Archive for the ‘The Orchestral World’ Category

Producing Effective Conductor Videos

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

By: Edna Landau

When it comes to producing performance videos, conductors would seem to be at a greater disadvantage than other artists. Every process that is central to the advancement of their careers, such as applications for music directorships, orchestra staff positions, training programs or competitions depends on the submission of sample performance videos. Yet most professional orchestras in the U.S. forbid the recording of rehearsals and performances that would provide these conductors with the footage they need. There have been occasional instances when some orchestras’ playing committees have assisted a conductor in securing a waiver to allow a recording for the sole purpose of helping them to advance professionally or gain employment. More often, the only way for conductors to circumvent this problem is to try to record performances that they lead with college or conservatory, festival, youth or training orchestras. Some conductors have put together pickup groups consisting of professional musicians familiar to them and with whom they have a good rapport. There is no reason why these recordings should be inferior in quality, from a production standpoint, to what  might be achieved with a professional orchestra. Yet I have noticed great variety in the videos that I have been asked to review by conductors who are applying for conducting programs or auditions with an orchestra. This prompted me to consult with a few colleagues, two of whom work at orchestras which recently concluded a round of assistant conductor auditions.  I am happy to share their advice with our readers.

Evans Mirageas, Vice President for Artistic Planning at the Atlanta Symphony, stressed the importance of shooting the video from the back of the orchestra with a full frontal view, close enough to frame the conductor so that their gestures can be seen clearly, but also leaving enough “middle distance” so that one can see the players’ reactions. Lighting should be good and the image needs to be clear. Audio should be of the highest possible quality and the microphone should be judiciously placed so as to yield the best balance in sound. I asked Edward Yim, Vice President, Artistic Planning, for the New York Philharmonic about the length and variety of excerpts they like to be offered and specifically what they look for. He told me that they like to be offered whole movements, when possible, of contrasting works and that they look for a clear beat, effective use of both hands, expressiveness, musical imagination and a real connection with the orchestra. This includes the ability to get a certain sound out of the orchestra. Essentially, they are looking for a conductor who can make the notes come to life.

Should conductors submit rehearsal footage along with performance excerpts? This may vary from orchestra to orchestra. The Atlanta Symphony likes to see both. They value the opportunity to witness the conductor’s communication skills in rehearsal and their ability to effectively bring across their ideas in performance. I spoke to Jesse Rosen, President and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, which organizes and presents the biennial Bruno Walter National Conducting Preview. He would counsel conductors who are asked to provide rehearsal segments to be sure to show something that demonstrates that they improved the results. He also advises that performance samples be long enough so that the viewer can discern the conductor’s grasp of the form and architecture of the piece. He and his colleagues find it extremely helpful if the dvd or video file is clearly labeled to enable easy navigation through the selections.

In my opinion, most conductors would be well advised to show their video samples to a teacher or mentor before submitting them. They might point out instances when the conductor may be looking into the score at critical moments, such as changes in tempo and dynamics, or major cues, and not providing the musicians with the eye contact they require. They also possess the objectivity to steer the conductor away from a segment in which they may come across as being overly transported by the music, at the expense of providing musical direction to the orchestra. In such cases, the conductor might be able to select other excerpts which give more positive evidence of their connection with the musicians. Such input can be invaluable in helping a young conductor put their best foot forward. .

© Edna Landau 2014


A Master Concertmaster

Thursday, October 24th, 2013

By: Edna Landau

Dear Edna:

I am a violinist with a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree from a major American conservatory. I have won top prizes in some competitions and have always expected that I would be able to attract management and enjoy a solo career. As of late, I have begun to have my doubts about that as it seems that managements are only interested in signing immediate moneymakers. I have been told that I stand a reasonable chance of winning a concertmaster position with a good level orchestra. I did serve as concertmaster in my conservatory orchestra but I am not sure that experience would suffice to qualify me for a professional concertmaster position. I have also regularly played chamber music but I am not sure how relevant that is. In addition, I am hesitant about going the concertmaster route for fear I would have very few solo opportunities in the future. What advice can you offer me? – H.P.

