By Laurence Vittes
While doing a little research during the conducting finals of the 2015 Gstaad Menuhin Festival & Academy, I discovered a pattern. Basic training for most conductors begins at the piano. However, a number of notable string players, too, have traded in their instruments for the baton with great success. Lorin Maazel started out as a violinist; Carlo Maria Giulini, a violist; Arturo Toscanini and John Barbirolli, cellists; and Serge Koussevitzky and Zubin Mehta, double-bassists.
Violinist Itzhak Perlman took the step with some success, and violinist Joshua Bell was named music director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields in 2011. While conducting schools and academies still turn out the greatest number of new conductors, there is an accelerating trend among young virtuoso string players to leapfrog the traditional process on their way to the podium.
In order to find out what makes young soloists want to become conductors, I spoke to violinists Julian Rachlin and Gemma New, and cellists Eric Jacobsen and Han-Na Chang.
As a violinist, violist, recording artist, and educator, Julian Rachlin has established close relationships with many of the world’s most prestigious conductors and orchestras. In September 2015, he took up his new position as principal guest conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia at the Sage Gateshead concert hall, and has been guest conducting around the world. Rachlin plays the 1704 “ex Liebig” Stradivari, on loan courtesy of the Dkfm Angelika Prokopp Privatstiftung, and a 1791 Lorenzo Storioni viola. He uses Thomastik-Infeld strings.
When I saw that the players took my ideas seriously, that they found something in what I said and what I transmitted through my body language, I began to take the idea of conducting more seriously.
What inspired you to conduct?
I’m not the type who plays the Tchaikovsky and Brahms concertos, then sits down until the next time. For me, the violin is not as important as it might seem; it’s not even my favorite instrument. But whether I play violin or viola, teach, or conduct, it’s all about a life in music—being curious, and staying inspired and fresh.
What is your favorite instrument?
I always wanted to be a cellist like my father, and a recording by Rostropovich was the very first piece of music I listened to when I was two, sitting with an umbrella, which I pretended was a cello with a stick as my bow.
[Editor’s Note: According to a 2015 violinist.com interview, Rachlin was “tricked” into playing violin by his grandparents, who gave him a violin at age two and a half, and claimed it was a cello.]
What were your first experiences as a conductor?
My life as a conductor started around 2005 when I was asked by the Mahler Chamber Music, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, and the English Chamber Orchestra to come in and play concertos without a conductor. At first, I just stood there, but when players asked me if I wanted to say something, if I had any ideas, I was surprised. Nobody had ever asked me to say anything. When I saw that the players took my ideas seriously, that they found something in what I said and what I transmitted through my body language, I began to take the idea of conducting more seriously.
How did you start developing your conducting skills?
Before I took lessons, I talked to many conductors, asking their opinion, and Zubin Mehta, Mariss Jansons, and Daniele Gatti all encouraged me. In fact, Mariss told me to take lessons from my mom—Sophie Rachlin, a graduate of the St. Petersburg Conservatory in choir conducting—together with Valery Gergiev, Semyon Bychkov, and Jansons. Of course, I didn’t want to take lessons from my mom at first, but I took one lesson and was so impressed that I’ve been studying with her now for six years.
How have you approached building repertoire as a conductor?
I’m learning one symphony a year, to make sure I will know each of them inside out. So far, my repertoire consists of Tchaikovsky 4, Beethoven 7, Mendelssohn 4, and Mozart 35, 39, and 40. My priority is still my violin, but I’m doing more and more guest conducting, including my debut at the Musikverein in Vienna, conducting Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro Overture, and Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto and Fourth Symphony.
After a successful international career as a cellist, Han-Na Chang is now dedicating all of her time to the podium and holds the post of principal guest conductor of Trondheim Symfoniorkester. Guest engagements in coming seasons include the Gothenburg, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis symphony orchestras, and Royal Stockholm and Oslo philharmonic orchestras. After two appearances in previous summers as a cellist at the BBC Proms, she made her conducting debut there in September 2014 with the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra.
I wanted to enroll in the conducting program at Juilliard, but at the time they had an attendance policy and I couldn’t handle that with my touring schedule
Why did you begin conducting? When did your interest develop?
The short answer is that I began conducting because I very much wanted to. I am drawn to the great symphonic and operatic literature, and also by the music-making and collaboration that exists between the conductor and the orchestra. I find conducting rewarding, challenging, lots of fun, and inspiring.
In my late teens, around the time I went to university, I suddenly found myself awakened by the Beethoven symphonies. I had known them since childhood, of course, but suddenly it was like having my ears and eyes opened to this miraculous new world of the symphony. I started studying the scores of the great symphonies and that naturally led to a strong wish to perform them myself.
What are the creative rewards?
First and foremost, the great music and lots of it! As a cellist, I found myself repertoire-hungry, so now, always having one too many scores to learn is a real luxury and joy.
Collaborating with the orchestra is tremendously rewarding: Every orchestra is different, so the conductor is always trying to find the most effective way of conducting that particular orchestra, in order to unite the group behind a common vision and interpretation.
How, professionally, is conducting different than performing as a soloist?
The difference is in having a musical family. Once you have an ongoing relationship with an orchestra, there is a real possibility for the growth of a shared artistic identity.
Has your approach to sound changed since transitioning from soloist to conductor?
