Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The best and worst of my time as assistant conductor - and why it ends here.

Step up to the plate 

My history as assistant conductor at the Royal Theater (Royal Danish Opera) began with an internship/hospitant type program between the Royal Danish Academy of Music and the Royal Theatre, initiated by my former teacher Frans Rasmussen (now on the judging panel of the danish version of the tv-show "Maestro"). 
The program was simple and wonderful: A student was attached to a specific opera production, and had no obligations other than just being present as much as possible during the process and absorb. 'My' opera was a world premiere of danish composer Bent Sørensen's "Under Himlen" which Michael Schønwandt conducted. As it turned out, an additional backstage conductor was needed for the performances, and thus I got my first paid gig at the theater.  
Shortly after that, they needed an assistant conductor for Rossini's 'La Cenerentola' (conducted by my subsequent teacher Giancarlo Andretta) and again they asked me. It was intimidating to step onto the podium in the orchestra pit at the theatre and look up at all the experienced and amazing talented singers that I, a very inexperienced conductor at the time, suddenly had to guide through a rehearsal of 'Cenerentola'. Several of them gave me good advice along the way, and during the month I was on that show, I learned some very basic things about conducting.
Not long after 'Cenerentola' I was offered an even greater task: to be assistant conductor throughout the production of the complete Wagner's 'Der Ring des Nibelungen'  - directed by Kasper Holten and conducted again by Michael Schønwandt. Quite a few of the operas I've been assigned to has had Schønwandt conducting. He has an exemplary way of cooperating with singers, directors, managers, etc. and through him I have learned a lot about both the physical and psychological processes associated with an opera production.
During the hundreds of hours we have spent in confidentiality by the conductors podium, Michael has given me countless tips and pointers, and the kind of apprenticeship has been a tremendous help. Over the years, I have realized that we are musically very different, but that's another story.

In Control

As an assistant conductor you work very hard for a production and is ultimately left standing outside the limelight - side by side with the operaworld's other unsung heroes: the assistant directors, stagemanagers, prompters etc. 
The 'real' conductor might arrive for a week of musical rehearsals at the early stages of the production and then disappear again completely until the orchestral rehearsals start some weeks later. In the meantime, the many rehearsals with piano are then left to the assistant who must try to maintain the shape and tempo of the piece that has been established at the initial musical rehearsals. You might also be given specific instructions as to how the piece should be rehearsed  ("Don't let him sing too loudly there" - "Keep the fermatas short" etc.). For the assistant conductor, this first week is therefore vital, and you sense immediately if you are left with something to work on, or whether most is left to chance. The conductor who begins a 2-month rehearsal period with just a shallow playthrough, does everyone involved a disservice. 

The most conscientious, well prepared and also the most controlling conductor I have assisted, was also my teacher in my last years at the conservatory; Giancarlo Andretta. From him I learned the importance of being prepared down to the smallest detail. His carefully prepared scores, calligraphic rehearsal schedules, unyielding tempos and recurring highly instructive 'lectures' (sometimes bordering on sermons), made ​​him an incredibly easy conductor to be the assistant to, but also served as an important illustration of the fact that in conducting, there are ultimately other qualities than the purely technical that play a major role. Otherwise, becoming a great conductor wouldn't be all that hard, right?

Let the music speak 
My greatest musical experiences have probably been as an assistant to Jiri Kout (for 'Tristan and Isolde'), and Friedemann Layer ('Ariadne auf Naxos'). Both demonstrated many of the qualities I most appreciate in a true 'maestro': calm and clarity, precision (in both interpretation and execution) and humility. 
Both had a physically understated way of conducting, with very contained, sinewy gestures. Both stood humbly before the music, completely disregarding personal interests in favor of the music.  
Of these two 'maestri' I learned that there is a reason in letting the music speak, and never believing yourself to be more interesting than the composer or the score. 
Simply give the music a language, and it will tell you what it is.

Jiri Kout has a reputation for being extremely temperamental. We didn't really see much of that in Copenhagen, but one time, he did snap his baton in half in frustration over an unconcentrated musician. 
His crooked fingers and burning eyes gave us an intense, scorching, syrup'y Tristan which was contrasted rather brutally by the younger German colleague who took over the show the following season and whose hasty, edgy, unphrased Tristan, I almost could not bear to listen to. As I was conducting the stagemusic for the show I was left with no choice and so night after night my preferred taste for Kouts's interpretation was confirmed. 
Why conduct a piece like Tristan if you can not provide a contact to the profound emotions and permeating 'todeslust' that is so central a theme? I still wonder about that...
Throughout rehearsals for 'Tristan', Kout had one recurring mission: legato. Again and again he interrupted a singer with just that one word, and with a smoothly drawn gesture he would then attempt to soften up some of the singers who might normally sing more marcato. It may sound simple enough, but it can be very difficult to alter something as basic as a singer's usual style of voice-production, even more so with experienced or complacent singers. I often picture a fragile Jiri Kout, looming over the piano like Rodin's 'The Thinker', whispering "no, no, legato, legato ..."