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PERFORMING ARTS

A Creative Game of Musical Chairs

At the Aspen Music Festival's innovative conductor-training program, orchestra musicians double as podium leaders.

August 20, 2000|JUSTIN DAVIDSON | Justin Davidson is music critic and culture writer at large for Newsday

ASPEN, Colo. — "Conducting is a bastard profession, a dishonest profession," Dimitri Mitropoulos, who was one of its legendary practitioners, once said. "The others make all the music and I get the salary and the credit for it."

It's a thought that must haunt many a young conductor who stands on a venerable podium for the first time, staring at 100 pairs of merciless musicians' eyes, all of whom seem to be saying: "I could do a better job up there myself."

Now, as if to answer Mitropoulos, the Aspen Music Festival and School has fielded an orchestra made up largely of leaders--40 fledgling maestros from 19 countries who today become the first wave of alumni of the American Academy of Conducting. They have spent the last nine weeks pinballing between the podium and the orchestra's ranks, alternately practicing on their peers and learning what it is like to be practiced upon.

And so, in the breezy, sun-warmed dome of the festival's gleaming new concert tent--all blond wood, white steel and bright blue trim--a figure pops up from the violin section in mid-concert. He puts his instrument aside, strides to the podium, wheels to face his colleagues and raises his arms. It's a scene to warm the heart of every professional orchestra member who has ever scoffed at the overpaid numskull with the stick: The fiddling stiff has taken charge.

This is, however, a top-down revolution. The academy is the brainchild of David Zinman, who, when he retired as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and was offered a job as musical head of the Aspen festival two years ago, saw the opportunity to re-create in this tony stretch of the Rockies the immersion experience he had as a student of Pierre Monteux at his school in Hancock, Maine.

But the program that Zinman envisioned was less a rural musical ashram than an intensive crash course on the practical realities of his art, and a way into the quintessential cosmopolitan career. He offers advice not just on the fine grain of symphonic music, but on coarser, crucial questions of watching the clock, getting respect from the old and mighty, managing a career, and learning to give instructions firmly but without condescension.

The festival ends today, but some conductors will be invited back next year, and a few will attract the attention of orchestra managers who come scouting for talent. One or two will be given a chance to conduct the Cleveland Orchestra at the end of next summer. America has a new maestro farm.

Once Zinman had sprung his idea, it fell to his new colleagues to develop a practicable program. For starters, executive director Robert Harth, who runs the festival from a two-story Victorian house overlooking a duck pond on the school campus a mile or so out of town, had to find the money: $400,000 for student fellowships, teacher fees and administrative staff. Harth is a hearty man with a light brown beard who wears plaid shirts, continually nurses a bottle of spring water and does some of his winter fund-raising on the ski slopes. Having recently drawn in $37 million for the new concert tent, which opened in June, Harth decided it was too soon to set out cap in hand again.

"It's pretty hard for anyone to want to fund a program that hasn't started yet," he points out, ignoring the Labrador retriever snuffling at the glass door of his office. So he persuaded his board to use money from the festival's own operating expenses. "Now that we have a track record, though, I think it's very fundable. There's no program like it in the world."

Once the festival had put the word out about its new academy, 200 applications came in for 40 slots (previously the festival was training three or four conductors at a time). Zinman, the program's coordinator, Murry Sidlin, and the festival's artistic administrator, Nancy Bell Coe, huddled in midwinter at Zinman's house in the Victorian lollipop town of Cape May, N.J., to review the videotapes. First they culled the talented conductors, then they sorted their pool into a reasonably complete orchestra. The trick was to admit a critical mass of conductors, but not so many that each one's time on the podium would be reduced to a trickle of minutes. To flesh out the ensemble, they enticed non-conducting musicians with 15 full fellowships and the promise of plowing through an enormous amount of repertoire in a high-caliber ensemble.

As the program slowly acquired reality, Coe encountered some unexpected problems, such as the Jordanian student who couldn't get her hands on the required scores in the Middle East, or the recurring need to pluck ringers from the rest of the school to fill in for players-turned-maestros. "When your principal oboist gets up to conduct, you still need an oboist," she points out. "The scheduling is gothic in its complexity."

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