April 1, 2004

By Barrymore Laurence Scherer

No matter how revered the orchestra, the conductor is the star. But the conductor's craft itself remains largely a mystery to many. How many arm-chair conductors, who cannot listen to music without beating time, think that's the extent of the job?

Last month, Kurt Masur, 76, showed how much more that job entails. He was at New York's Manhattan School of Music for a week to give the first of his three annual Conducting Seminars there. The laureate music director of the New York Philharmonic and Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestras (not to mention music director of the Orchestre National de France and principal conductor of the London Philharmonic) revealed the refinements and subtleties that distinguish inspired music-making from just waving a baton.

"We conductors are like priests," he tells me in his accented English. "Priests interpret the Bible to their congregation; we interpret the score to the audience."

Mr. Masur has personally selected each seminar participant through videotapes, dividing the chosen into three groups -- seven student conductors to work directly with him, one alternate, and nine auditors. Their credentials include degrees from a variety of institutions in the U.S. and Europe. Their "house band" is the Manhattan School orchestra, nearly 100 strong, all of whom have forgone their spring recess for the experience. On Friday, five of the student conductors, chosen by Mr. Masur on Wednesday afternoon, will lead the orchestra in a concert.

Following three-hour rehearsals each morning, Mr. Masur meets with the participants together and with each in private to discuss their work. "In America," says student conductor Steven Jarvi, 25, "we're all trained to be efficient as conductors -- to take the least amount of rehearsal time to get an orchestra playing its music cleanly and in tune. But Maestro Masur is more concerned that we bring our passion to the podium. He...encourages us to expand on our instincts. He has constantly pushed me to take rhythmic ideas and articulation further."

For his program, Mr. Masur has selected Mendelssohn's "Ruy Blas Overture," Schumann's Fourth Symphony, Brahms's "Variations on a Theme by Haydn," and Richard Strauss's "Till Eulenspiegel." These are works at the core of the German Romantic repertoire, and each of the composers had a personal relationship with the 400-year-old Gewandhaus Orchestra. Indeed, Maestro Masur's own cello teacher had played in the Gewandhaus under Brahms. As participant Brett Mitchell, 24, notes, "When Maestro Masur says, 'this is how Gewandhaus does it; this is how you play Mendelssohn,' you really can't argue with that kind of authority."

"This is the first time I've really felt involved in a teaching situation on a genuinely professional level of refinement," says Adam Boyles, 25. "Instead of basic gestures and elements of baton technique, it's been about poetry and rhetoric and orchestral colors." Mr. Jarvi elucidates this point further, saying: "I am passionate about how I get the strings to sound, and I always thought that I could get a pretty good string sound out of an orchestra. But Maestro Masur said my string sound was precise but not really expressive. So he pushed me to make every note in a string phrase speak, and to fill every phrase with that intangible quality that can't be described in words but can set a room on fire when you hear it."

White-bearded and paternal, Mr. Masur listens, seated at the apron of the stage, while the young conductors take the podium in turn. Always tempering his criticism with encouragement, he shares the largesse of half a century's experience.

Of the slow movement of Schumann's symphony, he says: "Schumann calls this second movement 'Romance.' This is about love. So why do you all begin so sad? Love can be about anticipation. But if anticipation puts you to sleep, there will be no love."

Stopping Mr. Boyles in the Mendelssohn, he asks, "Please rehearse the brass and horns here, just to get the precision in their fingers." When they later play the passage with greater body, he gives them a thumbs up. "Trumpets," he calls out, "in Mendelssohn, always make a beautiful sound no matter how short the note."

At one point he says to the group, "You all concentrate on the higher voices and forget the lower ones. But lower voices give you your emotion." Later he cautions, "Don't make the phrase too legato [i.e. smooth]. It's lyrical, but it's still a march spirit and needs to be clear instead of too soft."

When Mr. Masur stops Sung Jin Hong to encourage greater decisiveness, Mr. Hong, 29, asks, "How do I create that power without making the music sound rough and heavy?" Mr. Masur replies, "Your body language can achieve it." He then explains the greater power of upward, underhand gestures that start from below the waist as opposed to overhand gestures with hands and wrists positioned midway up the torso. In fact, he notes, mere wrist gestures can appear supercilious, as if the conductor were ordering servants to do his bidding, and thus tend to elicit a harsh, thin tone from the players. Using the whole body conveys to the musicians that the conductor is completely engaged with the music, subsumed by it, and the players will respond with greater vigor and subtlety.

"Maestro," Mr. Hong says plaintively, "I want to use my whole body to conduct. But one of my teachers told me never to do this, and to limit myself only to wrist motions." Mr. Masur smiles slyly. "The wrist is good to start. Now, you send your teacher a postcard telling him that you have developed other parts."

"I've taken part in several conducting master classes," says Mr. Hong later, "and all the teaching conductors do is play mind-games with us, embarrassing us in front of the orchestra and in front of each other just to make themselves look strong. But Maestro Masur treats us like colleagues." Mexico City native Alondra de la Parra, 23, values Mr. Masur's directness. "I didn't come here to hear, 'You're great.' I came to hear, 'This is your weakness. Fix it.' But that's what I love about conducting: You have to mold your personality and you have to command."

The final concert proves memorable. Mr. Boyles delivers an ebullient account of Ruy Blas. The Schumann is divided between Mr. Jarvi, decisive and eloquent in the first movement; Ms. De la Parra, elegant, assured and lyrical in the slow movement; and Mr. Hong, who takes the scherzo and finale with athletic vigor. Just before Mr. Mitchell enters to conduct the Brahms, I learn that he is flying home in the morning for his wedding that afternoon.

Finally, Mr. Masur himself conducts Till Eulenspiegel. Revealing the difference between gifted apprentice and veteran master, he offers a genuine interpretation of Strauss's vivid tone poem, eliciting a level of virtuosity from the Manhattan School musicians that brings down the house. Classical music may be embattled today, but amid the flurry of embraces, cheering and floral tributes in this Upper West Side auditorium, I recall Mr. Mitchell's comment that "this experience has taught us a clearer understanding of just why we...make the sacrifices we make to dedicate ourselves to music." And for one precious moment one wants to believe that there really is a bright future for these young hopefuls.