Dallas — The results of the first Linda and Mitch Hart Institute for Women Conductors under the auspices of The Dallas Opera were on display on Dec. 5 at the Winspear Opera House. The energy behind this workshop is Keith Cerny, General Director and CEO of TDO, and he should take a victory lap.
Six conductors, at various stages of their development, were selected from more than 100 hopefuls to come to Dallas for an intense week of training under Nicole Paiement, principal guest conductor of TDO and TDO Music Director Emmanuel Villaume. There were non-musical career development workshops as well (something as valuable as stick technique and something sadly lacking in most university conducting programs, even now.)
The final concert used a talented group of young singers and the full TDO orchestra. Each of them conducted a solo aria or an ensemble and a purely instrumental selection, such as an overture.
American Stephanie Rhodes wisely let the flutist play the beautiful solo in Entr’acte to Act III of Bizet's Carmen without much interference. Lidiya Yankovskaya, also an American, was right with mezzo Heather Johnson in “I am a mother” from Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking. The two delivered gripping performances.
Australian Jessica Gethin showed her considerable experience from the first downbeat. She was fortunately paired with the remarkable young tenor Alasdair Kent in an aria from Handel’s Semele: “I must with speed amuse her.” Kent easily flashed through all of the coloratura work at a breakneck tempo and even displayed an excellent trill.
Three other conductor/singer collaborations also produced dramatic results. Russian Anna Skryleva was joined by mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson in a moving account of “Things change, Jo,” from Mark Adamo’s Little Women. Australian Jennifer Condon and soprano Stacey Tappan made some music in the less well-known aria “En proie a la tristesse," from Rossini's Le Comte Ory. American Natalie Murray Beale was blessed with bass Adam Lau, who pranced through an engaging and creative version of the Catalogue Aria from Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
It is a truism that time for student conductors in front of a decent orchestra is as expensive per minute as training a pilot in an airborne passenger or military jet. Working with two pianos, like a flight simulator, is great for basic training but it is nothing like standing in front of an orchestra.
For one thing, an orchestra is not a piano. This statement is not as ridiculous as it seems on first blush. The piano is played by one person, who can easily follow a conductor at almost any skill level. Au contraire, a symphony is made up of at least 60 professional musicians. It takes a great amount of skill to get them to play precisely together, let alone to convey a consistent musical interpretation and follow a singer at the same time. Many newly minted conductors have trouble getting the first note played together.
The orchestra has probably played this same music a myriad of times before with a procession of professional conductors (from acceptable to genius level). They will all have their favorites from years past. Further, orchestra members are all highly trained and experienced musicians themselves, each feeling superior to most conductors and each with a diametrically opposed idea about how whatever it is the poor hapless student conductor is trying to conduct.
A conductor has to win the orchestra over with a carefully thought out point of view. The conductor must have a ready and logical answer for that all-important question: “Why do you want us to do such and such?” That old parental retort, “because I said so,” is completely unacceptable, especially if it becomes obvious that it is not working.
A ragged entrance embarrasses the players and the audience is rarely aware of the conductor’s sloppy downbeat (or worse, when it is caused by showboating). That conductor will be the subject of water cooler ridicule and politely not reengaged (“our people will be in touch with your people”).
The six participants in this workshop not only got an extravagant amount of podium time and experience in a variety of operatic formats, but they received the input of two of the top conductors working today—Paiement and Villaume.
They all did a fine job and got most of the details correct. Every one of them delivered involving performances and was, for the most part, right with the singers and clear in their stick technique. Most importantly, the orchestra responded to one and all with good ensemble playing and responsiveness to each conductor’s desires.
Female instrumental virtuosi these days are freer and can wear almost anything (or practically nothing). Not so for conductors. This is because the conductor is already almost too prominent by the fact that they are dead center and constantly in motion.
It was interesting to see what they chose to wear for concert dress. Their male counterparts always wore tails, but now favor band collar jackets buttoned all the way up. Each of the female conductors had a successful, but different, solution to the problem. All were in black. One wore a delightfully feminine version of the standard set of tails; another was in a conservative dress while others were in pants with some sort of jacket.
Male or female, it is important to remember what part of the anatomy the audience sees for the entire concert and that it is covered, loosely, by whatever you are wearing.
All of the conductors made an effort not to mirror their hands. In the best of all possible worlds, the right hand is for tempo and the left free for expression. (Many top conductors mirror, I know, but it wastes what a freed left hand can accomplish.) Not all of them have figured out what to do with that pesky left hand. Some did a fine job in this regard but others were holding it frozen and awkward when they did use it. It is hard work to train the left hand to be independent and as graceful as the right.
But a big no-no has to be mentioned. Half of them did not acknowledge the applause from the audience when they walked out to conduct. They immediately turned their back on the audience and started to music. Some others gave a curt bow before starting but, fortunately, only a few smiled and conveyed a sincere “thank you for the welcome” to the assembled ticket buyers. When all is said and done, it is the audience that is the conductor’s employer and you ignore them at your own peril.
Of course, all bowed appreciatively when they received enthusiastic ovations at the end of the selections.
» Read our interview with the conductors
» Read Keith Cerny's October Off the Cuff column about the Institute for Women Conductors