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Doing a Good Turn

Don't call the Phil's associate conductor 'maestro.' A maestro doesn't always reach out to listeners as he does.

April 29, 2001|DIANE HAITHMAN | Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

Miguel Harth-Bedoya, associate conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, does something that orchestra conductors rarely do.

He turns around.

And not just for the obligatory bow at the end. Harth-Bedoya, 32, turns around often during a performance--just to talk to his audience, to explain the composition it is about to hear.

"I always say something; there is always something that the audience may not know, even if they read the program notes," says Harth-Bedoya in a recent conversation at the Music Center's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. "There has to be a reason why we are doing this program. It adds to the experience and makes it more personal."

Harth-Bedoya will have much to tell his audience during his next appearance with the Philharmonic May 10-13, when he will conduct several concerts commemorating the 100th birthday of the Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo. Included are Rodrigo's Five Children's Pieces, "A la busca del mas alla" (In search of the beyond) and "Ausencias de Dulcinea" (Absence of Dulcinea).

"He died just two years ago--he almost made it," Harth-Bedoya says of the prolific composer, blind from the age of 3. "We know of Rodrigo mostly because of his guitar works; this time, we are doing only orchestra work that is very seldom played, so people can have an idea of the range of the work, the musical languages that Rodrigo created."

Of course, sometimes Harth-Bedoya turns around in order to explain himself--as he did following a recent morning concert for secondary school students at the Chandler Pavilion, part of the orchestra's Symphonies for Schools program.

Because this is an educational concert, orchestra members wear T-shirts instead of their usual formal wear. The T-shirts are labeled on the back with their section: Blue shirts labeled "STRINGS," turquoise for "WOODWINDS," and so on.

Harth-Bedoya, a lean and athletic presence on the podium, doesn't look much older than the high schoolers. He also wears a T-shirt. His is black. On the back, in white letters, is the formidable word: "MAESTRO."

A student wants to know whether he observes any superstitious rituals before stepping up to the podium. He doesn't.

"One of the things you have to realize is, I'm normal," Harth-Bedoya tells the students. His urgent tone makes the words sound less like the answer to the question than a plea to be understood.

He does not want to be just "Maestro." He wants to be Miguel.

In some ways, Harth-Bedoya is anything but normal. The Peruvian native attended German schools in Lima, received his conductors' training at the Curtis Institute and Juilliard, speaks five languages and conducts concerts around the globe.

His late father was a surgeon, divorced from his mother when Harth-Bedoya was only a few months old; he and his dad would not be reunited until the boy was 20.

He was raised by his mother, a chorale conductor specializing in Latin American repertory. During his childhood, she led a chorus formed by the employees of a Peruvian airline; the group performed music from every country on the airline's routes, and her children--Miguel and his sister--traveled and performed with them as both singers and folk dancers.

Harth-Bedoya committed to a career in music around age 15, when he took an after-school job doing a little bit of everything at an opera house in Lima. "School got out very early, at about 1:30--and I would go to the theater every day until midnight," he says.

"My interest in music was never about an instrument, even though I had taken piano lessons as a kid. It was that sort of communal experience, with a lot of people doing a lot of things, becoming one product. It was a turning point in my life--I said, that's what I want to do."

Because there were no university-level conducting programs available to him in Latin America, Harth-Bedoya wrote to dozens of schools around the world looking for a suitable course of study. The hunt led him to Philadelphia's Curtis Institute and Manhattan's Juilliard School.

"I was nobody when I started; I didn't have connections, I was just determined to do it, and I did it," he says simply.

"It's a lot of work, much harder than practicing an instrument. The physical part is the one that takes the least amount of work. That's the obvious one, you can see that. You move the arms, you keep it in time, pretty much everybody can learn the gestures.

"The rest of it--you can't really explain or illustrate the concept of music, of sound. It's a lot of studying too--all kinds of things, not only music, but cultural aspects, history, literature. Everything comes together in music for me."

Those watching Harth-Bedoya's career agree that the young conductor is studying hard enough--and that he's on the fast track to leading one of the world's major orchestras in the future.

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