Conducting is something I’ve been around forever, yet in for a very short time.
Conducting is something I’ve been around forever yet in for a very short time. So far the only conducting I’ve done has been at the Baltimore School for the Arts, where I work part-time as a coach/accompanist to make ends meet, and at the ICWF in Lviv, Ukraine in August 2021. For a sort of “origin story” of why/how I came to conducting, please continue reading below.
I’ve been a good sight-reader from pretty early on; it may be the one musical talent I am most known for. As an undergrad at Peabody, it was required that we take a score-reading class, starting out with Bach chorales and moving onward to more complexity from there. I embraced it all.
It seemed a natural progression, then, that I got asked to start playing for the conducting class in 1999, under Gustav Meier and Markand Thakar. All through the years I’ve been playing for that class; I still do, in fact. It’s enjoyable, if occasionally in a “trial by fire” sort of way. (I’m looking at you, Till Eulenspiegel…how many clarinets in how many different keys do you ACTUALLY need? Gurl please.)
Anyway, I apparently developed somewhat of a reputation for being able to read scores and sight-reduce them at the piano, and so people—mostly Marin Alsop, who had been co teaching with Gustav for many years at the Cabrillo Festival for Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz, California—began hiring me to play for their conducting workshops all over the place, in places as far away as São Paulo, Brazil and (most recently) Lviv, Ukraine.
Every once in a while, at Peabody, Gustav would do this adorable/terrifying thing he called “a chorus line,” wherein he would call all the conducting students up to the podium one after the other, and even random members of the ensemble, to demonstrate some conducting principle or other that had gotten stuck in his craw. It was always very charming, watching him try (usually successfully, occasionally hilariously not) to teach concepts to people who had never before taken up a baton, relatively advanced musicians though they usually were.
“You should conduct! I think you’d be great at it!” Gustav would occasionally tell me. Or something along those lines, anyway. Even Leon (Fleisher, my main teacher, my Obi-Wan Kenobi of music) would ask me every now and then if I’d thought about conducting.
“You should consider conducting. You have a global understanding of a score that is very rare,” Leon told me one day, in his Obi-Wan way, which stunned me into silence; when someone you trust so much with something you love so much—who is, himself, at such a(n) (Obi-Wan) level with it—says something like that, it is definitely a moment to cherish.
With both Gustav and Leon, I was flattered when they said those things, but I inevitably demurred. “Maybe, yeah,” I would say. Never actually going for it. Story of my life; to quote Frank Herbert, “fear is the mind-killer.” But I digress.
In 2015, during the Cabrillo festival, I found myself with Marin, heading back to her dressing room after a rehearsal, just casually chatting. There was a pause when, out of nowhere, still walking forward, she said, “Michael…Gustav isn’t doing well.” I felt a sudden deep pit in my stomach.
“Oh no…will he be coming back next month?”
“We don’t know yet.”
This was in August; when September rolled around and Gustav did not come back to teach at Peabody (he lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan and had been commuting all those years), I began to have the sinking feeling that I might never see him again.
I should call him, I thought. He’d given me his phone number for one reason or another some years back, but I’d never had occasion to use it; I always felt like I’d be bothering him. In this situation, though, I said to myself: I need to call him. I will call him. If only just to thank him for everything he’d given me, quietly, in the background––and occasionally in a chorus line––over those 17 years.
As the semester wore on, though, and I continued to procrastinate toward what I knew would be a difficult call, at a certain point it became clear that the longer I didn’t call him, the easier it would be to continue to do that. The force of tendency is strong.
So, one otherwise regular April day, I took a deep breath and made the decision to call him.
A female voice answered the phone; either his wife or daughter, I thought. I said who I was, and she asked over the noise in the hospital room if Gustav wanted to talk to me.
“Michael? Of course!” I heard him exclaim over the din. I smiled. He was always so generous.
I don’t remember everything I said, but after a little small-talk, I said, “Gustav, I just want to thank you. For everything you’ve taught me, even though I wasn’t your student directly. Thank you.”
“I should thank you! I learned a lot from you!” he replied. A typical Gustav-style humble deflection, and it almost made me laugh. But I told him I wanted him to hear me, and he said he did, and thanked me again. I was battling tears at that point; even though I have no problem crying when I need to, I knew it would make it difficult to continue the conversation.
Then, before I could say anything else—or let the tears come—he suddenly asked, “Are you conducting yet?” I was stunned. But something had shifted.
Looking back, I think that was the moment I finally gave myself permission. “No, not yet,” I said.
“You should!” He exhorted. Again.
I still hesitated. I didn’t know. But: “I will,” I said, stepping into the space we had somehow both created.
He was always so generous.
I don’t remember the rest of the conversation; what do you say when you just plain know you’ll never talk to someone you love ever again? Some more pleasantries before signing off, as one normally does. I did what I had intended to do; a weight had been lifted.
Gustav lived another month, and then he was gone.
Long story short, that very semester I asked the director of the Baltimore School for the Arts, where I work part-time, if I could conduct their orchestra for a portion of their fall concert; she said yes.
And so it began.
I haven’t done a lot of conducting yet, but I am doing it. I’ve started. With the guiding hands of Leon—who passed away himself in August of 2020—and Gustav at my back, I am doing it.
In August of 2021 I received my first-ever hands-on conducting instruction, in Lviv, from Carl St. Clair and Ben Loeb, and conducting a professional orchestra for the first time was an exhilarating sea-change. I’ll never forget it.
As Leon often said, “music, like life, is forward and up.”
From here, for me, there is no other direction, and I embrace it wholeheartedly, wherever it may lead.