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The venerable conductor

In an interview several weeks ago, Damon Gupton, a 31-year-old student with the Aspen Music Festival and School’s American Academy of Conducting at Aspen, contemplated his future on the podium. Gupton had gotten a late start in his conductor training and was counting off the many ways – repertoire, technique – in which he had ground to make up. But when the name of David Robertson, music director of the St. Louis Symphony and a rising star of American conductors, came up, Gupton was cheered. Robertson, noted Gupton, “is amazing – and he’s still got a long way to go.”The interesting thing is that Robertson is 47 years old. If he were an athlete, he’d be long retired; if he were an actor, he’d have already seen his choice of roles begin to dwindle. Had Robertson been a doctor or lawyer, he might be at the height of his career, but probably looking toward slowing down, and then to retirement within two decades.As a conductor, though, Gupton was right about Robertson. At 47, Robertson is still a young man, with years’ worth of pieces yet to learn, positions at leading orchestras still to attain, and techniques to master. It is a unique practice in the world. In what other field besides conducting can someone in his mid-40s be working his way up? What other endeavor is practically dominated by folks in their 60s, 70s and 80s?Scan the Aspen Music Festival’s season calendar and the conducting names that stand out are Sir Neville Marriner and John Williams, both of whom made their Aspen debuts this summer at the ages of 80 and 72, respectively; Sergiu Comissiona, 75, and Joseph Silverstein, 72; and James DePreist and the Music Festival’s music director, David Zinman, the young men of this group at 68. And the elder statesmen of this year’s conducting corps has yet to make his appearance this summer.At 83, Julius Rudel is sharp and vital, full of good humor and wit, dressed for a walk in Aspen’s 8,000-foot elevation, and about to lead a highlight of the Music Festival season. Rudel conducts the Aspen Opera Theater Center’s production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” the enduringly popular, tragic tale of the cursed hunchback. “Rigoletto,” directed by Aspen Opera Theater Center director Edward Berkeley, has a gala premiere at the Wheeler Opera House on Monday, Aug. 16, with additional performances Tuesday and Thursday, Aug. 17 and 19.Like Williams, Comissiona, Zinman et al., Rudel seems to have lost nothing to age. Conducting, he says, with the demanding travel, the constant collaborations with new colleagues, and the continuing stream of new works and re-examination of old ones, is a fountain of youth.”It’s a healthful occupation. You get aerobics – whether you want to or not,” said the Austrian-born, New York-based Rudel, from an apartment in the North of Nell building where he is staying. “You get rid of your frustrations. And it’s a wonderful way of self-reinventing – every time you re-create the material, you start at point zero. It’s exciting, to look at every piece as if you’ve never seen it. It’s always exciting to rediscover things, to see something come into focus.”While the opportunity for constant rediscovery revitalizes the conductors, Rudel says the music itself benefits from the wisdom and maturity seasoned conductors bring to the work. Take, for instance, the case of Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein became famous quite young; he was 25 when he substituted for the ailing Bruno Walter at a 1943 New York Philharmonic concert and became an overnight darling of the music world. Rudel, however, was far more impressed with the older version of Bernstein.”I remember the last time I heard him do the Mahler Second Symphony, it was so much deeper and slower,” said Rudel. “He had obviously rethought it. Only he could bring it off at this tempo; it was at least 10 minutes longer than normal.”Rudel believes his vast experience – he has conducted more than 170 different operas – has likewise made him a better musician. “I hope I’m better,” he said. “Because you constantly reappraise, readjust. You add knowledge and experience. So it’s got to be better.”Rudel has been immersed in music for virtually all of his 83 years. In his native Vienna, Rudel was surrounded by one of the most music-saturated environments the world has known. “You could judge it by the fact that every cab driver knew what was playing at the opera house,” he said. “They had probably never set foot in it, but they were caught up in that musical life. It was wonderful to be exposed to