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A Tale of Two Cities'
Conductors

by Monty Montgomery

Once upon a time called ‘Now’, two conductors in two adjacent county seats are embarking upon ‘very different’ new seasons with their individual orchestras—Maestro Paul Nadler, after 16 increasingly successful years in Fort Myers, prepares his final season for a disappointed and saddened Southwest Florida Symphony Orchestra audience, while, at the same time, recently installed Maestro Jorge Mester plans his second season schedule for the delighted and jubilant supporters of the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra. One city, orchestra and conductor navigates the worst of times—one city, orchestra and conductor enjoys the best of times. And each maestro, as a consummate professional, reveres his art, celebrates his past, present and future creative opportunities, and looks forward to even more successful performances in the years ahead.

Maestro Paul Nadler

Interviewed in his home in Fort Myers before having to catch a plane for New York City, the Maestro began with a brief overview of his time leading the Southwest Florida Symphony Orchestra.

Maestro Paul Nadler: In 1989, I learned that the Southwest Florida Symphony needed a Music Director, and I applied. The Conductor Search Committee narrowed the field down to four candidates and I was one of the finalists who conducted the orchestra in the 1989-90 season. I was their choice as Music Director, so my first season was 1990-91, which makes this coming season my 16th.

Monty: What was the position of the orchestra in ‘89 compared with where it is now?

My predecessor had been hired to start the process of making the orchestra professional, and I was asked to continue that. I tried not to do too much ‘housecleaning,’ as we say, but there were several positions that needed to be upgraded. I started to feel we were doing really great concerts around 2000 or so. Before that, we had many exciting concerts, but by 2000, I felt the orchestra had started solidifying in such a way that we were developing our own personality, our own sound.

Today there may be half a dozen people in the orchestra who were with it in 1990-91. Aside from those individuals, it’s an entirely different group.

In layman’s non-technical terms, what is something that might not have been achievable then that could be doable, performable now?

In the early ‘90s, I would never have attempted some of the Strauss tone poems. Certainly in my first season, I wouldn’t have done the ‘Rite of Spring,’ which we’re doing this season. On the other hand, I started out with some standard repertoire, which was difficult, but it was repertoire that I felt the orchestra could handle. The first concert of my first year was the Mahler ‘First Symphony’. That’s a virtuoso piece, and as I recall, it was a thrilling performance. Over the years, I’m especially pleased that we’ve been able to do more detailed work and really give much more polished performances.

What exactly does a conductor do? The audience sees the hands in motion, waving a baton, and they also know some groups perform without any conductors. So really, what is a conductor’s contribution?

A conductors’ first, most basic responsibility, is to organize the music, to get the ensemble to play together. It quickly becomes much more sophisticated than that. It’s particularly important that the conductor has really strong ideas of what the music is about, and how it should be performed, to get to a unified approach quickly. So one of the conductor’s main jobs is to convey to the musicians what he believes the essence of the music is—which is then transmitted to the public in performance. The musicians should have utter confidence that the conductor knows what he wants so they feel absolutely secure in what they are doing.

My untrained understanding is that the composer wrote the music and that music contains all the instructions on how to play the music, with the right notes, rhythm and whatever. Why does one conductor or orchestra’s playing of the same music sound different from another’s?

People have infinite opinions and a lot of disagreements about how music should be played. Sometimes it’s a matter of instinct; sometimes it’s a matter of deep philosophical conviction. If you believe that Mahler, for instance, wanted his music played in a highly dramatic fashion, the music will sound one way. Other people may prefer a performance that de-emphasizes his disjunctive qualities and bring out continuity and beauty of sound.

Even if two people espouse exactly the same thing and want the piece to go exactly the same way, there is no way with their different personalities that it can go exactly the same way. So, even if I agreed with a colleague that a piece should go exactly at a certain speed, with the same emphases, accents and articulations and so on, the force of our personalities would just make it come out differently. There is a chemical reaction between a conductor and an orchestra that makes the sound warmer or dryer, or more heavy or sprightly, and those are personality things. That’s another reason the same piece can sound different.

Finally, music has undergone an evolution. Some musical performance practices that date back to when Mozart was alive, for example, have changed. Here’s an example: Pamina’s aria from ‘The Magic Flute’. Over the course of the 19th century, that aria had become more and more grandiose, slower and slower. Although it was very beautiful, it was very hard to do at the slower speed. Then along came a conductor, Max Rudolf, who discovered a few things about the aria. He found that the first singer to sing Pamina was a seventeen year old; that musicians who were alive when Mozart conducted the piece reported he conducted it in a very lively manner. That way, at a faster tempo, it becomes much easier for a singer to negotiate and the character, a teenager, becomes much more impulsive and immature rather than a tragic heroine. This is a small, encapsulated version of what can happen to a piece of music over time.

