conducting programs at the time, in Siena and in Salzburg, Monteux’s was the only school to offer extensive time in front of an orchestra assembled for the purpose of educating young conductors.Today, most of these conducting programs have either disappeared or scaled back severely.When Zinman took over as music director in Aspen in 1997, he arrived with a mission: to make sure that the conducting students here did not have the experience that Sidlin had, going months between podium appearances.To correct the problem, Zinman looked to his own past. Using the Domaine School as a model, he created the American Academy of Conducting at Aspen in 2000. Zinman, who had earned an international reputation as a conductor, came to Aspen intending to commit the last years of his professional career to education. The establishment of the Academy of Conducting, then, was a demand he made of the Aspen Music Festival.”I convinced [former Music Festival president] Robert Harth that it was very important, and he got the financing for fellowships, and [Music Festival artistic administrator] NancyBell Coe put the program together,” said Zinman, who directs the Academy, and tabbed Sidlin as his associate director and program coordinator. “It was very lucky that I made it a demand, because if I hadn’t, it wouldn’t have happened.”The multiple millions of dollars of funding for the Academy have come from a variety of sources. As a part of the Aspen Music School, the Academy receives a portion of the school’s general funds. Two donations have also been received strictly for Academy purposes.At the program’s inception, the Helen F. Whitaker Fund made a donation that covers a significant part of the Academy’s operating costs. And Ann Bowers, a member of the Music Festival’s national council, has given a challenge grant of $1.25 million that must be matched, 3-to-1, for a total of $5 million. According to a Music Festival staff member, there remains $1.2 million to be raised in association with that grant.Unique in the worldThe Aspen Music Festival has long had a conductors’ program, led for years by Sidlin. But comparing the pre-Academy era with the current program shows just how enormous an undertaking the Academy of Conducting is, and why it is unique in the world.Before the Academy, “If you were lucky, four people got 25 minutes each, once a week, conducting an orchestra,” said Zinman. “And they didn’t have concerts. They conducted a pickup orchestra of very young people who didn’t have much experience.”The difference now, in the Academy’s fourth season, is dramatic; Zinman calls it a “thousand percent” improvement. The centerpiece of the program is the Academy orchestra. For the full nine weeks of the Music Festival’s summer season, the 70-piece orchestra is the veritable instrument of the Academy students, dedicated solely to Academy purposes.That translates to real podium time: Each of the Academy students – 19 this year – gets hands-on rehearsal time, in front of the full orchestra, several times each week. The students also get performance opportunities, as the Academy of Conducting Orchestra has a schedule of regular public Tuesday afternoon concerts in the Benedict Music Tent. The conducting students, as well as the Academy Orchestra members, are all on full fellowships. The Academy boasts two orchestra managers and its own librarian. “The essential idea is to supply them with an instrument, the same that is required of any musical study,” said Sidlin, the National Association of Independent Schools of Music’s Educator of the Year in 1997. “And not to just give them an instrument, but teach them how to play it.”To teach them to play the orchestra, the Academy students have perhaps unprecedented guidance from the maestros. Both Zinman and Sidlin give the majority of their energies to the program. And the guest conductors who come to perform at the Music Festival – meaning some of the top conductors in the world – work with the Academy students each week.It is a huge amount of resources devoted to 19 students. But to Zinman and Sidlin, it is the best way, the only proper way, to train conductors.”The education of the conductor in America is at best haphazard,” said Sidlin, who, with his wavy silver hair, looks every bit the part of the maestro. “There’s no conducting program in the world that does what must be done. I don’t understand how we expect a flutist to hold his instrument every day, a pianist to sit at the piano every day, but conductors are supposed to just sit at their desks, memorize the scores, and once every six months wave their arms at an orchestra.”The Academy of Conducting aims to rectify that situation by providing ample amounts of time for students to wave their arms.”That’s how to study conducting,” said Sidlin. “You’re before an orchestra all the time, with Mr. Zinman and myself breathing down your neck, guest conductors hitting them with a rubber hose. It’s what Berlitz would call total immersion. It’s the only way to learn language, and the only way to learn to conduct.”Crash courseEric Dudley agrees that the Academy offers a unique opportunity. A graduate of Rochester, N.Y.’s Eastman School of Music, the 23-year-old Dudley is currently a graduate student in Yale University’s conducting program. At Yale, Dudley is a conducting fellow and gets the occasional chance to work with the Yale Philharmonia. He also has an annual engagement conducting the “Nutcracker” for Connecticut’s Albano Ballet.None of that, however, has given Dudley the week-in, week-out contact with a large orchestra like the Academy of Conducting has.The program is divided into two sections, Academy students and Seminar students. The Academy students, including Dudley, get the lion’s share of the performance opportunities, while the Seminar students get more of their podium opportunities in rehearsal settings.In his first week in Aspen, Dudley conducted two movements from a Sibelius symphony; in the weeks since, he has conducted part of a Stravinsky violin concerto and Webern’s interpretation of Bach’s six-voice “Ricercata.” All of the performances have been at the Music Tent, in front of audiences expecting to hear first-rate symphonic music.”In an isolated time frame, this is more conducting than I’ve ever done – which is wonderful,” said Dudley.Dudley is likewise impressed by another of Zinman’s guiding principles, that all conductors in the Academy are also members of the Academy orchestra. The conducting students thus get instruction not only while on the podium, but are witnesses to the lessons learned by their conducting colleagues. The structure is also intended to foster an atmosphere of cooperation between conductors and musicians.”