A Trio of Conductors
Conductor, University Singers
(left in photo)
Conductor, Wind Symphony
(center in photo)
Claudio Gonzalez, Director
Conductor, University Orchestra and Sinfonietta
(right in photo)
Interviewed by Scott Moncrieff
How/why did you move from being a musician to being a conductor?
SZ: Beginning in high school, my friends would often point out how opinionated I was when we'd rehearse music, how I would take whimsical, spontaneous music-making with my friends to a level of "pickiness" that often eluded them, and ultimately took the "fun" out of rehearsing. It wasn't until years later that I discovered that inspirational music-making in groups was predicated on building healthy, caring relationships with the musicians in those groups.
BG: Well, I would argue that I’m still a musician! In fact, I’ve never stopped performing/playing my principal instrument (clarinet). For instance, I’m a member of the St. Joseph Municipal Band, and I occasionally play with other groups as well. But to your point, I started transitioning towards the conducting/teaching role during my undergraduate years. Actually, I added the teaching major after spending a year as a taskforce worker at Union Springs Academy in upstate New York. That experience really galvanized my desire to work with young people to develop their musical talents in an ensemble setting.
CG: It was motivated by the leadership I developed as concertmaster of my chamber orchestra in Venezuela. As a matter of fact, my first years of a conducting career were from the first violin chair.
What are the top five things you like about conducting?
1. Teaching confident self-expression to those in your ensembles
2. Teaching musical knowledge
3. Educating and inspiring your audience
5. Being at one with the singers in the choir
1. Waving my arms around (no, really, it’s quite a rush!)
2. Choosing the music
3. Hearing the difference between rehearsal #1 and the performance
4. Watching young musicians develop (this year I have students who I started teaching in 5th and 6th grades playing in my university band)
5. Seeing the positive effect music has on people
1. Musical influence on others
2. Inner enjoyment of sonority
3. The feeling of the contact of live sound with the conducting gestures
4. The re-creation process of great musical works
5. The projection through eternity of this activity. I consider musical repertoire and ear perception learning extremely extensive. There is no way that I could learn and conduct all I want unless we have more time after this life. That is an awesome feeling!
What’s the most embarrassing (or amusing) thing that has happened when you were conducting?
SZ: Having my white vest come partially undone while conducting a vigorous number. The vest dangled below the long black tails of my tuxedo jacket and looked like a sweaty diaper making its escape. The audience was polite and I was totally unaware of the incident--until I turned around to thank the audience--at which point the choir roared with laughter.
BG: I’m sure it happens to every conductor, but I have accidentally thrown my baton into the band during a concert. I’ve also had one break during a performance. As for wardrobe malfunctions, my tuxedo cummerbund came unclipped and fell off during a performance as well. Apparently, I can’t hold onto things when I conduct.
CG: Once in the mid-nineties, my orchestra was underprepared for a concert, due to lack of rehearsals. Right at the beginning of the Mozart 25th Symphony, my musicians did not understand my beating pattern and they started playing twice as fast they were supposed to. It’s the only time I recall I had to stop the chaos and start again. Embarrassing!
What is a specific piece you really enjoy conducting, and what is special about it?
SZ: The first movement of “Christ Lag in Todesbanden” (Christ lay in death’s bonds) by Johann Sebastian Bach. It’s a musical setting of a five-sentence summary of how Christ was resurrected from the grave, why he was resurrected, our joyful response, and concluding with a mocking ‘alleluia’ response to Satan’s inability to keep christ in the grave. Bach chooses to use Martin Luther’s translation of scripture, and it is special for several reasons: 1. Martin Luther’s coarse and direct descriptive language. 2. The use of musical imagery (Bach’s an expert at that). 3. The use of imitative counterpoint between the voice parts. 4. The evolving mood from that of Christ entombed to his resurrection and the mockingly jocular ‘alleluia’ at the conclusion. 5. The unabashed and abundant stimulating syncopation of the ‘alleluia’. This scholarly work by Bach concludes with a bold hocet treatment of the actual word ‘alleluia’ that tends to make sincere conservative Christians squirm in their seats.
BG: That’s tough question for any conductor, I think; there’s too much good music and not enough time to conduct it all. But one of my favorites is Gustav Holst’s Second Suite for Band. It’s one of the first serious works for concert band, and Holst is so creative in his use of various folk melodies throughout the work. My two favorites moments in the piece are the end of the third movement (Song of the Blacksmith) where Holst calls for an anvil in the percussion section, and the final movement where he weaves in the Greensleeves theme. On the more popular side, I’m a big John Williams fan, so anything like Star Wars or Indiana Jones is fun. Actually, in February we will be playing his Summon the Heroes, written for the Olympics.
CG: Mahler First Symphony because the sonorities and moods conveyed by the composer in the piece.
Any random conductor thoughts?
SZ: A conductor’s effectiveness lies not in just how much musical knowledge they possess, but rather in how much they are willing to submit, be vulnerable, maintain a safe environment in which their musicians can freely explore and express themselves. One of the most overlooked yet unique differences between instrumental conductors and choral conductors is this: a) instrumental conductors (generally speaking) conduct musicians who have been studying and playing their instrument with expert teachers in their field prior to joining their ensemble. b) choral conductors are most often the first voice teachers choir members have ever had. Hence, in our field the reference to the French word ‘amateur’ is a noble one--not a derogatory one. Our ensembles are comprised primarily of ‘amateurs’ who are often judged to the standard of professional established instrumental ensembles.
A successful conductor’s asset(s) is said to be a great pair of ears with arms attached.
A successful conductor’s role is clearly evidenced as “first amongst equals.”
BG: I would just encourage any student who plays an instrument or sings to get involved! I think many students give up formal music once they graduate from high school, and it’s sad to see that experience end there. Even if you don’t join one of our great musical ensembles here at AU (which you should), find ways to get involved locally in your church or community. God gave you musical talents for a reason, so use them.
When is the next on-campus performance of your group?
SZ: Just presented our first full-length concert on October 14 in the Howard Center: “The Compassionate Model Servant.” The next full-length concert is “Welcome Christmas” on December 1, 7:00 p.m. in the Howard Center. Featuring “Messiah,” by Handel.
CG: Oct 21 at 8 pm at the HPAC. The concert will be dedicated to the Lutheran Reformation. The orchestra accompanying our tenor Charles Reid, and Stephen Lancaster from Notre Dame University will play a scene of the opera Mathis der Maler by Paul Hindemith followed by the great Mendelssohn 5th Symphony, “Reformation.”
BG: The Wind Symphony Fall Concert is October 28th, 8:00pm in the Howard Performing Arts Center. Our theme is “Summer Fades Away,” and we’ll be performing a variety of music with elements of nostalgia for summer. Don’t miss it!