How does a conductor get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice, according to the old punch line – not especially useful advice when the “instrument” conductors need to practice on is made up of more than 80 live musicians. Even conservatories cannot provide that essential accommodation in any regular way, and once out on their own, budding maestros generally find themselves practicing all alone in front of a mirror with a baton and with a record playing in the background. To help alleviate this situation, if only for a week, Carnegie Hall itself recently gave nine young conductors from Australia, England, Finland, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, and the United States an opportunity to hone their skills during one of the many valuable professional training workshops that Carnegie sponsors. The Sibelius Academy Symphony Orchestra from Helsinki provided the instrumentalists, and a noted instructor was also on hand: Jorma Panula, a Finnish conducting professor whose students have already taken possession of many prestigious podiums around the globe.
Panula’s method of teaching this most mysterious of musical disciplines, we are told, is based on an approach that cultivates a student’s individuality instead of dwelling on niceties of stick technique and the subtle psychological devices necessary to persuade a large group of musicians to obey the leader’s will. Esa-Pekka Salonen, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and one of Panula’s most famous protégés, flatly says that his mentor has no method at all. He merely tries to arouse the proper instincts in his pupils while raising the right questions that might encourage young conductors to develop their own methods independently and resolve their own problems.
Eavesdropping on just one open rehearsal did not really yield enough information to say exactly how Panula achieves those sensible goals. Each of the nine conductors had about ten minutes to work with the orchestra on a repertory consisting of the Sibelius Fifth and Seventh Symphonies, Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto, and the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth. Panula remained to one side, keeping a beady watch on his young charges through a spyglass strapped to his hand. Since he scarcely uttered a word all afternoon, Panula apparently exercises a subliminal influence over his students, unless he takes them all aside later on and gives them some kind of useful analysis of their work habits and communication skills. I have a feeling that at least part of this pedagogue’s success in training so many prominent Finnish podium personalities – the latest is Sakari Ornamo, Simon Rattle’s much-heralded successor in Birmingham, England – is closely tied in with his country’s extensive and supportive classical-music network. Finland gives talented young conductors not only financial support, but every chance to appear with professional orchestras even while still in school. In any case, most auditors at Carnegie’s workshop probably left with the impression that a conductor more or less learns what has to be done as a baby does when tossed into the water – either swim or sink.
Three lucky survivors were chosen to lead the formal “graduation concert”: Josep Caballé-Domenech from Spain (Beethoven), Andrew Robinson from Australia (Stravinsky), and Kari Kropsu from Finland (the Sibelius Seventh), with Salonen himself presiding over Sibelius’s Fifth. Everything was thoughtfully conceived and solidly played, although the most impressive aspect of the performances was the overall freshness of musical response – no doubt partly a result of the youthful enthusiasm of the Sibelius Academy Orchestra itself. For sheer podium charisma, though, I was more impressed earlier in the week with the work of Bundit Ungrangsee from Thailand, currently assistant conductor of the Santa Rosa Symphony in California. If a conductor’s ultimate unteachable gift is the ability to galvanize an orchestra through body language, eye contact, and an arresting physical presence, this wired-up musician definitely has a major future.