Dear H.P.:

Thank you for your fine question which gave me the opportunity to speak to two wonderful concertmasters: the eminent and greatly respected leader of the New York Philharmonic,  Glenn Dicterow, now in his 34th and final year with the orchestra (after the longest tenure of a concertmaster in the orchestra’s history), and the 29-year-old very well-liked concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony, Noah Bendix-Balgley, who joined the orchestra in 2011 with many solo accolades, including his title of Laureate from the 2009 Queen Elisabeth Competition. Both assured me that serving as concertmaster with an orchestra does not mean bidding farewell to solo and chamber music performances. A concertmaster is in the best position among orchestral players to negotiate for free time beyond what might be included in the general master contract. Furthermore, many orchestras, such as Pittsburgh, have relatively light summer seasons, thereby affording their players the opportunity to participate in summer festivals.

Glenn Dicterow reminisced with me about his young years as associate concertmaster, and then concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, with whom he had made his solo debut at age 11 in the Tchaikovsky Concerto. Prior to assuming those positions, he had no experience playing in an orchestra — only chamber music. He had won numerous awards and competitions, and the assumption was that he would go the soloist route. However, he realized that he was not the type to thrive on living out of a suitcase and moving from city to city, never knowing what his concert schedule might look like from season to season. He was attracted to the stability that came with a secure orchestra job. He was also well aware that such great musicians as Gregor Piatigorsky, Alfred Wallenstein and Leonard Rose had all occupied first chair positions in orchestras. Once he became concertmaster in Los Angeles, he felt comfortable leading because of his frequent and regular chamber music activities. Noah Bendix-Balgley elaborated on this point with me. He explained that his experience playing first violin in quartets contributed greatly to his comfort level within the orchestra. He cited the visual cues, regular eye contact, having ears constantly tuned to what others are doing, and having the confidence and flexibility to adapt to them. He further explained that “playing chamber music makes you think for yourself, come up with a musical opinion and be able to defend it. These abilities are essential to a concertmaster as well. It’s just a different scale.”

I asked both gentlemen how much time they were able to devote to solo and chamber music repertoire and neither of them felt shortchanged. There are, of course, regular opportunities to play solo with their orchestras. In addition, they have had guest appearances with other orchestras and opportunities to participate in summer festivals. Mr. Dicterow has performed with his own string trio and piano trio over the years but he did admit to me that it can sometimes be challenging to match up dates offered by presenters with the open times in his New York Philharmonic schedule. Mr. Bendix-Balgley said that this drawback was more than compensated for by the many new connections he has made in the music world since joining the Pittsburgh Symphony as concertmaster and touring with them internationally. He has been introduced to institutions where he may someday want to teach or perform more actively, and he will explore those possibilities further when the time seems right.

I also asked both musicians about the qualities that characterize a successful concertmaster. Mr. Dicterow spoke of humility, the importance of positive thinking and respect for others, and the ability to play and think as a member of a team. He mentioned the public relations aspect of being able to convince others of the right way to do things and the esprit de corps to be a conduit between orchestra and conductor in a way that leads to unity. He added that solo moments should be so well prepared that they compare in quality to any guest artist visiting town. Mr. Bendix-Balgley also said that always being prepared and always sounding good are the first steps toward true leadership (advice he received from Alexander Kerr, former concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra). He added that he thinks of himself as a leader among equals. “There are 100 or so amazing musicians in the Pittsburgh Symphony and each has a different role. I try to appreciate that role and treat them all with respect.”

Last night, in the course of a public interview entitled “The Quintessential Concertmaster”, which was part of the Insights Series jointly presented by the New York Philharmonic and Lincoln Center, Mr. Dicterow spoke about the rich life he has enjoyed with the orchestra under the batons of four music directors:  Zubin Mehta, Kurt Masur, Lorin Maazel and Alan Gilbert. His insight, humanity, sensitivity and sense of humor which contributed to making him a great leader on a personal level were all very much on display.  He knows that he will greatly miss his friends and colleagues when he moves to California at the end of this season to more fully assume the position of Robert Mann Chair in Strings and Chamber Music, at USC’s Thornton School of Music, but the chapter he is closing is a brilliant one indeed. He is truly leaving the New York Philharmonic at the top of his game and he will be very much missed. I hope that if you decide to pursue a position as concertmaster,  you will experience some of the same joy and fulfillment that have characterized his journey to becoming one of the world’s most pre-eminent concertmasters.

