Inside the American Academy of Conducting at Aspen

Inside the American Academy of Conducting at Aspen

Inside the American Academy of Conducting at Aspen

ASPEN — Robert Spano, who is in his first season as music director of the Aspen Music Festival and School, recalls the first time he conducted Stravinsky's “The Rite of Spring.” It was with the New Japan Philharmonic, and when Spano stepped off the podium, he was soaking with sweat. It was not because of his technique with the baton. “I did it very economically, not athletically,” he recalled. And it wasn't necessarily because of the intense, complex nature of Stravinsky's ballet score. It was because this was Spano's first time ever conducting the piece with an orchestra, and there was a proper audience there to witness the results. 

the scenario was nearly akin to having a student pilot fly a plane for his first time — with a full load of passengers on board. (The critical difference, of course, is that in the worst-case scenario, one instance results in a mass of dead bodies; in the other, a crowd of people who survive the incident, bodies intact, but might never venture into a concert hall again.)

So last summer, Spano set out to make sure that the young conductors in the American Academy of Conducting would not have the same nervous experience he had. Spano rounded up the program's conductors and made sure each one had some time on the podium, leading a portion of “The Rite of Spring.” This was quality time, with a full orchestra to lead and Maestro Spano observing and instructing. It was also safe time, with no audience to worry about. The conductors were free to experiment, free to stop and ask questions, free to fail completely without spoiling their reputations. 

The American Academy of Conducting at Aspen was established 12 years ago, with precisely this scenario in mind: giving young conductors time in front of an orchestra. It is an obvious idea: Aspiring pianists need time at the keyboard, and serious students of the violin spend inordinate amounts of time practicing. The orchestra is the conductor's instrument, and the more time spent working with one, the better the conductor becomes. 

“My teacher, Max Rudolph, always said the best way to conduct is to do it. Learning to conduct without an orchestra is like a pianist learning on a cardboard keyboard,” Spano said.

But getting an adequate orchestra together, gathering a few dozen quality instrumentalists, is a mighty task. In reality, stories like Spano's adventure in Japan — a conductor leading an orchestra through a piece for the first time in an actual concert setting — are commonplace, while young conductors getting ample time with an orchestra just to practice and work on technique and ideas is the rarity. 

“There are few places, few summer festivals, where conductors can go to get an experience like this, this kind of time on the podium here,” said Joshua Gersen, who spent the past two summers as an AACA conducting fellow.

On a recent Tuesday morning behind the Benedict Music Tent, Spano said he was suffering from “separation anxiety.” He had just missed an AACA rehearsal — his first absence after making the first 13 sessions of the summer. The Aspen Music Festival's new music director (last summer, he served as music director-designate) has a packed schedule that includes seven appearances as conductor, an evening at the piano alongside violinist Robert McDuffie and all the miscellaneous duties of a music director. But he considers his work with AACA — score-reading sessions, orchestra rehearsals that stop frequently for questions and critiques, moderately attended Tuesday afternoon performances — to be of the utmost importance.

“Central. Core. Fundamental,” Spano said of how he views AACA on his list of responsibilities in Aspen. “I feel like it's the heart of my job. And it's why I've been so happy this summer. I'd taught conducting quite a bit in my life, but less and less the last 10 years. To be able to concentrate on it in this way was irresistible.”

“The fact that Spano himself is devoting so much time to it, with all the other things he has to do here, that says a lot,” Gersen said.

Spano makes up only a portion of the human resources committed to AACA. Hugh Wolff, who is also director of orchestras at the New England Conservatory of Music, serves as the program's guest director. Visiting conductors to Aspen, all of them notable orchestra leaders, generally squeeze in some AACA time between their rehearsals and concerts; this summer, Nicholas McGegan and Thomas Sondergard have led sessions with the students. AACA also requires a notable financial commitment: The entire orchestra, including all of the conducting fellows — 14 of them this summer, ranging in age from 19 to 35 — as well as the orchestra members, are on full fellowship, their tuition, room and board paid for.

But the most crucial and unique resource is the American Academy of Conducting Orchestra, a 50-member ensemble of hand-picked musicians devoted exclusively to the use of the program. Having a dedicated orchestra solves the issue of getting sufficient podium time for all of the conducting fellows. 