[Zinman’s] idea is that you also learn by sitting in the orchestra and watching your fellow conductors,” said Dudley, who plays piano in the orchestra. “That way you really see what is effective and what isn’t. The understanding he’s trying to foster is that it’s a learning environment.”A recent session at the Music Hall, on the Music School’s Castle Creek campus, had all the markings of an environment that fostered education. During a Sunday morning rehearsal, Damon Gupton, a 30-year-old in his second summer with the Academy, led the Academy Orchestra and soloist Herbert Greenberg, an Aspen Music Festival faculty member and concertmaster of the Aspen Festival Orchestra, in the demanding Berg violin concerto. Michael Stern, a guest conductor who leads this week’s Aspen Festival Orchestra concert, oversaw the proceedings, weighing in with critique and instruction. Zinman observed from a close distance. After the session, Stern engaged in an informal, one-on-one tutorial in baton technique with an Academy student. It is a typical scene from the Academy, an example of the “total immersion” that hints at the overall rigor of the program. In addition to the performances and rehearsals with the orchestra, there are also score-reading sessions, technique classes, video review sessions and readings with the orchestra.This week, for the second summer, representatives from the American Symphony Orchestra League will give classes in non-artistic issues such as labor relations and career management. Students are also strongly encouraged to arrange their own concerts, by booking a hall and recruiting an orchestra; Sidlin expects there to be as many as 30 of these concerts outside the formal Music Festival schedule. Academy students describe the program as difficult, but know they can reap unprecedented attention from top maestros.”It’s working because the music director of this program is committed a thousand percent. He thinks about it all the time,” said Sidlin of Zinman, who made just one guest conducting appearance, in Berlin, this summer, and is scheduled to be in Aspen through the rest of the season.”He teaches more than any other major, world-class conductor that I know, or know of. The students here have complete access to him, which is unheard of in other conducting programs.”A budding reputationThe reputation of the American Academy of Conducting at Aspen has spread like brushfire in the cozy world of aspiring conductors. For this, its fourth season, the Academy received some 310 applications for its 19 positions; a handful of those spaces were taken by students returning for a second year. Zinman says he is asked about the program everywhere he travels in Europe.”I think it’s attained a reputation as one of the top places to come in the summer to study,” said Dudley. “I think Maestro Zinman has intentionally made the conducting program one of the biggest parts of the festival.” And Academy students are making their way into the orchestral world. The Academy has established a connection that assures its top participants get the chance to conduct outside of Aspen. An arrangement with the Cleveland Orchestra allows one or more students to conduct the highly regarded Cleveland Orchestra in a performance at the Blossom Festival. Next month, Damon Gupton – who, as winner of last year’s Robert J. Harth Academy Conductor Prize, received an automatic invitation to return as an Academy student this summer – will conduct Ravel’s “Ma mre l’oye (Mother Goose)” Suite at the Blossom Festival, sharing the program with Zinman.Two past participants in the Academy have taken assistant conductor positions with the Cleveland Orchestra, and others are now assistant conductors with the Pittsburgh Symphony and the Minnesota Orchestra. One former student earned the Rolex Fellowship from the London Symphony Orchestra and is establishing a career in Europe.Zinman believes the Academy has taken hold and is gaining momentum. “It’s improving drastically. The orchestra is much improved, and the level of conductors coming in is much higher,” he said. But Zinman wants more than just to train excellent conductors in Aspen. He wants to set an example for how American conservatories train conductors. He points to Finland, where a strong support system has produced an impressive number of top conductors in recent years.”I’m hoping that this will be a model for other programs,” he said of the Academy. “And I’d like to see something like this year-round, in New York or Miami, where people can come in for three months at a time and make use of the people who come through.”The orchestral world is always looking for solutions to longstanding, seemingly intractable problems: shrinking audience, competition from other entertainment forms, loss of funding. The situation seems to be particular dire at this time of economic woes and drastic cuts in public funding for the arts. In a recent edition of the Sunday New York Times, the Arts & Leisure section had two stories detailing the current troubles.Zinman understands the complex challenges to fixing the state of orchestral music. There are issues of programming, attracting new audiences and financing. But the Academy of Conducting is more than just a step in the right direction. To Zinman, producing great conductors is the beginning of a trickle-down process that hopefully leads to better orchestras, more enjoyable concerts, a larger audience and so on.”It always starts with good conductors,” he said. “The better the conductors are, the better chance of life happening.”Training really first-rate conductors, who get jobs and become America’s finest conductors – that’s the goal.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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