© Edna Landau 2013

Ascending the Orchestral Ladder

Thursday, June 16th, 2011

By: Edna Landau

To ask a question, please write Ask Edna.

In recent weeks, I received two excellent questions that concern advancing as an orchestral musician. In preparing my answers, I was aided immeasurably by feedback from leading orchestral principals, personnel managers and educators, to whom I am immensely grateful. They confirmed my instinct that neither question has a black and white answer and that a lot depends on the circumstances of the individual player and the identity of the particular orchestra. The answers to the questions below are a summary of our collective thinking.

Dear Edna:

In terms of advancing a career as an orchestral musician, is it better to take a job of leadership in a lesser orchestra or to take a position as a section player in a better orchestra? –grateful for your guidance

Dear grateful:

I regularly read that there are hundreds of applicants for many orchestra positions throughout the world and in light of that, I wonder how often any single musician is faced with simultaneous job offers from orchestras such as you describe that would necessitate making the choice you mention. Perhaps you are really asking whether a musician should focus on auditioning for one type of job versus the other. Anyone who auditions for principal positions should have a strong desire to assume a leadership role, as well as an indication from teachers and musical colleagues that they possess the necessary gifts and abilities. Having said that, there is some wisdom to the notion that any musician just beginning to embark on an orchestral career should cast their net a bit more widely, taking a variety of auditions that potentially interest them so as to get comfortable with the experience. (A former student of mine at the Colburn Conservatory, Rachel Childers, recently won the second horn position in the Boston Symphony in what was her 35th audition for orchestras of all types!)  If a musician feels that they ultimately wish to win a principal position, they should certainly include auditions for such a position in lesser orchestras. One doesn’t become an accomplished leader overnight. The experience of leading, even in a lesser orchestra, will undoubtedly prove valuable as one moves up the professional ladder. It will also reflect favorably on the musician if they make it into the final audition round of a larger orchestra.

For someone who aspires to a leadership position, there are certainly lessons to be learned from being a section player in a major orchestra, especially early in one’s career. These range from observing such an orchestra’s operations and politics to learning a broad amount of repertoire and availing oneself of the variety of opportunities (e.g. educational, chamber music) that present themselves to those who want their orchestra life to be as rich and varied as possible. Add to this the opportunity to work with leading conductors and to learn from experienced colleagues in principal positions, and there is clearly much to be said for this approach. However, there are those who caution that if a musician is strongly determined to one day win a principal position, it is best not to stay as a section player for too long, even in a very good orchestra. The soloistic edge that music directors are often looking for in final auditions may start to diminish after too many years as a section player. It is also not a given that even a valued and loyal section player will succeed in advancing to a principal position within the same orchestra.

Dear Edna:

If you are in a full-time orchestra and want to audition for another orchestra, should you take the entire week off? If other members of the orchestra find out, could it affect your chances of getting tenure?—Kathy P.

Dear Kathy:

The consensus among those with whom I spoke was that it is best to take a week off,  if at all possible, so as to give maximum attention to the impending audition and ensure that you will be sufficiently rested. Wind players, in particular, might need extra time to adjust to changes in climate. If other members of your orchestra find out that you are taking an audition, it is not likely to affect your chances of getting tenure, provided you abide by orchestra regulations and discuss your planned absence with the personnel manager. Still, it is wise to be discreet about your plans, if for no other reason than to minimize the pressure of having to let everyone know how things went upon your return. You might say to the personnel manager something like this: “I want to keep this pretty quiet. I appreciate my job here but I feel I have to try for this opportunity.”  I was very heartened to hear a veteran and highly respected personnel manager tell me: “I have always felt that it is ‘healthy’ to work with the musician to take an audition if the orchestra schedule allows. It gives the player an opportunity to excel and improve.” Even if news of your audition plans does get out, you generally need not be concerned about your future with your current orchestra and shouldn’t underestimate the mutual respect that musicians have for one another.

At any time that you might consider moving to a new orchestra, do not hesitate to seek counsel from those closest to you whom you know you can trust and who are in a position to guide you. It is prudent to weigh all the pluses and minuses of such a move, including the financial stability of the new orchestra you are considering. Be sure to take all necessary steps with the maximum degree of tact and sensitivity. People rarely falter when they take the time to be classy and they are remembered for that, as much as for their excellent playing.

To ask a question, please write Ask Edna.