Nearly as important, it also ensures that the program conductors have a familiar, friendly environment in which to train. This is not a given in the symphony world, where guest conductors often fly in for a quick appearance; the guest conductor/orchestra dynamic can often take on an us-versus-them tone. But the AACA Orchestra is designed for a particular role, to support the development of conductors, and a third of the orchestra members are conductors themselves.

“It's a safe environment to fail. Or to make a mistake, then figure out how to make it better,” Spano said. “Because the orchestra knows what they're doing there, that we're here to learn to try things and see what works. And that's what conductors rarely get to do.”

Spano spent several years, beginning in the late '90s, leading the conductor training program at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony. The Tanglewood program might be second in prominence to Aspen among summer conducting schools in the U.S., but Spano noted that Tanglewood would have as few as three conducting fellows a season and no orchestra to call its own. 

That helps explain the popularity of AACA. For this summer, there were more than 200 applicants for the program. The final class of 14 comprises conductors from Brazil, Germany, Florida, Australia, the United Kingdom and Chile as well as two Armenians.

Apart from the rehearsals with the orchestra, which prepare the conductors and orchestra for their weekly Tuesday-afternoon concerts, the conducting fellows have score-reading sessions, lead the popular Saturday morning Opera Scenes Master Classes, collaborate with the composition students on scores of new music, meet with visiting conductors and have an off-podium week, when the focus switches to tasks such as working with the musicians from a particular section of the orchestra. New this year, AACA conducting fellows also have sessions with the music festival's most prominent orchestras, the Aspen Festival Orchestra and the Aspen Chamber Symphony, to give them variety and experience with orchestras they are not so familiar with. There are no formal classes in how to function as a music director, but Spano said his interactions with the conducting fellows are filled with tips on building relationships and even tone of voice.

For the conducting fellows, a summer in Aspen tends to be a full-immersion experience. Spano called AACA “its own little world.” Last summer, Gersen shared a house with three other conducting fellows, which he said was invaluable.

“Spending a whole summer with 15 colleagues and peers — that's great,” he said. “Living with other conductors, you learn a lot seeing what they go through. It's a great way to develop a network, which you need as a conductor.”

AACA was established in 2000 under the leadership of Aspen Music Festival music director David Zinman, who parted ways with Aspen in 2010, and President Robert Harth, who died four years later while serving as executive director of Carnegie Hall. The classical-music community took notice immediately. 

“We all paid attention in the world when David created it because it was a beautiful thing he did,” Spano said.

But a program like this becomes known best by the fruit it produces. Now, after 12 years, AACA has announced itself by supplying an impressive portion of the next generation of conductors. 

“Almost every major orchestra, there's an alumnus of this program,” Gersen said. “It has a track record.”

Gersen himself is the conducting fellow at the New World Symphony in Miami, working under artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas; this fall, Gersen takes over as director of the New York Youth Symphony. (Last summer, Gersen won the Aspen Conducting Prize, which comes with the title of assistant conductor at this year's festival and partial responsibility for every orchestral performance this season.) Joshua Weilerstein, who won the Aspen Conducting Prize two summers ago, is an assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic. He also conducts the Aspen Festival Orchestra concert on Aug. 5. The New York Phil's other assistant conductor, Case Scaglione, is also an AACA alum. James Feddeck, another winner of the Conducting Prize and leader of the Aspen Philharmonic Orchestra concert on Aug. 15, is associate conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra. Former AACA students are also in assistant positions at the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Boston Symphony and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

While the Aspen program is prominent, there is no particular Aspen method of conducting. The conductors coming through AACA aren't being indoctrinated into a particular style. 

“It's not a school of conducting, like the Saito school, not a specific approach to the techniques of conducting,” Spano said. “That's not what we're doing, creating an aesthetic identity. These students are coming from all backgrounds, all kinds of teachers. This is an opportunity to learn from other schools, other disciplines, other approaches. They get multiple influences over the course of the summer. They hear a lot of different points of view.”

So while AACA isn't molding a certain kind of conductor, it is doing the more fundamental job of producing conductors, conductors who can walk onto a podium, an orchestra in front of them, and not feel as though they have entered a foreign land.

“For the future of music, you want young students to be instructed in the best way by the best people,” Gersen said. “This place is a great way to train musicians. You can't learn to be a good conductor if you don't have a good orchestra to conduct. Every time you get in front of an orchestra, it's valuable. It's impossible not to learn. Almost everybody leaves here a better conductor than when they came.”

Publication Information

July 19, 2012
Aspen Times Weekly
Stewart Oskenhorn