Three orchestral conductors give their take on their highly unique job in classical music. Michael Gesme of Central Oregon Symphony, Chris Ramaekers of University of Wisconsin – Whitewater, and Adam Flatt of the Newport Symphony Orchestra.
Today on Keep classical weird, I talk with three people who share a unique job in our world.
My name is Chris Raemakers. I’m the director of orchestras and a professor at the University of Wisconsin Whitewater.
Adam Flatt, I’m music director of the Newport Symphony Orchestra.
My name is Michael Gesme, and I am a conductor.
Welcome friends to Episode two of Keep Classical Weird. I am your host, Casey Bozell, and today we are talking about the world of conducting. It’s possible that some of you might hear this and think conducting doesn’t seem to fit the profile of Weird, but doesn’t it, though? A career in music performance almost seems to necessitate communication through sound, but conductors give performances where they are specifically not making sounds. Here’s Adam Flatt.
It’s making the music go by gestural communication with musicians who play the music so the conductor doesn’t make any sound but communicates silently with the musicians in a way that unifies them in producing the music.
Is that – I mean, is that like a – would you call that communication an actual sort of language on its own? Or
I think so. I think that conductors have a gestural language. There’s a technique to it, of course, that conductors learn how to do and musicians learn how to read. And that’s in combination with basic human body language and gestures that any human being anywhere in the world would understand means “more” or “less.” Or “now” or “you.” And so those things all encompass in a very complex combination come together to form the gestural language of the conductor. For sure.
Of course, conductors have to know what they’re talking about when they speak such a language, which requires a ton of context. Here’s Chris Ramaekers.
I think my job is to decide what the composer wanted when they wrote the music, and then to make that happen from the orchestra. Deciding what a composer wanted. Um, I feel like every time I every time I approach a score, I feel like I’m learning a little bit something about the person that wrote it and and every composer, I mean, they’re all individual people, right? They’ve been dead for decades, if not hundreds of years. But you know, like Beethoven and Mozart were very different people, and they approached their music differently, and I feel like the more I learned their music, the more I learned kind of the idiosyncrasies of each personality, you know, kind of the way when Beethoven writes a rhythm or writes a figure or even writes something like Forte what he meant or accent what he meant it what he meant. And then when Mozart wrote Accent, that meant something a little bit different.
And really, sometimes a conductor’s job is just to do their job. But what is that job? A list of needed skills for this job isn’t that straightforward. Here’s Michael Gesme.
It’s very strange, Like when you look at a job posting, you say, Here’s you know we want you to be the orchestra conductor and you look at all of the things that they want from you that the stuff that you were going to spend the least amount of time doing is the stuff that everybody thinks: That’s what an orchestra conductor is, which is like what you’re doing on the podium for that 2.5 hours and then the concert that you’re putting on it the end of the week, and that represents such a small fraction of the actual job. I think my role in front of the group is basically to be absolutely as prepared as I possibly can with my end of the business. You know, if I don’t know what I’m doing, there’s no way in the world I can expect anybody else to care.
Here’s Adam Flatt.
The thing is, you know, conducting. I think in the popular imagination is thought of as being very public and very kind of physical and aerobic. And the fact is that is just so far from the truth, because it’s really 9/10 solitary and sedentary. We’re sitting at the table or at the piano, just just getting a grasp on these pieces.
Preparedness is essential training for any good conductor, which got me thinking about education, specifically. Chris Ramaekers and I went to school together many years ago. I graduated with a degree in violin performance, and that got me thinking of a question that never occurred to me while he and I were classmates. Let’s take a second and let’s put ourselves back in grad school. I was in the practice room with my instrument, Um, just, you know, 4, 5, 6 plus hours a day sometimes right, and it only occurred to me recently that I was like, What? What were you doing? I have no idea, really.
Right. Well, um, before I went to grad school, I was studying an instrument. I play the trumpet, and I had that same experience while I was studying the trumpet. I was practicing in the practice room for my lessons and passing Juries and giving recitals, and it was all the same thing. So, you know, I think most conductors have that experience where they’ve played an instrument and they know they’re in that mindset. So then that’s that’s already part of the routine. When you and I met, and I was a conductor, I was doing the same thing. But I was spending all my time hunched over a score. Um, it’s it’s It’s funny. It’s almost like there are elements of the practice room, part of it where I had to be disciplined, and I had to set a study schedule and make my plans the same way you do when you’re in your violin practicing. But then it was an element of its just grad school. I was studying all the time.
Here’s Michael Gesme.
watching rehearsals and taking those scores and studying those scores. I mean, that’s what I did. You know, I’m sitting at home literally in my silence or in my dorm room or whatever. Just, you know, either listening to a recording or, um, you know, just literally studying doing chord analysis, doing what are the phrases? Is this a four bar phrase, four bar phrase.
Here‘s Adam Flatt.
We train kind of intensively in being analysts and learning the score, because everything we need in terms of effectiveness comes from deep and real knowledge of the score. And so we we study a lot about that analysis and inhabiting the mind space of the composer, trying to understand what the composer was, uh, setting out to do. And in the case of a masterpiece, why the piece had to be exactly the way it was and was inevitable in its in its outcome and learning a great deal about repertoire, the cultural sort of context that a piece of art emerges from, and how the composer lived in that context and what the composer was was really attempting to do.
