WASHINGTON — Conducting an orchestra is the most mysterious of musical vocations, demanding that a practitioner combine the attributes of coach, shaman, psychologist and traffic cop, all in quest of an elusive harmony.
It is an exceedingly difficult talent to develop, and it is especially challenging to make the transition from student to young maestro. Leonard Slatkin knows this firsthand; when the National Symphony Orchestra's music director was starting his career 30 years ago and stood before the Philadelphia Orchestra as a guest conductor, he was immediately aware that he was in over his head.
"Those first experiences were terrifying," he recalled with a shudder. "I simply waved my arms and kept my mouth shut, hoping that would be enough to carry me through. I'd been raised in a family of musicians, and I'd led orchestras at Juilliard and elsewhere. But it's a very different matter when you're working with professionals, who are much more knowledgeable and responsive. They can give you exactly what you ask for, so you'd better be sure of what you want and what you're communicating."
Last year, in cooperation with the NSO and the American Symphony Orchestra League, Slatkin founded the National Conducting Institute to prepare gifted young artists for some of the challenges that may lie ahead. This week, the second annual Institute comes to an end.
Slatkin believes the institute presents special opportunities for its participants--notably the opportunity to lead a full professional orchestra. "Even the high-profile program at Tanglewood, with its outstanding conducting staff and wonderful student orchestra, doesn't get to the heart of the problem," he explained. "Their trainees never stand in front of the Boston Symphony. It is one thing for a young conductor to have an opportunity at universities and conservatories to tell other students what to do, but it is quite another matter to direct pros.
"To remedy the situation, we developed a three-week program in which four or five conductors based in the United States would come to Washington and experience the challenge of being confronted by a world-class, knowledgeable ensemble," Slatkin continued. "They would spend several days with me and with members of the National Symphony, trying to sort out the skills that would be required when they finally had their turn on the podium of a major orchestra. This would not be about learning how to keep time or how to read a score. Rather, it would be about what an orchestra needs from them and how a conductor must relate to the whole ensemble."
Experienced Group With Some Promise
And so it came to pass that four participants, as well as six auditors (who would attend all the meetings but never take the podium) were selected from a pool of 70 applicants. They met for the first time in the Chinese Lounge of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall in late April for the first of a dozen all-day programs.
It was a promising group. Eugene Castillo, 33, is already in his fourth season as music director of the Camellia Symphony Orchestra in Sacramento as well as the staff conductor of the San Francisco Ballet. Paul Haas, 30, is the principal pops conductor of the Corpus Christi, Texas, Symphony Orchestra this summer and the assistant conductor of the Haddonfield, N.J., Symphony. And Kenneth Allen Woods, 33, is the music director of the Oregon East Symphony Orchestra and the Grande Ronde Symphony.
The last of the participants, Awadagin Pratt, 35, stood out--and not merely because of the long, intricately braided dreadlocks that make him look more like a reggae musician than a traditional classical "longhair." Pratt has been a leading pianist for the better part of a decade now, since winning the prestigious Naumberg Award. Yet from the beginning of his career, he has been open about his ambitions. "I would like to have a dual career as a pianist and conductor," he told the Washington Post in 1993.
The opening session of the institute was called "The Structure of the Orchestra," a group meeting with those members of the NSO who don't play instruments for a living--representatives from the library, operations, marketing and public relations departments and the board of directors.
Over lunch, NSO President Bob Jones offered several reasons why affluent concert-goers can sometimes be persuaded to join symphony boards. "First and foremost, these people love the arts and want to do something to support them," he said. "Second, they want to give something good to their community. And finally, a lot of the time there is some sort of social role, whether parties or galas or something else." An ideal board president will "fund-raise, fund-raise and fund-raise some more," he said. The cardinal sin for a board president, in Jones' estimation, is "micromanagement."
"I believe in letting my colleagues do their work," he said. "I step in only when I am needed."