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Article Title: Interview with a Conductor: The Montpelier Chamber Orchestra's Catherine OrrEdition: August 2001
Author: Edie Black Zfass
Horizons Editor Edie Black Zfass had a conversation with The Montpelier Chamber Orchestra's Catherine Orr on what it's like to be an orchestra conductor in small-town Vermont. The following questions and answers are the results of this conversation.
Catherine, tell us how you became a conductor.
There's no one professional route to becoming a good conductor. Yehudi Menuhin was a world-famous violinist; James Levine, who now conducts the Metropolitan Opera, is a concert pianist; and Gerard Schwartz of the Seattle Symphony is a great trumpeter, and so on.
In my own case, I studied piano in college and the organ in Vienna, Austria. Then for years I mostly conducted choral groups, often involving orchestras. About ten years ago, I decided to go all out for conducting. To get the newest conducting "science," I went to Indiana University's famous music school and earned a master's degree. I think this is becoming more the rule than the exception these days.
Another way to look at it is to say that until about twenty years ago, conducting was seen as more art than science. My conducting is both. I try to incorporate the best techniques, but my main purpose is to communicate the soul of the music.
What goes into planning a concert?
I love planning a concert. To me, this is one of the most creative aspects of the whole process. The Montpelier Chamber Orchestra performs two "full" concerts -- in spring and fall -- plus an outdoor summer concert at the bucolic Moose Meadow Lodge in Duxbury.
I'll talk about Moose Meadow first, because it's coming up on August 12th. This year, I chose music for strings only, plus an oboe solo in one piece and a flute duet in another. The first half of the concert features baroque music -- happy and bouncy. The second half is more familiar. It includes the ever popular Fantasia and Greensleeves. Selections must fit the mood of the experience and acoustic qualities of the space.
And then, of course, you have your other concerts.
Planning the spring and fall concerts is much more challenging and time-consuming.
For the past few years, the chamber orchestra has been performing baroque or early classical music in the fall and romantic or modern works in the spring. These seem to be in harmony with Vermont's seasons.
Fall is when we hone our techniques of playing in the baroque style and learn the individual styles of the great composers. For the orchestra, acquiring an intimate knowledge of the composer's personal style is one of our highest priorities. This is absolutely necessary if we're going to communicate the soul of the music.
I understand you're gearing up for an all-Mozart concert.
Yes, I've had it in mind for several years to do an all-Mozart concert. Think of the far-reaching popularity of Mozart -- the composer who is most often played on classical radio, the composer that many people like to wash dishes by.
But Mozart was much more than just a popular composer. He was a musical genius. His music is regular and easy to listen to, in the classical style. It's also subtle, finely crafted music with delightful, unexpected nuances that call for expert musicianship and, most importantly, a deep understanding of the Mozart idiom.
Our Fall 2001 concert will be all-Mozart. String players are the core of our orchestra. A natural choice for the featured number on the program would be a violin concerto. A concerto is a work that features one instrument -- violin, piano, horn or other -- playing solo throughout the piece, working in and out of focus with the orchestra.
What are the additional demands on a conductor in working with a soloist?
A concerto is challenging for the soloist, of course, but it also puts some special demands on the orchestra and the conductor.
While the soloist has a dominant influence on the tempo and interpretation of the piece, the orchestra can't just go along for the ride, scrambling to catch up or slow down in accordance with the soloist's inspiration. And the conductor can't turn her job over to the soloist, who is naturally absorbed in her own work. So the conductor must work with the soloist individually and come to an understanding about tempo and style. Then she must get the orchestra on board with the plan. And during the performance of any piece the conductor must continue to be alert to incipient glitches -- missed notes, lagging tempos, and a thousand and one tiny evidences that the performance may be on the verge of disintegration. She has to spot the trouble, instantly come up with a rescue plan, and signal to the performers what changes she wants.
Who's your guest artist?
For the fall program, I've invited the well-known violinist Linda Rosenthal to come down from Alaska. Last year she performed in Vivaldi's Four Seasons with the the Montpelier Chamber Orchestra. She was thrilling and we're thrilled to have her return. As an added treat we have Lydia Busler-Blair to round out the evening with the Mozart horn concerto Number 1.
Do you ever venture into anything modern?
Sometimes I take a big leap of faith and plunge into something that is difficult and unfamiliar. In 1996 we did music by the modern French composer Olivier Messiaen, including a piece that called for a rarely played electronic instrument. One of the best players of this instrument was from Montreal. It turned out that my professor at Indiana knew him. I gulped, took my life in my hands, and invited him. Miraculously, he said yes.
At first, the orchestra balked. "Never in this lifetime will we learn this!" they said, practically in unison. "Well, come on, let's just try a little of it," I replied. Little by little, we learned how a modern phrase is shaped we came to see the beauty in it. It turned out to be a triumph, both for the group and for each individual player. Of course, the audience was small. But it consisted of the dedicated musicians and music lovers in the area, who loved it.
Another recent venture into the modern repertoire was our program celebrating the new millennium, featuring Vermont composers David Gunn, Dennis Bathory-Kitsz, and Gwynneth Walker. David and Dennis composed works just for us. Their music was difficult. But it was exciting to have the composers at rehearsals. They even made some last-minute changes to make it work better.
How do you feel about the modern music being composed today?
I love it. I love the creativity of it, even if I don't understand the musical message. I applaud composers who are willing to stick their necks out and compose something off the beaten path, since I know that I am so immersed in "the beaten path" I could never see anything beyond it. It's great to live in Vermont, where so many composers choose to come and are free to work as they please. True, most of them don't make much money at it, but if they are willing to dedicate themselves to that noble purpose, I say three cheers!
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