And while specific things are marked and annotated in the music, there are infinite ways of looking at those things. There are an infinite number of emphases or subtleties that you can bring out that can change the character of the music.

How and why did you personally decide to become a conductor?

Someone actually suggested it to me. I hadn’t thought about it, but the moment it was mentioned to me, I leapt at the opportunity because it involves some of the greatest repertoire in the world, which was a great plus. At the time I was musical, 15 years old and in high school. Conducting involved leadership, and I was drawn to that. I wanted to stand out. I was ambitious.

Some people aren’t physically built to be conductors. Physicality is definitely one of the main ways a conductor communicates with an orchestra. Of course, a conductor can say things verbally, but it is ever so much more expressive, convincing, and efficient—if he can elicit desired responses from an orchestra through how he holds himself, how he moves, and how he gestures.

What were your instruments when you were the fifteen-year-old high schooler?

Flute and cello. I started flute when I was about nine. I started playing the cello also when I was about twelve–thirteen. I practiced hours and hours everyday, all through high school. That’s when I decided music would be my major. I was lucky; I had a high school orchestra director who asked me to conduct whenever he had to be away from the room or was out sick or something. So I got early experiences conducting that way. I found I really loved it and I was quite a tyrant with my high school classmates!

And what are you like now as a conductor?

Well, I’ve changed enormously! When I was first here, I’d say I was still in that mold. There were times when I got very, very frustrated, and I would let loose. At a certain point I just decided that had to stop. I’ve been much more disciplined for the 8–10 years since. Also, being at the Metropolitan Opera, where I see many, many conductors working, has affected me. I see how some of the really great conductors are able to get what they want without any of that old-style tyrant behavior. It’s something all conductors used to do and was considered completely acceptable. Now it’s considered completely unacceptable in this country.

Reading your reviews, both old and new, I note the press considers your time here to be very positive, a time of growth for the symphony as well as a time of great accomplishment. I presume this didn’t just happen magically by waving your baton like a wand and declaring, “You’ll all play marvelously now!”

Right. That growth is part of a very long-term process. Each season, my musicians would understand what I wanted, what I expected, and my basic style. They know certain things without my having to ask for them, and that’s very good. It’s generally understood that I want clarity, I want power, excitement, and I want certain articulations but not other kinds of articulations.

I must tell you that everyone I’ve asked about your announced departure considers it a terrible move for the Symphony. No one can understand why. What’s your version why you’re leaving?

This is a delicate subject. Let me just say that my leaving at this time really does afford me, in a fundamental way, opportunities I couldn’t fully take advantage of if I remained here. I think that the Symphony wants someone who can be here more than I can. My guest conducting and conducting responsibilities at the Metropolitan Opera have always required a balancing act between what I do here and what I do up in New York. Recently, I became Principal Guest Conductor of the IASI Philharmonic in Romania, which is taking me away even more than before and enables me to expand my guest-conducting career.

So, will you keep this house?

Yes, but my plans are really up in the air. I could continue to use Fort Myers as a base and look for other musical opportunities in the area. Or, I could move to New York or Europe, either of which is a realistic possibility. I’m not planning on selling the house; the question is just how much I’m here. This year, I’m committed to Southwest Florida, the Metropolitan, and Romania.

What are the kinds of music you like personally to conduct, compared with what audiences seem to want or demand?

My favorite composers are Mozart, Mahler and Wagner, but I do find Stravinsky comes up often on my programs an awful lot. I find he’s a great spice to add into a more standard repertoire. To continue the food metaphor, Stravinsky really cleans the palate, so to speak. Of course, many places want a lot of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, which I’m always pleased to do. And I’ve got a very soft spot for both Schumann and Debussy.

There’s a great deal of discussion about what the public wants and how it balances what the orchestra needs and what I can do best. I’ve always thought it tremendously important to do pieces that the public enjoys, while at the same time I think it’s a major responsibility to help make the public aware of pieces they might not otherwise hear and to enliven the art form by doing 20th century pieces. It’s amazing to me that the public has not yet accepted some pieces that are now almost 100 years old!

Such as?

Bartok is a good example. I remember having done the Bartok ‘Divertimento,’ which is a favorite piece with musicians. Musicians love that piece. We did a Schoenberg piece I thought needed to be heard, not in our main series, but on Sanibel.

What do you see as the future of music in southwest Florida?