I wanted to know how my guests got into conducting in the first place, and it was fascinating. All three had kind of an ah ha moment where they realized that’s what they really wanted to do. They were all more or less specific moments, but Adam Flatt’s was very specific.
I started out with violin at age five, and I was pretty good, you know, I loved it and everything. And then I must have been 12 and I went to my neighborhood public middle school there in Sacramento, California, which had a wonderful, very strong orchestra program. I can actually remember that date the first day sitting down with these kids, you know, most of whom are older eighth graders and ninth graders older than me, sitting there in this orchestra, very good group of kids. Big group and we – the piece was the Rosemunde Overture by Schubert. And, just like, thunderI was thunderstruck. It was like it was a physical ecstasy. Pounding heart and welling up in my eyes because of just being surrounded by this fullness of this orchestra sound this tutti sound and doing I just like it was epiphanal. I was like okay, well, this is why I have been alone, practicing alone all these years since I was five, most of my life at that point, was so that you can do this. You know, it was a long path from from there on out, too. But I think your question was, where was the beginning
and you pinpointed it. You said, Well, it was this day when we played this piece.
I can’t remember that day and that feeling.
I had an interview question prepared that I asked all three of these people, which was to recall a performance where things went particularly well, or even a moment where things gelled together. I’m not sure it happened on purpose, but all three of them managed to pivot their answer from performances to rehearsals. And this is where they got really excited.
I love rehearsing. I just absolutely love rehearsing. It’s not that I don’t like concerts. I do like concerts because you get to play for people who actually then get to give you some sort of response. And I think people play better, like after they know that people are into it. And so there’s There’s something wonderful about concerts that you’ll just never get, but I just adore the process How do you pull this apart and put it back together again so that it actually starts to make sense? And so when after I’ve done that and put it back together and all of the sudden something happens, and then I get a little bit more from this and this. That’s like those of the -Those are the moments that are like my secret little fun.
In a rehearsal, I think everything is very like micro. It’s very local. Play this note shorter. Do this up bow. Trumpets play louder here, clarinets, more accent, whatever. But then, in an actual performance, it comes down to stay together, play in tempo and make sure that we all arrive in this crescendo at the same, you know, the same way. Um, and so to switch from that micro to macro is a really neat thing to see.
The preparation process, or trajectory, is really different for the conductor and for the instrumentalists. The instrumentalists know they have four rehearsals or whatever it is going to be to approach a point of feeling comfortable and ready to perform together. And the conductor has to be kind of most most on top of things at the very beginning of the process, you know. And so I don’t think I don’t think many of us ever have nerves about performing. If there are any nerves, it’s about that first rehearsal. That’s when we know if we’re going to succeed or fail.
A full time conductor usually holds several positions, and they’re often asked to be guests with other groups around the region, the country, or sometimes even the world. So they are musical freelancers with a potentially huge commute. This leads to many varied experiences with different groups. Sometimes they’re wonderful, and sometimes, as Chris Raemakers points out, they’reunexpected.
Oh my gosh, we need a conductor and we didn’t realize we need a conductor, because this piece is really hard. So here’s the score. Can you give – Can you do the concert on Wednesday? And by the way, it’s really hard, because – And we burned two rehearsals learning that that’s a really hard piece. So you have one rehearsal on Tuesday and a concert Wednesday and you’re gonna get 75 bucks or whatever it is, you know. But I was right out of grad school. So what are you gonna do?
You’re gonna say yes, right out of grad school. Absolutely. Conductors can simply be viewed as the boss of an orchestra and as the boss, sometimes they’re seen as having to bring down the hammer to keep their musicians in line. But that’s an old fashioned trope. Times have changed, and, as Michael Gesme points out, that stereotype doesn’t ring as true anymore.
There’s a whole mystique, you know, which gratefully hopefully is being, you know, slowly broken down over the time about this, you know, the tyrant on the podium, and that just doesn’t exist anymore in a meaningful way. It’s not a militant thing, you know. They’re a part of hiring, and they’re part of making changes and stuff like that. And of course, that’s going to be the way it is. But you know, the days of Toscanini throwing down his pocket watch and smashing it and walking off and, I mean like, those people don’t work very long anymore.
These three people are living examples of the anti tyrant, and their sign offs to me at the end of each of our interviews proved that in addition to being great conductors, they’re just great humans, too.
It was great to catch up.
It was great to catch up with you too.Thank you. So much for being willing to do this.
You do a great job.
I’m very honored you talked with me.
And that’s our show for today. My sincere things to Chris Ramaekers, Michael Gesme and Adam Flatt. You were spectacular, and I hope I get to see you all in person sooner rather than later. Our theme music you’re hearing is by the phenomenal Thomas Barber. Check him out on his website, thomasbarber.com. Web development support provided by Tina at citybeautifuldesign.com. Keep classical Weird is created and edited by me, Casey Bozell. Find it on Facebook and Instagram. For more music appreciation in a bite sized form, you can subscribe to my patreon at patreon.com/ c a s e y b o z e l l Thanks for listening, everyone. Stay safe and stay weird.