After 30 years with Kern D. Holoman, UC Davis passed the baton to conductor Christian Baldini, an internationally acclaimed composer and conductor. In a new era of musical direction, Baldini brings a new ear and fresh take to the symphony orchestra. MUSE sat down to interview him on Tuesday.
Can you explain what a conductor does and what makes for a good conductor?
There are many points to the question because part of one has to do with preparing for a concert when learning the works and also when restyling them – even though many of the works have been played before. There is always a way of revisiting them and looking at the different ways to discover more; it is like when you read a novel and every single time you read a book you find more details and find relationships with characters and the same thing happens in music. So that is one essential part: being a skilled analyst and getting as much information that you can from a work of art and bringing it to life.
Then there is the part of bringing all that knowledge to the table in your rehearsal to the podium and communicating all what you have to say and your interpretation of a piece with your musicians. The orchestra is an instrument. As a conductor per se, you don’t produce the sound physically and you’re the one almost playing with this clay of sound that they have and you’re the one who will be the filter to how all of the sound comes together. You are a communicator above anything else, you have those rehearsals to make the group come together and have a unified version of works. Basically, if you think about the iPod generation or people who listen to their music in their cars, you have the EQ in the car and you can change so many things – crossfading, and how high you hear the range – and as a conductor, that is part of your job – but without any equipment. The orchestra produces the sound that you want to hear for that particular work. And the third aspect that I would mention is how you convey that message to your audience and there is a lot that can be deepened.
Part of communicating is not only how you rehearse, but [also] your gestures. When you reach the moment of a live performance there is no speaking. You have to convey everything that you want with your gestures. Some people are really fascinated by looking at what a conductor is doing and how that gets a reaction of sound. Some people just prefer to close their eyes and listen to whatever happens. And the most important thing in the end is which message you convey through music. Every work has something to say and it is up to you [as to] what you’re going to highlight. It is almost like reading a book or reciting poetry and by how you finish a phrase or where you pause, all those liaisons make a complete interpretation and the same thing happens with music. It’s a language of its own.
How do you think you communicate with the orchestra prior to the performance and how important is it to communicate beforehand?
Think of a theatre play. You have a director who is unifying the version that they’re going to bring. You can do Hamlet in so many ways and do either a contemporary setting or a traditional one and the same thing happens in music. You have to talk to your [performers] in this case, whether they are actors or musicians. If one passage turns out that the clarinet is doing the same thing as the entire cello section a few bars before, then we do need to make sure that comes through and gets heard exactly the way that it should. There are many different ways to say something and it depends on your context, your background, or really what you think is best for that occasion.
There are different performance venues. If you are performing the same work in a wonderful concert hall like the Mondavi Center or a church, the acoustics are so different. In order to communicate that message to deliver it properly, as a conductor you’re going to have to make some adjustments. You might be looking at the score and seeing … the tempo, this is exactly how it should go. You go into a concert hall and it turns out that for this church, it is way too fast and you can’t hear the details because it is boomy and all over the place. All of those things will determine what you will communicate and that is why we need rehearsals.
How far should a conductor go in interpreting a piece of music, or how
much artistic freedom do you have in interpretation?
There is all this artistic freedom and sometimes that can be one of the scariest things. It depends on personality but some people get confronted with freedom and they get locked. Sometimes that is the writer’s fear of the blank page. And this is basically the same. You can shape what you’re going to be doing in your concerts, what pieces will be played, what will be the best for your orchestra and how are you going to build up the kind of sound you want for your orchestra. It is a learning process. In this case the university orchestra is a group of people that will not necessarily be the same group of people over the years, so you’re training musicians and once they’re really good they’re ready to leave and go somewhere else. So, it is a refreshing process that will be different every year and important to keep in mind when interpreting music. With musical interpretation, basically, your roof is wherever you want to put it. You set the bar.
What’s the process of choosing a repertoire for the orchestra? Does the music faculty help you select it, or is it more of your own decision?
Basically, I am choosing the repertoire for the orchestra myself based upon looking at the past 12 seasons. I look at which symphonies and concertos the students will like playing and decide after a long process, even choosing a piece [by] composers who have written specifically for us. It is a great thing that encourages people to compose and it showcases music that is being written right now. Whether it is Egyptian art or modern art, everything is part of culture and it is the way that you look at it, having a different perspective.
KAREN SONG can be reached at email@example.com.