Saturday, September 20, 2008

Interview with Jim Olesen

Some of you may remember that not so long ago, I interviewed the King's Singers. Remember that? When I interviewed the King's Singers? And the King's Singers were interviewed by me?

Anyways, that led to realize that interviews are pretty interesting, so I decided to do some more of them. I will be interviewing a Boston-area conductor once a month, and posting the sound file and transcript of the interview here. The first person I interviewed was James Olesen, director of choral activities at Brandeis and also conductor of the Orpheus Singers. The Orpheus Singers have a concert coming up in one week exactly - they will be performing on Saturday, Sept. 27 at 8 pm at Lindsey Chapel, Emmanuel Church, Boston. The concert is called "Choral Polyphony: Guillaume Dufay to Elliott Carter." Jim talks about the program and the group in the interview.

I met Jim when I was singing in the Back Bay Chorale, which he was then directing. He will doubtless be somewhat embarrassed, but also hopefully pleased to know that working with him was one of the reasons I decided to pursue conducting myself. Up until then chorus rehearsals usually consisted of conductors saying things that I felt I already knew, and just needed to be reminded of; in his rehearsals I was constantly saying to myself, "I never would have thought of that on my own." His depth of knowledge suddenly brought the role of a conductor into sharper focus for me, and I suddenly realized it was a viable career path, and one that I wanted to consider.

So, without further adieu, here is the interview! If you prefer to listen to it, you can download the mp3 from this site. Also, I would expect you could figure out this sort of thing for yourself, but I am A, and he is J.

