By Ricky O’Bannon

A few hours before the world premiere of Brendan Faegre’s Dirt to Gold, composer Faegre sits in a dimmed dress rehearsal with conductors Alexander Humala and Alex Lee, poring over the score and talking through subtle changes in tempo and texture.

Both Humala and Lee will take a turn conducting the piece that evening, and over the five-day Conductor/Composer Training Workshop that leads into the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, seven young conductors and three young composers formed collaborative teams to bring brand new works to life.

The conductors and composers receive input from mentors throughout the workshop on everything from how to stand while on stage to how to speak with the orchestra, but conversations like Faegre and his two conductors had during rehearsal highlight a goal of the workshop and also one of the artistic rewards of performing new music.

Usually in the hierarchy of a symphony orchestra, conductors are expected to have all the answers. Beethoven or Brahms aren’t around to give input in rehearsal on whether a section is too slow or if the brass needs to be softer at the end of a movement. Marin Alsop said performing new music with the composer on hand allows for a creative back-and-forth that is both artistically rewarding but also can inform the way she approaches works in the orchestral canon.

Marin Workshop
James Ross
(Top) Marin Alsop works with conductor Caleb W. Young
and (bottom) James Ross mentors Stefano Sarzani at the
Conductor/Composer Training Workshop. Photos by R.R
Jones, courtesy of the Cabrillo Festival.

“I always like being close to the creators because I'm not a creator myself. But that's my job: to somehow present them,” Alsop said. “So the more that I can hear different viewpoints, the better informed I am when I come to do a Mahler symphony because I'm understanding the composer psyche.”

Conductor James Ross served with Alsop as a mentor to conductors in the young artist workshop. Ross, who is the director of orchestral activities at the Juilliard School and professor of conducting at University of Maryland, said the experience of working alongside composers is valuable for young conductors in the workshop because it teaches them how to care for the pieces of composers both working today and those who worked centuries ago.

“It sends this message [to conductors] that the way you approach these living composers and their works that are fragile and vulnerable and that they really care about, is not so different from how you should be approaching the human beings who wrote the older pieces that we know,” Ross said.

“You want to get to know the old composers as closely as the living composers that you're meeting and dealing with. It sort of throws a new light onto what you're actually doing when you're conducting that music.”

While conducting or composition workshops are common in the orchestral world, Ross said it is rare to have young artists mentored together. Ross said that building this relationship is important because it allows a conductor to experience the unfolding of a composer’s musical language over their career.

“With Beethoven, what can you do? You can do the Ninth Symphony and then do the First. But to actually be living on the composer's time scale and to be able to help them recognize what are new directions, what are misfires [is different],” Ross said. “It's not always obvious to composers how things are unfolding,” he said. “It’s important to have a second, supportive opinion who knows enough about where you're coming from so that they can put the new piece in context. Conductors can do that for composers more than anyone else can — very often better than they, themselves.”

In return, Ross said a composer who really knows a particular conductor can provide that same support in a way that is rare.

“For us conductors, who usually don't get anybody giving feedback to our faces — except for critics who tell us what we're not doing well — it's really helpful to have a trusted voice who can help put our work in context,” he said.

That relationship was a theme throughout the first weekend of Cabrillo. For Jonathan Newman whose piece Blow It Up, Start Again was programmed, Cabrillo was the first time he has worked with Alsop as a conductor, and he said starting those relationships is always a nerve-wracking experience.

“There's a moment in that first reading where I'm terrified. I don't know how this is going to go down,” Newman said. “Then all it takes is the downbeat, and I watch her rehearsing for 20 seconds, and I think, ‘Ok, she gets it.’ But you never really know whether you're going to have that relationship with a conductor.”

Huang Ruo Marin
Huang Ruo and Marin Alsop during a rehearsal of Ruo's Concerto
for Sheng. Photo by R.R Jones, courtesy of the Cabrillo Festival.

Composer Huang Ruo served as a mentor for the young composers during the workshop and also had his piece, Concerto for Sheng, performed in the festival’s first weekend. Ruo said establishing a close working relationship with conductors is crucial because those are the people who are responsible for translating what is in your head and score to the audience.

“You need someone who understands your music to interpret your music,” said Ruo. “For composers, when they see two or three different conductors performing their work [like they did in the workshop], they also can see what makes it come out different, which helps them really think about their piece.”

Conductors often serve as champions for the work of a composer and help get their music into the world. As they work together and learn from one another, Ruo said it also creates trust, which is key because there is often not enough rehearsal time to go every detail and a composer won’t always be in town to answer questions about a particular notation in the score.

“If they understand your music, you trust them to deliver it even when you’re not there,” he said.

Eventually a conductor with a close relationship with a composer might become known for performing their works, and that in turn might lead other conductors to listen to recordings by that conductor when preparing those pieces.

“I think it's very important, [particularly for young artists] because they build each other throughout the years as they become mature," Ruo said.

BSO writer-in-residence Ricky O’Bannon is blogging from the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music,  the two-week festival in Santa Cruz, California dedicated to the performance  of new classical music by living composers. BSO Music Director Marin Alsop has served as the festival's music director for the past 24 years.