There should be a great future for music in Fort Myers. The continued growth of the community should augur well for increased commitment from many people. There are important steps that need to be taken if the symphony is to achieve stability. First, they need to work on creating a resident orchestra, and second, on building a hall, a permanent home. The orchestra is now looking at the possibility of its own home, maybe downtown. That would be a great boon. The downtown development plan includes a concert hall. I’ll certainly do whatever I can to assist them. Since I’m not leaving the area, I’m not saying “Goodbye.” •

Maestro Jorge Mester

Interviewed during a short break while auditioning candidates for his newly instituted 2005-06 Conductors Workshops with the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra, Maestro Mester began with an overview of how he became the Phil’s new Music Director/Conductor.

Maestro Mester: I was invited to be the guest conductor for the Phil’s final concert in May two years ago. The chemistry was so hot between the orchestra, the audience and me, I think we all fell in love with each other and they asked me if I’d be interested in coming here. I was so impressed with the quality of the orchestra—the human quality as well as the artistic quality—and of course with Myra Daniels’ very classy vision. I thought this would be just a wonderful thing for me, and fun besides!

Monty: What do you mean by the ‘human quality’?

Orchestras are like organisms. They develop over time their own character. So, when you get in front of a new orchestra, very quickly both parties get the measure of the other. Orchestras can tell pretty quickly whether the conductor is worthy of their respect or not and the conductor can tell very quickly whether the orchestra has a sense of self-worth or whether they are unhappy. What I noticed with the Naples Philharmonic is that they had a really healthy love of music and a great sense of pride and ownership of their artistic contributions to the orchestra, so that it was almost like playing chamber music to be working with them. Almost intimate. Very intimate.

What was your sense of where the orchestra was or is and where you’d like to lead it in the years ahead?

Well, when we first did the Tchaikovsky symphony, which is standard repertoire, they were very welcoming to any ideas I had. Obviously, every person who comes to the podium has their own way of making music and way of phrasing. In the first rehearsal, I think I was a very mysterious entity for them because they couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t very demanding. I wasn’t very demanding because the way I work is to make a team. When you have a team, everybody contributes. So my way of leading is to encourage individual contributions to the goal as opposed to making demands.

Of course, some orchestras like to be told what to do, but my sense was they enjoyed my approach. So, I think we have a happy orchestra. Which, to me, is very important because, first of all, the music making is better when they are happy because they’re relaxed. Also, the audience notices that by their physical posture, such as smiles, that there actually is great love and friendship and respect flowing in all directions.

Well, what does the conductor actually do, what is the real work of conducting?

The real basis of what determines communication between the orchestra and a conductor is the type of energy the conductor sends out, the so-called vibes. If you’ve ever been subjected to speech by a very boring speaker, it’s boring because there is very little energy and there are problems building a bridge within a sentence, within paragraphs and within chapters. So, the combination of music-making and the kind of body language and energy that the conductor sends forth creates a mirror image from the orchestra that then goes out to the audience.

Each conductor will get a different sound from an orchestra, just by virtue of kinds of energy. In a way, conducting involves the way the baton encounters resistance from the air around it. Those are the physical and metaphysical things about conducting.

Other qualifications that are important are a vast knowledge of repertoire, aesthetics, the history of how a particular piece fits into the continuum of musical history, what the composer was like, what kind of performing forces, performing styles, were in vogue at the time the music was written and first performed. A conductor has to make decisions whether you want to copy the style of those days or whether you go with how styles have evolved.

There are also the psychological aspects—knowing how far you can push an orchestra within a season. One thing I believe has gotten the Naples Philharmonic very excited is that we’re doing a lot of repertoire that they’ve never played before. That is exciting. And we’re also doing extremely difficult repertoire. I think we have an exciting trip ahead of us because we’re doing a lot of stuff the orchestra is eager to do.

One of the pieces they’ve never had a chance to do is the Beethoven Choral Symphony, the ‘Ninth’. When I announced to the orchestra we are going to be doing it this season, there was a lot of applause.

I always thought composers throughout history wrote precise musical notes and instructions that just had to be played as written. So why is one conductor and orchestra’s rendition different from another’s?

One reason is physical. Some people’s hearts and blood pulse in different ways. Another is their own take on how they feel the composer would have liked the piece played. The conductor has to persuade or convince the musicians to join in achieving his/their common vision.

Think of the soliloquy from Hamlet and you get ten actors to do it. There are going to be ten different performances even though it’s written down. The notes are like words. How you weave them together is the secret. You can have phrases that look the same that may be separated by a rest, but, depending upon your sense of drama, maybe the first time you hit that it might be like an introduction, an exposition and the rest takes a longer time. If the same motif happens in another place that’s more of an exciting place, the rest might be shorter, even though it’s written the same. The way it’s written is basically the least expressive part of music-making. The interpretation and the performance makes it alive.

