Where to begin with my research into conductors and conducting?
I worked at Orchestra Hall for the Minnesota Orchestra at the time, so I talked with other staff there. They were generous with ideas, suggestions and sharing their knowledge and experience. I began by reading books on conducting — history, how to — followed by biographies of conductors. I took notes as I read books by Erich Leinsdorf, Peter Paul Fuchs (The Psychology of Conducting — excellent), Bernard Jacobson, Harold C. Schonberg, Helena Matheopoulos, Richard Wagner (really stuck on himself), and Max Rudolf, among others. I resisted the urge to request interviews with every conductor who worked with the Minnesota Orchestra during that time. I learned as much background as possible first.
Next, gradually I talked with people who worked with conductors, e.g. artistic administrators, publicists, assistants and musicians. Even drivers. I wanted to have as complete a picture in my mind of what a conductor’s life is like as I could create, what kind of education, interests, etc. Evan would be a freelance guest conductor in the story, so I focused on this aspect of a conductor’s life rather than music director. During this time, I interviewed only one conductor about European orchestras in comparison to American and how conductors work with each. I already knew Evan would come from an American orchestra and re-locate to Europe, and I knew little about how European orchestras worked, so the interview was essential and productive.
After the first year of research, I increased and intensified my observation of conductors at work. I attended orchestra rehearsals (I love rehearsals!) and concerts. I traveled to talk with musicians at other orchestras and observe more conductors. I stood on the podium myself after rehearsals to see what it felt like, and I learned the basic conducting gestures. I interviewed more conductors. Each interview was to address very specific questions that that conductor could answer due to his experience, both on the podium and in life. For example, one conductor had worked extensively with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, knew the concert hall and orchestra, knew Amsterdam (Evan would have concerts there). Another year and a half passed doing this work before I felt truly confident that I knew enough to write Evan authentically as a conductor.
Then I stopped. Research can form a solid foundation on which the imagination can build. Too much foundation, it shows above ground and the structure doesn’t work. I wrote about ten more drafts of Perceval before I realized that it was the first in a series of five novels. At that point, I returned to researching conductors and conducting. Evan needed to continue to grow professionally through the story. So, for the last year and a half, I’ve been filling in more blanks with research: how conductors build career, build repertoire, rehearse certain works, and respond to concert halls. I’ve finished most of this research. The door remains open on it. Questions pop up all the time.
Back to those questions in Part 1: Do conductors know who they are? As in being self-aware and self-confident, about the same as the rest of us, I’d say. Do conductors know what they want? In music, generally. But the best of them are always open to learning. Are conductors stubborn? Well, I’d have to say, yes. They have to be in terms of leadership and communicating what they want. The best of them also understand that they can’t always get what they want and therefore, they need to know when to let things go, compromise, negotiate.
As I’ve gotten to know conductors and their musical lives over time through interviews, I’ve learned that there’s no substitute for talking with them about their work, score study, building repertoire, programming concerts, rehearsing an orchestra, performance experience and blunders, travel and concert halls. For example, when I walk into a concert hall, my attention focuses on the space, the seats, the stage, the orchestra. When a conductor walks into a concert hall, he hears it more than sees it. He listens to the acoustics and how the orchestra sounds.
I love talking with conductors. Each one I’ve interviewed has been generous with his time and sharing his experience and knowledge. And I’m happy to report that I managed not to annoy any of them.