In the month after my brother’s passing, much of what I accomplished was colored with loss. Although I was always able to do what was asked of me, there were moments of heaviness when I became distracted by wonderful memories of Fred’s life. But carry on we must.
For the second time, it was my privilege to conduct the final round of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis. Under the expert leadership of Glen Kwok and chairman Jaime Laredo, this has become the most prestigious of all the violin contests in the United States. It attracts competitors from around the world, with six players advancing to the last round.
Rather than recapping the event, I thought it might be more interesting for all of you to learn a bit about the conductor’s role rather than the selection process. You would think that all I had to do was show up and lead the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, but it is not as simple as that.
When the young violinists were paired down to 16 semi-finalists, I was sent a list of the concertos that each would play should they get to the finals. Basically, I did not know until a few days before the first rehearsal what the potential repertoire would be, so there was no way to prepare. Fortunately, all the concerti were works that I have conducted many times, but some were more difficult than others. Out of 16 remaining contestants, seven were submitting the Second Violin Concerto by Bartók.
I cringed when this information came to me, because there was only one rehearsal with the orchestra alone. Usually, on the assumption that the program will comprise up to six different concerti, my rehearsal strategy is to take the orchestra through the tutti sections and tricky spots of each one. But the Bartók is not a repertoire piece for most orchestras, so it was important to go through the whole work. With so many fiddlers choosing it, more than likely one of them would make it to the finals.
I arrived on a Monday night, and the first rehearsal was the next day. At 11 p.m., just a few hours before my initial encounter with the orchestra, the six winners were announced and the repertoire decided. Only one finalist would play Bartók, but two would play the Sibelius concerto. The other three soloists would play Shostakovich 1, Beethoven, and Dvořák. Other potential repertoire, such as the Bruch G minor and the Brahms concerto, did not make the cut.
A competition performance is not the same as one that has had hours of preparation in rehearsal. There is no time to do anything other than accompany and be as even-handed to each contestant as possible.
As predicted, most of the orchestra-only rehearsal had to be spent on the Bartók. It is a long concerto, around 35 minutes, with innumerable technical and musical demands requiring a lot of time to get through. I always had to keep in mind that we had four other pieces to rehearse.
Shostakovich’s First has a difficult scherzo for the orchestra, and the finale also has its technical hurdles. In the Beethoven, it is important to be consistent with the phrasing. In rehearsing the orchestra, I chose passages that would be repeated at other points, making sure that everyone understood they were to be played the same way, even if the notation is unclear at times. Luckily, Sibelius only required going through the tuttis. All this had to be accomplished in the single two-and-a-half hours of allotted rehearsal time.
Keep in mind that I had not met with the soloists, so I had no idea as to tempos, rubato, and any other musical elements they brought to their interpretations. After the orchestra rehearsal, I headed over to Butler University, where I spent a half hour with each soloist, going through the key points in their pieces. Except for the Sibelius, each concerto is longer than 30 minutes, but we could make it work by eliminating the orchestral tuttis and cadenzas. No time for subtleties, as I had to focus on what each performer was doing.
With the Sibelius, it was my job to hear as much of the piece as possible and take into consideration where the two finalists playing this concerto varied in their approach. As it turned out, the two soloists had more or less the same ideas. Still, there were a couple spots where we had to remember who did what.
The format for the combined rehearsals with the soloists and orchestra allowed an equal amount of playing time to each violinist, 50 minutes, followed by a 10-minute break in between players. So it was a three-hour rehearsal for three concertos, with 20 minutes total to rest. Unfortunately, this seemingly fair division of time did not consider the length of the piece or the degree of familiarity with the repertoire.
The shortest concerto of the bunch was Sibelius at around 30 minutes. However, along with the Beethoven, it was also the one that the orchestra knew best. Shostakovich was the longest, clocking in at 40 minutes, with Bartók and Dvořák just a couple ticks less. It is important to keep in mind that the longest pieces were also the most difficult. There seemed to be no way out of this conundrum, and I felt a little sorry for a couple of the violinists playing this challenging repertoire who could have used a bit more time in rehearsal.
Nevertheless, we managed to get through everything, and the orchestra was quick and responsive, meeting the challenges and really listening to the soloists. We tried to accommodate the nuances of each finalist, concentrating intently on balances. There were a couple people listening in the hall during the rehearsals, and they would tell me when the orchestra was overpowering the violin.
We had two dress rehearsals and two concerts, with three concerti programmed on each. The performances had only one intermission rather than a break in between each of the contestants, which made for a very long first half. The first night featured Bartók, Beethoven, and Sibelius, followed the next evening by Shostakovich, Sibelius, and Dvořák. You can do the math to figure out how much time it took before intermission.
Every so often, I was asked if I had a favorite among the six finalists. The answer is yes, but I could not and would not show or say who it was. My job was to provide maximum support for each contestant. Plus, I did not hear any of the earlier rounds of the competition, and the judging is determined by the performances in each round, not just the concertos.
The second concert ended at 10:30, and a half hour later, the winners were announced. They would go on to play at a gala event the next day, basically showing off for each other as well as patrons and guests. I had to head off to the next gig.
Most of you know that there is an Indiana University in Bloomington, but did you know that there is one in Pennsylvania? Neither did I. It is not affiliated with the larger institution.
Indiana, the city, is very much centered around the school, Indiana University of Pennsylvania. With enrollment figures around 9,000, it attracts mostly students from the area, which includes Pittsburgh. Its music department caters primarily to future music educators, which is certainly critical to the future of our industry. Jimmy Stewart and Renée Fleming stand out among the people who have called Indiana, PA their home. There is a statue of the actor, and the soprano should be getting one soon.
Our five days were spent with all manner of activity, including master classes from both Cindy and me. We also participated in a panel discussion about the state of music education in the country. Of particular interest was the opportunity to visit the Indiana Middle School band and work with the Fox Chapel District High School string ensemble. Unfortunately, Covid and some funding issues have left IUP with reduced numbers of students in some critical areas, but they are working to remedy the situation.
The university organized a concert of chamber music, half of which was devoted to Cindy’s music (providing me with the chance to hear some works of hers that were new to me) and the other half to students and alumni of IUP.
I led three different groups, two bands and the orchestra, in a gala program that wrapped up the stay. In general, I was impressed by the dedication of the administration and faculty as well as the interest and curiosity of the young musicians. Jason Worzbyt, associate director of bands and professor of bassoon, did a great job organizing the residency.
After a week off, we head to Europe for a three-week visit. This will be somewhat frustrating, as I have spent the last two months watching the Cardinals set all kinds of records on their way to the playoffs. Albert Pujols is playing like it is 2005. Wainwright and Molina have become the Rogers and Hammerstein of pitchers and catchers. The team came together at the right time, and even though there was a bit of a September swoon, they made their way into the playoffs. These will start when I journey across the Atlantic.
Although it is possible to watch the games thanks to VPN, they will take place in the middle of the night for me. I do have to consider that there are rehearsals and concerts to do. Maybe I will sleep for a few hours earlier in the evening, get up to watch the ballgame, and then go back to bed. I did that the last time the birds were in the World Series. But first things first. They have to get past the first round.
See you next month,