What are the most challenging parts of conducting for you?

For me, the first decision is how do you approach any piece you do, especially if you’ve done it a lot, with freshness. How do you put freshness in it without lapsing into facile, idiosyncratic, superficiality? That’s the most exciting part of being any kind of performer—finding freshness in the repertoire.

The other part is how to be psychologically attuned to the soul of the orchestra so that you become one organism rather than a leader and followers. As one grows older, it becomes less about oneself and more about the music. In fact, as you build up your repertoire, the most wonderful experience in performances is to tap into the intuitive part of your brain and let the music control you rather than the other way around. Orchestras love that because it suddenly becomes fresh every line.

What were the steps in your life that led you to become a conductor?

My stupidest step was that my parents told me that if I didn’t play like Heifetz, I shouldn’t be a violinist. So, at age 15 I said, “OK. I’ll be a conductor!” Maybe that’s not too intelligent, but I found I had a kind of visceral feel for conducting. I had a recording of Toscanini doing the ‘Beethoven Fifth’ at home and I would conduct it and it felt great. Then, the great cellist, Gregor Piatigorsky sent me to Tanglewood between my junior and senior year. I was a violinist and played there under Leonard Bernstein and Charles Munch, conductor of the Boston Symphony. At that time, I got it! I understood the physicality of conducting. Bernstein recommended that I go to Juilliard where I was accepted as a conducting major and also as a violinist. In fact, I learned to play the viola because Bernstein was spending his honeymoon in Mexico and he wanted to play chamber music and couldn’t find a viola player. So I became a violist and made my living playing viola and violin as a freelancer in New York.

Eventually conducting opportunities came up and one thing led to another. Looking back, it was a good decision. If it hadn’t worked out, it still would have been a good decision. And I’d still not be Heifetz. I still play, as you can see by my little mark here. [the Maestro points out a little enlarged muscular bump on his neck] That’s how you can tell a violinist.

How do you describe your behavior or style as a conductor?

I think what I try to teach my conducting students is that the gesture must be specific to the music. If you, for example, are watching a conductor on TV without the sound, a musician should be able to guess what piece that person is conducting. Specificity of technique is what I believe is important. It elicits from the orchestra results that other conductors have to get by talking, and there’s nothing worse than a talking conductor.

One of my teachers, who was French, quoted a great aphorism. He said, “Conducting is a silent art.” It’s body language. You don’t explain sounds, you create them.

How is your new program of Workshops for Conductors going?

I love to teach conducting. I developed my own system, which has to do basically with the concept that unless your body is centered and your breath is the motor, you can’t express in an efficient manner through your gestures what you want to get. The more relaxed and involved your body is, the less you have to fight it, the easier it is for musicians to play for you: the body is totally relaxed and at the service of the musical instrument. It seems to work. There’s a lot of conducting teaching that is on an intellectual basis; I try to bypass the brain. What one does looking at a score sitting at a desk, that’s the intellectual part, but the physical part – without that, how can you be a conductor?

Here, at the Phil, the workshops are on two levels. I’ve chosen three professionally engaged conductors who want to hone their skills, to have nine sessions with the orchestra—rehearsals and a performance. In the course of a week, each will have nine experiences working with the orchestra, working not only on the music they’ll be performing, but also on ten different pieces of music. This is a really unbelievable opportunity for conductors have access to a really wonderful orchestra.

In addition to those three professional conductors in the workshops, there are about 20 other conductors who will be working with a string quintet and piano. All will be trained as well, in Alexander Technique, a concept of physical balance, and all my exercises so whatever is inside can flow out.

It’s definitely going to be wonderful for the orchestra, also, because there are many orchestras who don’t know exactly what a conductor does. It’s very illuminating for musicians to actually understand how difficult it is to conduct and how much energy has to go into studying conducting. A lot of people, including many musicians, think conducting is easy because no one can get up and play a Mendelssohn concerto, but anyone can get up and conduct. So, when an orchestra realizes the amount of technique that goes into being an effective conductor—the amount of preparation, the amount of physical balance and psychological balance that goes into it—they go: “Wow! That’s what works… or not!”

So, I’m excited by this. I’ve talked to people who organize conducting workshops for other organizations and this is completely different.

Within a few hours of completing their comments, both Maestro Nadler and Maestro Mester were in the air: one flying to New York, one to California, living new pages in this, their on-going, frequently airborne ‘Tale of Two Cities’ Conductors’. •

from the November-December 2005 issue

"Physicality is definitely
one of the main ways a
conductor communicates
with an orchestra."

"The way it's written is
basically the least expressive
part of music-making.
The interpretation and the
performance makes it alive."