University orchestras benefit from symphony ties
By Mark Kanny
Published: Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013, 6:57 p.m.
Music education is a continuing dissent to the old saying that “Those who can, do; those who can't, teach.”
A large percentage of professional classical musicians are committed to teaching, either privately or in higher education.
Many members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra add to their responsibilities at Heinz Hall with many hours of teaching. They bring not only thorough knowledge of course material but also the lessons of practical experience.
In September, former symphony concertmaster Andres Cardenes became head of orchestra studies at Carnegie Mellon University. Three years ago, symphony principal bass Jeffrey Turner assumed the same position at Duquesne University. Now, both local university music programs focused on training performers have orchestras led by symphony musicians and faculties loaded with symphony musicians teaching their instruments.
Pittsburgh is not unique in having the members of a world-class orchestra figure prominently in music education. Many members of the New York Philharmonic teach at the Juilliard School in New York City, just as many members of the Philadelphia Orchestra teach at the Curtis Institute.
“The quality of a music school's orchestra program is often a barometer of the school's overall quality,” according to Ed Kocher, head of the school of music at Duquesne.
The orchestra serves a dual function in recruitment of students. It creates the need for the school to find students for the full range of instruments and also provides an incentive for those potential students.
“For a music school to attract excellent performance majors, it has to have exciting opportunities to perform. For this kind of student, looking for professional training, the orchestra is a recruiting bonanza,” he says. “For those not going into performance, this will be one of the performing highlight experiences of their life.”
“Our relationship with the Pittsburgh Symphony is important to us,” says Denis Colwell, head of Carnegie Mellon's school of music. He says the value of having two dozen symphony players on the faculty goes beyond the classroom because the students routinely hear their teachers in rehearsal and performance.
“But just because you're a great artist doesn't mean you have a teacher's heart, and Andres has a teacher's heart,” Colwell says. “Teaching is an enormously generous thing to do, and it certainly doesn't require being a member of the symphony.”
Colwell cites professor of piano Hanna Lee, who is not a member of the symphony, as sharing with Cardenes the attitude of “not being physically capable of letting a single detail go unnoticed.”
Both university orchestras rehearse on campus and give most of their concerts at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland, an excellent acoustic space which was the first home of the Pittsburgh Symphony.
“The No. 1 issue with the Carnegie Mellon orchestra is that, while there's probably just as much talent as in a professional orchestra — because this where professionals come from — the musicians have never played most of these pieces in context,” Cardenes says. “They may have studied the excerpts (used for auditions), but to actually play entire works from beginning to end in an educational setting is a different animal — just the comprehension of details, listening for balances, even understanding of conducting gestures.”
His programming, therefore, emphasizes core repertoire, the music that will be vital to the musicians' careers because it will be the bulk of what they play at auditions.
“The great teachers are the ones who put some pressure on you, to ask how it can be better, because it can always be better, particularly in music,” says Hannah Whitehead, a second-year master's student from Cleveland who studies cello at Carnegie Mellon with Pittsburgh Symphony associate principal cellist David Premo.
“A good conductor or educator knows how, I know it's a cliche, to ask the right questions,” she says. “When those questions are planted in the student's mind, you keep asking them even when you're not in the orchestra. Those questions become your standards, eventually.”
Cardenes emphasizes other aspects of professionalism. Even student musicians know they need to be able to play their parts well right from the start of rehearsals because rehearsals are all about playing together. But he also emphasizes deportment and other responsibilities.
“He's definitely the opposite of distant, which is not what I expected. He goes far out of his way to make sure we're not just good performers but also good professionals and good people, which is what I appreciate most about him,” says Greta Mutulu, a second-year master's degree student, who also studies violin with Cardenes.
Cardenes knows the young musicians need varied experiences and believes guest conductors are important. He also wants the orchestra to be able to play without a conductor. That's why he asked two guest conductors this season to lay down the batons for one piece and play the solo in concerti by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart,
“(The students') learning curve is tremendous,” Cardenes says. “What I've learned is that if you treat them and expect from them what you would from professional colleagues, they're going to respond and put their heart into it. I'm not a very patient man, but they've responded well. I'm glad I'm not patient. If I was, we wouldn't be progressing as fast as we are.”
One of the differences between the music programs at Carnegie Mellon and Duquesne is that a far larger proportion of CMU students intend to pursue a performing career. “Our mission at Duquesne is very broad,” Turner says. “We're educating performers, music teachers, music therapists and music-technology majors, and I have to be very certain we stay focused on the motivation and the inspiration.”
Turner says the greatest lesson he's learned conducting the Duquesne Symphony “is that I have to keep the students up on the big picture and the ‘why' questions. At the Pittsburgh Symphony, we are so often focused on the ‘how' questions, as professionals should be, and we assume people know about the why.”
Violinist Romulo Sprung says Turner's knowledge is encyclopedic.
“At every rehearsal, he tells about the context of the piece and the composer's life and starts to compare to other composers,” Sprung says. “It's amazing. He knows things I've never heard before, even in history classes. It helps us a lot to play with the right character.”
Sprung has started on his artist diploma degree, earned after completing a master's degree, and studies with Charles Stegeman, head of string studies at Duquesne and concertmaster of Pittsburgh Opera Orchestra.
Turner requires a consistently high standard of music making, according to Sprung.
“Through his three years, we've improved so much about the pulse, the tempo and the rhythm,” he says. “He always asks us to play as though we're in a big chamber music group. A lot of times, he gives a cue, and then stops conducting, so we can listen more. He makes us feel the small beat inside the big beat.”
Sprung says Turner tells the young musicians what the pros do when the conductor is not being clear enough. “He always says he's trying to make us conductor-proof, so that if something wrong happens, we will know by listening to each other what to do.”
Turner's main concern in choosing repertoire is selecting works that will inspire the players.
“I'm hoping to teach a love of music first, which makes all the other issues fall into place for them more quickly and more meaningfully,” Turner says.
“Playing in the Duquesne Symphony is nurturing, not intimidating,” says Mike Kemp, a second-year master's student who is getting freelance jobs and who studies percussion with Edward Stephan, the Pittsburgh Symphony's principal timpani.
“At Duquesne, we have more time than at CMU to sit with a piece and get to know it,” Kemp says. “That's the biggest thing for me — to experiment how I place notes, what sections of the orchestra I listen to while I play, what sticks I use.”
Duquesne bassist Nicholas Browne also is already getting gigs, has performed some concerts in the bass sections of three professional orchestras and been a finalist in auditions for principal bass.
“Jeff has set the standard at a near impossibly high level, which is great. He expects not perfection, but the highest artistic standard out of the student orchestra and won't settle for anything less,” says Browne, a Fox Chapel native who is working on his artist diploma degree studying bass with Turner.
The 12-page syllabus Turner wrote for the orchestra provides thorough and practical orientation to orchestra life, according to Browne.
“It details the purpose of the orchestra, what it should do for the students, every little expectation, proper etiquette and a detailed absence policy,” he says. “In a perfect world, if everything went according to that syllabus, everyone would come out an amazing orchestral musician.”
Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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