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For Violinists-Turned-Conductors, It's About Serving the Music

September 25, 2000|GREGORY MALDONADO | Gregory Maldonado is founder and music director of the Los Angeles Baroque Orchestra

In his article about Itzhak Perlman's conductorial debut with the L.A. Philharmonic ("Perlman Grabs the Baton," Sept. 14), music critic Mark Swed writes: "In the 17th century it was the responsibility of the leading violinist in the orchestra to keep things together." Violinists actually continued to be the directors of orchestras well into the 19th century, and it was Louis Spohr (1784-1859), composer and renowned violinist (and inventor of the "chin rest" for the violin and viola in 1822), who introduced the idea of the "modern" virtuoso conductor with a baton, first in Germany around 1815 and then in London in 1820.

So Swed is quite right in stating that "many violinists have never lost that historic connection with conducting."

For my part, being a violinist who directs an orchestra from his instrument, and who has also conducted an orchestra without violin in hand, I certainly see the desire to conduct as stemming from a perfectly organic series of events during the course of my growth as an artist.

Keeping that desire in mind while searching for that "larger interpretive vision," as Swed calls it, is what is first and foremost in my mind's eye and ear as an artist. But for whatever reason brings us to the podium to conduct, it is ultimately my goal as a musician (with all egos aside), as I believe it is Perlman's, to serve the music.

And I believe that we do serve the music. Just because neither Perlman nor I have been trained specifically to be conductors should not preclude us from being able to stand in front of an orchestra and conduct. We have had enough training and understanding of music interpretation through years of active music-making to allow for that possibility; we have the necessary insight to realize the intricacies of a score and make them come to life for an audience.

We violinists have had a rich history of predecessors who directed orchestras and have done it very admirably and skillfully. It is our "birthright" to be conductors, not part of any "tricks" or "act," as Swed would suggest.

The fact that Perlman (or any musician) wants to conduct an orchestra shouldn't be looked at as merely a "lust for power": That is too simple an explanation. For me, the appeal of wanting to be on the other side of the baton comes from something else besides pure "lust." It lies in the awe that we as humans are capable of producing such an incredible range of sounds and colors with musical instruments and with our voices. And the reality that we as musicians can intimately appreciate the sheer beauty of this musical experience through being a part of the "symphonic beast" (as Swed calls it) is what makes it all the more remarkable.

All critics and violinist-conductors aside, being a conductor and being in the midst of an orchestra is simply a wonderful experience and privilege for me, as I'm sure it is for Perlman or any other musician. In this experience, the walls of sound are coming at you with all the energy and weight of an unstoppable wave; there is a feeling of having the divine power of actually creating the sounds in concert with your fellow musicians and sharing them with the world as if they were being heard for the very first time.

To that end, the great Leonard Bernstein probably best summed up the conducting experience by saying: "While I'm conducting, I'm absolutely lost in the music and with my musicians; breathing with them, pulsating with them, suggesting. I can usually tell if it's been a first-class performance by the degree to which I've been lost in the music and with my colleagues, and by the sense of having composed the piece as I was conducting it."

I would like to ask Swed to have a different understanding about the unique creatures that violinists (or other instrumentalists) as conductors really are. In seeking to fulfill our artistic vision, we have evolved into being conductors through a natural process and we have embraced it with an enormous passion. It is by dedication and love of our art that we have chosen to make the conducting experience an integral part of our legacy as professional musicians. And we have a violinist who lived 300 years ago to thank for bestowing that heritage upon us. I for one will always be in his debt.


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