Conducting the Orlando Philharmonic
Guest Conducting the Orlando Philharmonic, May 18 2013 @ The Springs
I learned a great deal by conducting the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra in Aaron Copland’s “Variations On A Shaker Melody”. As a composer, I often take the conductor’s role for granted. One new insight was the amount of flexibility a conductor wields over the outcome of the performances. Though this allows for bold interpretive freedoms, it demands a heavy responsibility to use it well. Plus, there is little room for error. I also learned that I’ve got natural ability. The musicians of the orchestra were very positive about being under my baton saying that I had good clarity of beat. More than one member, a few with whom I had never spoken to before, took me aside to suggest that I begin conducting regularly.
One of the ‘mysteries’ of conducting is the timing delay between the precise beat given and the orchestras collective response to that beat. It is present in different degrees depending on the conductors’ styles and the nature of music being played. My previous experiences conducting the Akron University Orchestra as a grad student and an ad hoc orchestra for a film score I composed in the early 90s made me keenly aware of this delay. And, that delay is almost as present with small groups. I’ve often tried to conduct my own chamber works (usually during rehearsals before a performance) and felt in inability to lead well. Whether large group and small, I felt my beat (‘ictus’) clearly and I delivered it – but the musicians were always responding later than I was thinking and feeling the music, confusing me. When Maestro Christopher Wilkins of the OPO asked me to guest conduct the Copland, I brought this concern up to him. This is what I learned from him: let go of it; do not to waste time wondering over its causes. Prepare the music. Be clear which beat is which (determined by the direction of the baton before the ictus happens). Relax and let that delay be what it is.
Obi-Wan Wilkins was correct! During the last fully scored couple of pages towards the end, I really ‘got it’. I was able to drown myself into the music and the moment. So glorious. Just imagine that you had always wanted to fly – and there’s a moment working toward that goal that you realize you are actually flying. That’s the moment. The combination of physical activity causing what is happening and the being within the point of time of the happening provides an entirely different plane of experience. The roughest spot in my performance was at a quick tempo change from 72 to 80 (about 1:32 into the vid), where the oboe and bassoon play a duet. That slight 8 bpm changes the character quite a bit – from stately feel to more joyful contentment. If that change doesn’t occur, the exciting brass fanfare music and flying string lines later in the piece will be too slow. A 3 bar phrase before the duet prepares that section. Not watching the score, I felt it wrongly as two bars, and I started the new tempo too early. I reacted to the ensuing ‘tempo dissonance’ between myself and the music and fell out of pattern there – and lost my chance to move to the new tempo. Copland’s music is so durable, it didn’t really hurt the music – just lost an edge of excitement in places.
The work was so perfectly chosen for my undeveloped conducting abilities, thanks Maestro Wilkins and David Schillhammer – I’ve loved this music since I was young. Thanks, most of all, to Ed Haddock, one of the co-owners of Full Sail University and Garry Jones – its president. The way this all happened for me was during Gary’s attendance at the OPO’s annual Gala, held for the first time in 2012 at Full Sail: the same night as the premiere of my “Four Dimensions”. Garry and Ed apparently wanted to give to the organization and, during the annual auction to conduct the orchestra, Garry came around to my table and told me to bid till I won. I’m sure some folks thought it was me bidding with my own money – but, no, it was them!