When I play my instrument, what I think quite naturally and instantaneously translates into sound; when conducting, I am making sound with a group of individuals. The possibilities and the potential of the sound of an orchestra are virtually limitless, and this is truly fascinating to me.
What skills did you learn as a player that helped to prepare you for conducting?
Everything I learned as an instrumentalist and all the experience I had as a soloist serve me every single day. The experience of creating sound on your fingertips—knowing that ultimately there is a way of expressing what you believe was envisioned by the composer—is enormously helpful.
Have you had additional professional coaching?
I wanted to enroll in the conducting program at Juilliard, but at the time they had an attendance policy and I couldn’t handle that with my touring schedule. So instead I studied privately with James DePreist, who was then in charge of conducting studies at Juilliard.
What advice do you have for soloists who are considering this transition?
The most important thing is that you want to conduct with genuine passion and dedication. While the goal [of soloists and conductors] remains the same—[making] music—the process is completely different. Rather than viewing conducting as an extension of instrumental playing, I think it is important to know from the beginning that conducting is a completely different world.
New Zealand–born conductor and violinist Gemma New serves as music director of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra in Ontario, Canada; associate conductor for the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra; and founder and director of the Lunar Ensemble, a contemporary music collective in Baltimore, Maryland.
For the 2015–16 season, New had additional engagements with several ensembles, most notably the Long Beach and Toledo symphonies, and the Chamber Orchestra of San Antonio, and was a Dudamel Conducting Fellow with the Los Angeles Philharmonic during the 2014–15 season.
The skills of gesture, breathing, and eye contact that I developed through this ensemble playing have helped me find a natural and effective communication in conducting.
Why did you decide to make the transition from soloist to conductor?
From an early age, I became fascinated by the way orchestral music unifies and inspires everyone involved. Experiencing music together creates a strong human bond between us, no matter who we are or where we come from.
I played in as many orchestras as I possibly could as a young violinist—I just couldn’t get enough of it. One youth orchestra had three conductors, all of different personalities and experience levels. My curiosity began with observing the effect these three conductors had on the orchestra.
Can you describe the experience of learning a score as a conductor ?
The process of learning a score is deeply satisfying. The music is not just ink on a page; it’s an energy force that is constantly changing course, shape, and character. Discovering and rediscovering music with an orchestra, and having a creative conversation with the players is both energizing and inspiring.
What do you enjoy most about the job?
I am constantly inspired by working with great musicians. My conducting career has me performing music I absolutely love with players that I admire, in many interesting corners of the world. I’m learning something new every day, and always have much more to learn, too.
How did your experience as a player help prepare you for conducting?
Growing up as a violinist, I performed a lot of chamber music, and led several orchestral violin sections. The skills of gesture, breathing, and eye contact that I developed through this ensemble playing have helped me find a natural and effective communication in conducting. Being a string player allows me to feel comfortable in rehearsing the string section.
Have you had professional coaching?
I graduated with a master’s of music in conducting at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University in 2011. I studied there with Gustav Meier and Markand Thakar.
What advice do you have for soloists who are considering this transition?
When a soloist changes to conducting, he or she will need to find gestures to communicate fluently with the orchestra. Otherwise, go for it!
The Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra announced in May 2015 that it had appointed conductor and cellist Eric Jacobsen as its music director beginning in 2015–16. Co-founder and artistic director of the New York–based orchestral collective, the Knights, Jacobsen, 33, tours frequently as a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, and is also a founding member of the genre-defying string quartet Brooklyn Rider.
Ideally a conductor is a catalyst for mutual understanding, with the orchestra becoming greater than the sum of its parts.
What made you want to become a conductor?
Maybe because my parents were orchestral musicians. My dad had been a violinist in the Met Opera and I heard his opinions on conductors, although sometimes they were harsh. What orchestras desire in their leaders has been constantly evolving. Fifteen years ago, for example, I would never have been able to apply for the Orlando job. Perhaps it was a result of Gustavo Dudamel’s success—in any event, youth is part of our culture right now.
What do you hope to achieve in this new role?
Ideally a conductor is a catalyst for mutual understanding, with the orchestra becoming greater than the sum of its parts. Having [a vision of my own] and working toward it with the orchestra is a big part of the job—how to describe, but not get bogged down.
What is turning out to be the hardest part about conducting?
The hard part of conducting is beyond the stick, having an idea you can verbalize or show—or both. It’s an art that nobody knows how to talk about.
Your opening program in October leads off with Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3. How are you approaching it?
I am trying to understand the piece from the inside out—figure out the spirit of the piece, not just the word. Sometimes just playing is not enough. Imagination has to be there, of course, and I want to know the chord progressions, how they relate to other Beethoven works, and about the instrumentation and voicing. When you do that for an entire piece, you can hear and react, and then feel free to be spontaneous.
You have to be as prepared as possible; as musicians, we have a lot of human traits that won’t change necessarily, and our opinions won’t, but once we can find out how to make our own phrases, the music often starts falling into place. I’m very driven by phrase length and sentence structure—how to relate to what the composer is thinking, how to do it so that whole group feels unified about the musical decisions.
How was your reception by the Orlando musicians?
I didn’t know the musicians, and yet I felt an incredibly warm vibe. Sometimes it’s scary when you’re being considered for a position. There is some taking note of the good and the bad. I went in thinking it would either work or not, and either would be OK with me. I went in thinking, let’s go on a date.