Choral conductors have a poor reputation for working with orchestras. This is sometimes unfair but there are certainly plenty of examples to support the stereotype. I could also say something about many orchestral conductors’ ignorance of what’s necessary or inability to deal successfully with a chorus, but that’s another topic!
For me, two elements were motivation for learning how to better work with orchestras: a strong interest in baroque music early in my career (meaning I had to have an orchestra to do the repertoire) and the negative example of a fine choral conductor who nevertheless became nervous and ineffective in front of an orchestra.
So, how DO you learn to work with an orchestra if you’re not an instrumentalist yourself and don’t have that background?
The two motivating elements above meant I didn’t want to be one of “those” choral conductors. Even at the age of 20 with my first church choir (a small Lutheran church in Seattle), I conducted J.S. Bach’s Christ lag in Todesbanden with a group of string players from the university. Not having a background as an instrumentalist, I first hired a fellow student (a violinist) to teach me about bowings and string techniques. I paid her the fee she charged for private lessons, but focused not on playing myself, but seeing and hearing the difference between up-bows and down-bows, playing at the frog or at the tip of the bow, playing on or off the string, etc. At the same time I was reading Elizabeth Green’s Orchestral Bowings and Routines, which I’d found in the library (unfortunately out of print). One of the challenges when exploring any new medium is simply to learn the vocabulary or jargon, so all of this was a huge help. I also vividly remember the first time (perhaps a year later) when I was working on a Purcell verse anthem with my new church choir, was unhappy with the phrasing in the strings at one point, and solved the musical problem by a simple change of bowing. That was a rush!
I didn’t stop with that one experience of lessons with a fellow student, but later took an independent study with Vilem Sokol (a viola teacher at the University of Washington and long-time conductor of the Seattle Youth Symphony), working on many of the same kinds of things but in more depth. For example, I remember him giving me the assignment to bow the first movement of the Haydn Clock Symphony and then bringing it in the next week for a critique of what worked, what didn’t, and why. This was really valuable. I also did an independent study for two quarters with horn player Christopher Leuba, who taught at the UW and was former principal horn with Chicago under Reiner--Leuba particularly had interesting ideas about intonation.
At the same time I formed a chamber choir in 1973, with which I did a fair amount of works with instruments, and a year later a group called The Bach Ensemble, which did Bach cantatas once a month. I then combined those forces to do Bach’s Mass in B Minor in June 1975 and Seattle Pro Musica was born (still going strong more than 30 years later under the leadership of Karen Thomas). I conducted those ensembles from 1973-1980 (plus a chamber orchestra the last three years), which really was my laboratory—and, frankly, my real post-graduate education (I conducted 71 different programs over 7 years with 3 different ensembles). Stanley Ritchie also came to the University of Washington during that time (as first violinist for the quartet in residence, but was also an accomplished baroque violinist who for a long time now has led the baroque orchestral program at Indiana University) and I took similar private lessons with him. My focus was to see and hear the differences between the modern and period instrument and bow and learn about baroque techniques, but also to find ways with modern players and instruments to get as close as possible to the right sound and articulations. The final two years I was in Seattle, the Bach Ensemble made the shift to period instruments (as much as possible—our string players got baroque bows and most had a second instrument strung with gut and tuned to A=415). We did a project with Stanley during that time and I also worked with him again a few years later, as well as other concertmasters, when I was conductor for a Bach Festival in Spokane, WA (also with period instruments—I conducted at that festival for seven years, from 1979-85).
Also essential is to observe orchestral rehearsals under a good conductor—think again about learning the vocabulary of a new medium, not to speak of rehearsal and conducting techniques. Luckily for me, a new orchestral conductor, Samuel Krachmalnick, came to the University of Washington in 1971, staying until 1976. I was dating and then married to a bassoonist at the time, so began to observe almost all of Sam’s rehearsals. Sam was an extraordinary musician and conductor. He first studied at Eastman, both French horn and piano (he was a good enough horn player to play in the National Symphony Orchestra and pianist to audition for and play in the American Symphony Orchestra under Stokowski). He then studied conducting with Jean Morel at Juilliard and was his assistant for two years. He won the Koussevitzky Prize at Tanglewood in 1954, studying with Leonard Bernstein, later doing work on Broadway, including as conductor and music director for Bernstein’s Candide in 1957 (for which he was nominated for a Tony award). He was one of Szell’s many assistants at the Cleveland Orchestra, was chief conductor at the Zurich Opera for 3 years, and did lots of other conducting, from the Met’s national touring company to being on the staff of the New York City Opera. In short, he was a thoroughly schooled musician and conductor (and also a superb teacher).
Still an undergraduate at the UW, I auditioned for Krachmalnick’s graduate orchestral conducting class—I remember auditioning with the slow movement of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony—and was in the class for two years (no doubt I made it in due to his seeing me at so many of his rehearsals). We had an orchestra consisting of string quintet and single winds and brass (piano filling in other parts as needed). One of the first things I asked to work on was recitative conducting technique, so was assigned a big chunk of Carmen—a terrific way to learn. Sam’s conducting technique was superb and very clear, so he was a great model for me.
Certainly one of the first things to establish your competence with an orchestra that you’ve never worked with before is a clear, readable beat. I don’t know how many times I’ve gotten the (back-handed) compliment, “But you don’t conduct like a choral conductor.” Clarity of gesture will absolutely make an impact.
For any choral conductor wanting to learn how to work with an orchestra I’d say, watch and observe as many rehearsals with a good conductor that you possibly can. Do some study of string technique, since that’s going to be the technical area where you will benefit the most. Learn a clear technique. And find a way to work with instrumentalists—create whatever opportunities you can. Doing is still the best way to learn.
Additional advice, especially for the young conductor?