that.”Rudel remembers his first exposure: At 2 1/2, his parents took him to see Bizet’s “Carmen.” “And I was bitten by the bug,” he recalls.What started with opera continued with opera. In New York, where Rudel had moved when he was 16, and where he attended the Mannes School of Music, one of Rudel’s earliest positions was as accompanist for the New York City Opera. As the fledgling company grew, Rudel grew with it, taking over both artistic and administrative responsibilities. Led by Rudel, the City Opera became not only successful, but innovative, producing entire seasons of American opera and 20th-century opera. City Opera introduced audiences to works by American opera composers Carlisle Floyd, Kurt Weill, Ned Rorem and Vittorio Giannini. “It seemed groundbreaking; it had never been done before,” he said. “It was daring. We had to fight for audiences. We had to gain the attention of younger audiences, and we had to convince older audiences that there was still good opera being made.”Rudel has devoted some of his career to orchestral music. But he is most closely associated with opera. His tenure at the City Opera ran through 1978, when he was replaced by Beverly Sills. In Aspen, he has been a guest conductor each of the last seven years, with six of those years devoted to opera productions, including “Don Giovanni,” “Falstaff,” “Ariadne auf Naxos” and last year’s “La bohème.” Rudel says the opera form provides the ideal training ground for a conductor.”In the European tradition, that’s the natural way – Toscanini, Szell, Mahler all started in the opera house,” he said. “There’s more of a demand on the conductor in the opera house because you have to control so many more elements. You control not only the orchestra, but the singers, the action. You develop the sense of timing the composer had in mind. It’s more of a learning experience.”Conducting continues to be a learning experience for Rudel. “Every time we look at something, we learn something new from it,” he said. “There’s the constant exposure to new experiences, to varied points of view, to actively engage in something.”And his own perspective has matured. One of the most important later lessons Rudel has absorbed is that he hasn’t seen it all. As a younger conductor, he observed, “one tends to be a little more callow. You think you know everything.” At 83, Rudel knows there are still experiences on the horizon. Wagner’s “Parsifal,” for instance.”‘Parsifal’ has so far escaped me,” said Rudel. “I’ve done over 170 operas but ‘Parsifal’ is not among them. And I’ve loved it since childhood.” This week’s lineupThe mini-festival Schumann: Musical Supernova continues with events through Saturday, Aug. 14. On Friday, Aug. 13, the Aspen Chamber Symphony, conducted by David Zinman and with pianist Yefim Bronfman, performs a program that includes Schumann’s Symphony No. 1 in B flat, the “Spring” symphony, plus works by Mendelssohn and Beethoven. That evening, “Song of Love,” the 1947 film about Robert and Clara Schumann starring Katharine Hepburn, will be screened at Paepcke Auditorium. The chamber music concert on Saturday, Aug. 14, features pieces by both Schumanns, and will be narrated by J.D. Landis, author of “Longing,” a historical novel about the couple. That night, the American String Quartet recital features Schumann’s “Clara” quartet, and works by Shostakovich and Brahms.The Aspen Festival Orchestra concert on Sunday, Aug. 15, conducted by Emmanuel Krivine and featuring pianists Cipa and Misha Dichter, has a program of compositions by Debussy, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky. A chamber music concert that night features pieces by M. Haydn, Sydney Hodkinson and Prokofiev.The mini-festival Forbidden Music: Silenced Voices opens Tuesday, Aug. 17, with the American Academy of Conducting Orchestra playing a program of works by Mendelssohn and Mahler. The High Notes lecture on Wednesday, Aug. 18, will have conductor James Conlon and Music Festival artistic advisor Asadour Santourian discussing the repression of music during the Nazi regime. The mini-festival continues with events through Aug. 21.Also this week, pianist Vladimir Feltsman will play a special event, with works by Bach and Chopin, at Harris Hall on Tuesday, Aug. 17. Conductor Daniel Meyer will lead the Aspen Concert Orchestra on Wednesday, Aug. 18, in performances of pieces by David Little, Rachmaninoff and Saint-Säens. The American String Quartet will play a program of Mozart, Ned Rorem and Brahms on Thursday, Aug. 19.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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