© Edna Landau 2011

An Experience To Be Missed?

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

by Edna Landau

To ask a question, please write Ask Edna.

The following question comes from an individual whom I had the joy and privilege of representing in the early days of his career. My first exposure to his conducting was with the Haddonfield (New Jersey) Symphony. While I could predict even then that he would go on to great things, the music directorship of the New York Philharmonic and the directorship of conducting and orchestral studies at the Juilliard School were still far-away dreams. I am honored that he has chosen to write to “Ask Edna.”

Dear Edna:

I have enjoyed reading your advice column on

I have a question that I have often been asked by young conductors, and I have a feeling that your insight, experience and thoughtful approach may shed very useful light for many people early in their conducting careers.

Experience in front of orchestras is obviously crucially important for any conductor —is there a level of orchestra below which one should not go just in order to get experience? That is to say, to put it bluntly, when does the experience of conducting a not very accomplished orchestra become worse than not having a chance to conduct at all?  —Alan Gilbert

Dear Alan:

Thanks so much for writing in to my blog. I’m glad you have enjoyed reading it.

I have thought a great deal about your question and I don’t think there is one all-encompassing answer. It depends on the conductor and the stage in his or her career that we are considering.
Conductors obviously differ in one major way from other performing artists: they cannot practice and perfect their craft without a group of musicians in front of them. For some, this process begins at school. The quality of school orchestras can be quite high, sometimes affording the conductor a chance to try things out at a level that may be more advanced than what they would encounter in the field. At the same time, a school environment is somewhat compromised, since fellow students have a predisposition to go the extra mile and to give their very best for one of their own. Some aspiring conductors start their careers without even the benefit of a school orchestra with whom to work. Obviously, for those conductors, working with almost any orchestra is better than not working at all.

There are certain basics of conducting that any young conductor must master and part of that process is trial and error. A certain amount of experience with lower-level orchestras at the start of a career would seem beneficial, if only to gauge the efficacy of certain gestures and to try out different rehearsal techniques. Of course, there can come a point in a rehearsal when a player is consistently late with an entrance and it may be unclear to the conductor whether this is the player’s fault or his own. Even if the conductor is sure it isn’t his or her fault, succeeding in getting the desired outcome will serve him well in future orchestral encounters. Accepting these engagements is also very important because any young conductor has a formidable amount of repertoire to learn and trying it out in less exposed situations is virtually a “must.”

In my experience, it is a relatively small number of conductors who move quickly up the ladder by virtue of word of mouth or who begin their careers working with a fairly high level orchestra. Some might create their own orchestra and gain experience that way. Many others will only attract attention after having demonstrated that they have had significant conducting experience. Their resume will be their primary sales tool and it will need to show some heft. There are conductors who might be able to demonstrate that they have had experience in conducting educational and outreach concerts which could weigh in their favor as they apply for higher positions. I believe that the best approach during the early years is never to lose sight of the higher rungs of the ladder and to do everything possible to reach them, but also, to plant one’s feet firmly on the lower steps, taking in every opportunity to learn along the way.

As conductors advance in their career, the type of experience they need to gain changes. A higher level orchestra will afford them a greater opportunity to explore interpretive nuances and a broader range of color. They will use their rehearsal time differently and make adjustments in how they address the players. If they don’t get the results they are seeking, it may become clearer that they need to re-examine their own technique. During this particular growth period, it would probably be beneficial to limit the number of lower level orchestra engagements, perhaps making exceptions for orchestras who gave them a chance early in their career or who are interested in special projects that are meaningful to the conductor but not yet an option with a more prominent ensemble.

I discussed your question with conductor Jeffrey Kahane, who focused on the human side of it. He said that “working with an amateur orchestra reminds us that amateur music-making is important to our artistic culture.” I believe this takes on heightened significance in a time when we are struggling to build audiences for classical music. He also said that working with a community orchestra, for example, “might not significantly help your career or technique but it will reinforce who you are as a musician and your purpose as a musician.” Anyone who has attended concerts by such orchestras has witnessed the tremendous dedication of the players and their love for music-making, which may not be their primary occupation. Audiences are unfailingly inspired by this and conductors would do well to carry a little of it along with them, wherever their career path may lead.

To ask a question, please write Ask Edna.

© Edna Landau 2011