Attending the Academy as one of twelve students was an uplifting and thought-provoking experience
Twelve students, one teacher and six days were the fundamental ingredients of the musical feast that was the Järvi Winter Academy 2013. The setting was Pärnu, a charming and beautiful Estonian resort town gracefully edged by the Baltic sea; a place where in Soviet times the great and the good – most notably David Oistrakh - would come and relax and breathe the lovely, balmy sea air. The air was still lovely when the 12 of us were visiting and learning, but with temperatures reaching 25 degrees below Celsius the climate was a little less forgiving. The same cannot be said of the Pärnu City Orchestra who were amiability itself, forgiving the one or two slips that may have occurred as we conductors attempted to face the challenge - what does it mean to conduct?
Our teacher Maestro Leonid Grin may know a little of this art himself as a leading exponent of the Russian school of conducting: he studied and taught at the Moscow Conservatory, before defecting to the West in the 1980s and becoming assistant to Leonard Bernstein. Leonid was also the internationally renowned conductor Paavo Järvi’s teacher and it was through Paavo that I personally met him. It was 2008 and very happily for me I had been selected to participate in the Järvi Summer Academy held every year in Pärnu. It was after working with me and seeing me perform in concerts that Paavo had a discussion with me about my ambitions in conducting and subsequently gave me an introduction to Leonid, with whom I have been studying since 2009.
Maestro Grin’s career spans over 40 years and has taken him all over the world from the far reaches of Scandinavia to South America and New Zealand. In fact, he has conducted in all but two countries represented by us, the 12 students: Britain, France, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Russia, America, Brazil, New Zealand, excepting South Africa and Australia.
Whenever working with Leonid the question arises: ‘What is the purpose of this work and what is it really for?’ He is someone, like his great mentor Leonard Bernstein, who aims to go to the heart of a work. So he always reminds us that we as performers first and foremost are advocates for the composer. Naturally, developing and working with this fundamental principle is no simple task and when you also throw into the mix the nature of each conductor and their unique presence and qualities, the task is even more fascinating.
The repertoire gave ample opportunity to delve into these explorations: Dvořák’s Czech Suite, Schumann’s Overture, Scherzo and Finale along with Mendelssohn’s evocative Scottish Symphony. And so, on the first day we were each assigned two movements on which to work with the orchestra. Through this Leonid could better assess our abilities for future assignments that would enable our best development throughout the week, ultimately leading to the choice of which work we would conduct for the concert.
For me the art of conducting, the wonderful and glorious repertoire and the development of all techniques possible as a means to communicate the intention of the composer - all the instinctive, intuitive, intellectual, psychological, physical, spiritual and esoteric techniques we may marshal in advocacy of the composer’s voice - is a wholly absorbing art. How to wordlessly illicit a true cantabile legato from the first violins in the Adagio of Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony and find the gestures and presence to convey the bittersweet sense of loss that melody somehow describes. Or, how to recreate for a moment in the final movement of the Czech Suite marked Furiant, that enlivening, invigorating experience of Czech folk dances that are the inspiration for that music, so that we can somehow almost see the folk celebration happening before our eyes. Or, how to communicate the simple naïve joy of children’s pranks lying silently dormant within the Scherzo of Schuman’s Overture, Scherzo and Finale, ever waiting for the chance to spring joyously and transiently to life once again.
This may be one depiction of the art of conducting but still, this week in Pärnu, as ever, the question 'What does it mean to conduct?' hovered perennially on the horizon. This may be a question which might be answered most directly, but somewhat paradoxically, in the negative. Quite surely, one thing conducting is not is beating time, so an orchestra can play their notes correctly and in the correct place with the correct dynamics. A competent orchestra can perform this task by itself without the services of a time beater, while a less advanced orchestra will need this service to play together but with so much effort being expended on simply playing the correct notes in more or less the right place, more often than not there is somewhat less possibility for some of the finer points of music-making to have their place in the proceedings.
What does it mean to conduct? As with any pursuit that compels a lifetime’s investigation and devotion, we may end up concluding that the more advanced we become, the more we realise that we don’t know what it means. But somehow for we 12 students, who spent six days in Pärnu with one teacher - we may have come a little closer to understanding the beautiful and enchanting reality of this art.