Just over a year ago, I made the life-changing decision to study with Marin Alsop at the Peabody Conservatory. Having not really known much of Peabody at the time (its academic prowess largely stems from its association with Johns Hopkins, despite it being the oldest conservatory in the USA) this journey was in some ways a leap of faith. I was looking to elevate my conducting and musicality to the next level. After 10 months of classes, I would say that my adventure so far has been a success – and, with always more to learn, at least progress is progress.

Leonard Weiss leading an Émilie rehearsalPhoto © Larry Canner

On the practical side, our program revolves around eight hours of podium time per week, of which we work with our Conductor’s Orchestra, and piano with string quintet. Coming from the luxury of having more than eight hours of weekly podium time to myself with various organisations in Canberra, the realisation that you can only run one short passage a couple of times is intimidating. Our schedule is the fastest-paced of any program I’ve seen, largely following Marin’s engagements: Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 one week, The Rite of Spring the next; major works by Beethoven, Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, Debussy – virtually all pieces from the “top 50” and with good reason. The rapid repertoire turnover forces us (more than before, in my case) to thoroughly prepare before we step in front of musicians, even if some of those precious conducting opportunities become focused on wondering “does this look right?”

One of the more unique – and enticing – aspects of our program is its link with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. After having Marin coach us through key sections at the start of the week, we then spend the second half of the week sitting in BSO rehearsals, watching how she does it. (There we learn that a good professional orchestra has almost as little rehearsal time as we do!) More than that, we begin to understand the immense cog-and-gear system that is one of the country’s leading orchestras, from the work of the Music Director (in the community as much as in the concert hall) with the artistic team, librarians and production personnel, through to the CEO, marketing, and development teams. At the end of the day, and regardless of the music being performed, it always comes down the product: making a great experience for audiences.

With Marin Alsop. Photo supplied

When Marin is travelling, we are fortunate to spend time with other Peabody faculty, as well as BSO guest conductors. Peabody’s Director of Ensembles, Joseph Young (himself one of Marin’s Peabody alumni, so there is good consistency), guides us through Petrushka, Haydn, or Strauss tone poems; watching him on the podium with Peabody’s student orchestras, we see the importance of Marin’s lessons reaffirmed through another lens. BSO guests bring a different perspective altogether. “Technique is overrated, they just want to see the music,” says conductor David Danzmayr – adding that it depends, of course, on what you are conducting (in our case it was The Blue Danube). The National Symphony Orchestra’s Music Director Gianandrea Noseda agrees, in a rare masterclass opportunity after their Asia tour was cancelled in early March: musicians of the highest level need to see ideas and expression, not beat patterns. (David told us to conduct “less like students,” which was a reaffirming opportunity to experiment – and then go back to precision when Marin was looking over our shoulder.)

A teacher of seemingly few mantras, we are most accustomed to “it doesn’t get easier from here.” Marin and Joseph are nothing if not consistent; we are frequently reminded to think about the “sound world” we are creating, and how that differs between composers. Technically they often mention to “help musicians off the ties” or “hold the sound,” usually coming from Marin with the always-personable “you know what I mean?” Her demonstrations of technical ideas are, in a word, extraordinary. In one bar you can understand what other professional musicians see in her physical command of music, character, history, and emotion. Occasionally Marin will tell stories of learning from Leonard Bernstein: how he viewed himself in relation to Mahler, how he sat in the orchestra when she was conducting, or just funny “Lenny” nostalgic asides. It is truly incredible to consider myself a student of that lineage – hopefully I will find myself telling students ‘Marin’ stories someday!

Despite (or maybe because of) her connection with Bernstein, Marin doesn’t indulge in her tempi, and seemingly rarely overdoes the emotional atmosphere of a piece. (Although her first rehearsal of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet with the BSO remains the most moving rehearsal I’ve ever seen.) With a conducting style that favours accuracy over flamboyancy, her ability to show every detail at a micro level is quite honestly unbelievable. Coming from a background where I favoured score preparation and organic intuition of movement over minute technical practice, Marin’s focus on gesture was a bit of a surprise. But like with any instrument, the aim is to internalise different ideas so they can be used deliberately but less consciously, drawn from our “tool kit” for the right occasion. In the same way that a bassoonist will endlessly practise the introduction of The Rite of Spring, so too do we hear about Marin’s months of preparation on the opening few bars of a symphony, or finding the desired gesture to end a Mahler symphony. Like the solo bassoonist, Marin is aware that the conductor is always exposed: “Everything serves a purpose; if you are being noticed, you’re in the way.”

Leonard Weiss leading an Émilie rehearsalPhoto supplied

A conductor of Marin’s calibre is always on the move, so one strange up-side to the recent Covid-19 closures is that we virtually saw Marin a few times a week for the last half of semester. If anything, those weeks were the perfect opportunity to reaffirm the ‘practise, practise, practise’ mantra that I am hoping will serve me well over the coming months (and beyond). The past few weeks saw us organising guest classes with maestri across Europe and the USA, highlighted by a conversation with Simone Young. Overall my other subjects were less affected by the move to online learning: German, musicology and theory classes continued essentially uninterrupted; while by necessity, Opera Coaching became simultaneously playing and singing a range of arias, a highly stressful weekly exercise that has become surprisingly enjoyable, now that a lot of it is muscle memory.

Outside the classroom I have been fortunate to enjoy creating unforgettable performances with new friends: my opera debut conducting Kaija Saariaho’s Émilie, leading student recitals and composition premieres, and recently conducting Pomp and Circumstance for Johns Hopkins’ virtual graduation ceremony. It is a true honour to learn from their passion and talent, as well as that of our faculty; to share the excitement of bringing music to life. Through ups and downs in exploring life overseas, I’m humbled to have been awarded Peabody’s “Rising Star” for the 2019-20 year, and next year I will commence as the BSO-Peabody Fellow, working more closely with Marin and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in an Assistant Conductor capacity. With my June and July concerts postponed, the now clear summer break gives cause to reflect on an amazing year, and to contemplate the purpose of a conductor when it is impossible to bring people together in person. One thing is for sure: as much as there have been plenty of challenges, this year has been more fun than I could have imagined, and I’m ready to embrace the excitement of the coming year.