Interview on September 12, 2008, 2:00 pm, at the Cafe Algiers in Cambridge, MA

A: So the first question I have is: When did you first become interested in conducting, and was it a gradual process, or was there a sort of trigger instant? Or person, or --?
J: The first time I did conduct was in high school, because the music teacher there allowed me to, asked me to. Saw – anyway, invited me to. And I got to conduct a piece, a spiritual. I can't remember what it was right now. But anyway. Then in college I did form a small group that I conducted that was just a dorm group. Then I went after college to New York City. I only sang in professional choruses and a little bit of solo work. And I didn't conduct again, I think, until I came to Boston and got the job at the Commonwealth School in 1967. So, since then.
A: So when you got the Commonwealth School job, that was sort were like, “Oh, conducting, this is something I'd like to --”
J: Yes, well it didn't seem like it was a special thing, it just seemed like it was part of – you know, what people like you and me do. We sing and we play, and we conduct. It's just part of what a musical life is. It's true that it did become more and more the exclusive activity. So that there was – playing is only in service of learning music, and once in a while filling in at a rehearsal, and singing is very sparse, in public.
A: Yeah. Yeah.
J: But there's a lot – there's a lot of work to being a music director that makes it the full-time job that it is, and a lot of it is administrative. But the main thing seems to me score study. And that's very time-consuming. And it's right that it should be time-consuming. And so if you really – if you have – for me, even one group. But if you have more than one group for whose repertory you are responsible, there's a lot of time there. Just getting in command of the music. So it – that becomes – that job becomes everything.
[note: At this point, the waitress comes and sets down our drinks. My “mint hot chocolate” is enormous, with tons of whipped cream, and green drizzle. -alm]
A: Wow.
J: You're not going to tell me you didn't know that's what it looked like!
A: Well, I actually didn't know that's what it looked like, in fact.
J: [laughs] It looks pretty great! I'm going to remember that.
A: Yes, it does. [picks up recorder] I'm just going to make sure this is front...good. Um. So what was your musical background as a kid? Did you start out as a singer? Did you play an instrument?
J: I sang, you know, from kindergarten up. In every school I've been in. In college it was a little different, I wasn't singing in school. I went to the University of Chicago from 1956 to 1959, and got my BA there. And there--
A: In music, or--?
J: In music – well, it was called – this tells you something about what the school was like then – it was called “a bachelor of humanities with a specialization in music.” It's what people would have called a music major, but they – the department was all academic. It had a couple of composers, and it had three or four historians. And that was it. There wasn't – all music-making was done – the choirs in the chapel, the big huge Rockefeller Chapel choir. Or student groups. The department didn't believe in it, in a way, as part of the curriculum. So, I sang in the cathedral choir at the Episcopal cathedral in downtown, under Leo Sowerby. Who was – whose music – he was a composer and a fabulous organist, and his music was performed by American symphony orchestras. You can find, for instance, some of his music on CD now, there's an oratorio he wrote called “Forsaken of Man.” It's a passion-oratorio. And there are recordings of some of his symphonic works and keyboard works.
A: The name sounds really familiar; did he write any books?
J: Not that I know of, but that doesn't mean he didn't.
A: So I might know of him through the composition.
J: I think so. He was a great musician. And it was only because I had done a substitute singing job in Detroit, where I grew up, just as I was about to graduate and go to Chicago for school, for the university, that – that fellow had been an associate of Sowerby's, and he gave me a recommendation. So when I got to Chicago, I had that entrée into that job. I had an entrée into an audition for that job. So, singing since, you know, kindergarten at least. And piano I did as a kid. And through a good deal of high school. My brother took piano lessons, and he's five years older than I, and it just seemed like a good thing. And my mother played. And so I wanted to take lessons. And did for lots of years. So, yes. A little bit of violin [laughs] in grade school. But when I found out that vibrato went forward and back and not side to side [laughs] which I could do, I thought – oh, and then the shifting, I thought, “Well, that's totally unreasonable.” [laughs] So I dropped the violin in grade school.
A: So no James Levine [mimes a dramatic string vibrato] --
J: No, I don't have that, I can't do it.
A: So where did you go to – what was the – after Chicago, where you did – did you study conducting at Chicago, or --?
J: No, there was no such animal at school, and I didn't know enough about myself to know that's where I was going. I went directly from Chicago to New York City, where I thought I could pursue a professional singing career. And took lessons with several teachers, and I'm sure it did some good, but not towards building a voice for a career. But I did a lot of professional choral singing. I could read well, and I made a reasonable sound, and so I got hired --
A: Kind of all you need!
J: I got hired – well, there was one contractor in New York City --
A: Were you a tenor, baritone?
J: I was singing tenor at the time.
A: Ah.
J: In a very rudimentary way, using falsetto a great deal. But there was only one contractor for all professional choruses in New York City at that time.
A: Wow.
J: Yeah, he was a guy who had come up through The Collegiate Chorale with Robert Shaw. Somehow he was involved in the organization of The Collegiate Chorale, and he was an associate of Shaw's, and he put together all of Shaw's touring choruses. And he – he was kind of – so I got on the good side of him, and was doing all the professional chorus work there was to do, which was of course not a living, but was a hell of a good time. Most of the time. There were some extraordinarily significant performances that I – that are still really inside me. There were a lot of run-of-the-mill things as well. And there were some conductors who were extraordinary, each in different ways. But there are two pieces and performances that really stick out in those times. And one was, I got a chance to do about forty performances, as a chorister, of Les Noces. [note: This is by Stravinsky. -alm]
A: Mm. Forty?
J: Because the American Ballet Theater had commissioned Jerome Robbins to do a new choreography, and they needed a chorus, and they went to, of course, that single contractor. And so I was in that chorus, and we did two seasons in New York, and we went on tour, as far as Philadelphia, and Chicago, one, for a couple of performances over the course of two years. The first year we did it in English, the second year we did it in Russian. And the first performance was in the New York State Theater, what was then called the New York State Theater, with Bernstein conducting. And the rest of the performances were with the ballet, the American Ballet Theater's conductor Kenneth Schermerhorn, who was very good. But there wasn't anyone quite like Leonard Bernstein. And I can remember an extraordinary lesson – you know, with all the asymmetrical bars in Les Noces, the fives and the sevens. We had learned the piece well, and we were excited about it. Big chorus. We lined up the whole back of the stage of the New York State Theater, because we followed the instructions in the score of being on stage. With the four pianos and the six percussionists. But in all these asymmetrical bars our excitement became so great that we clipped the final eighth note. And Bernstein would not have it, he would not stand for it. And he made us hold, he made us hold those – not hold them, but he made us observe fully that final eighth note. And the galvanizing power that resulted from doing that was unforgettable. And we couldn't keep doing it – as soon as we got back with Mr. Schermerhorn, it went. But – there are just two things. His doggedness – he just would not give in. And the result of his not giving in, the musical result of his not giving in, was so memorable. And then – is it all right to just talk about these experiences?
A: Oh, yeah! Absolutely.
J: And then a conductor who has grown on me in memory, who was a polar opposite of Bernstein. I mean, Bernstein, I don't need to tell anybody, with all his brilliance, was a talent that was over-brimming. There was a man named Frederick Waldman, who was I think an immigrant, although I'm not sure, but he taught at one of the conservatories, either Manhattan or Mannes, taught conducting. And he had a series at the Metropolitan Museum of Art called Musica Eterna. And I learned some repertory just from being in the choruses there that I'm not sure I ever would have run into. Some Charpentier, the Brahms Opus 17, which I'm sure you must – you know, the four songs for women, harp, and horns?
A: Yeah, oh yeah.
J: He did those. And he did two performances of Israel in Egypt. And I'm not – that was just stunning. But the way he was polar opposite of Bernstein, he was completely undemonstrative. But with a very clean beat. It was immaculate. And he had good ears. And he would make very spare comments in a very low voice. But the musical experience was – oh, Schubert E-flat Mass. I cannot forget the experience of singing the Schubert E-flat Mass with him. It was one of my happiest singing experiences. You know, in the Agnus Dei --
A: I don't know the work very well at all, actually.
J: But in the Agnus Dei, it's unusual in that most classical preceding Agnus Dei's have – when they reach the Dona Nobis Pacem, there's a change in character, and the music becomes sunnier, from the heavy – whatever heaviness the Agnus Dei had. Minor to major, or whatever. Well, this does that. But then it goes back to the c-minor Agnus Dei tortured music after the Dona Nobis Pacem, before it resumes it again. And when that tortured music comes's like being hit on the head with a bat. So – he didn't say anything about it. We just did it, you know, we just sang it, and it was there, and it was – the impact of the music...the impact of the music was everything under Frederick Waldman. The impact of the music was stunning under Bernstein, there's no question, this is not a criticism. But one could not help but be within the aura of his spell, because – the word that was used about him so often was charisma, and it was apt. So those...I had a very good church choir experience with Thomas Dunn. He used to be the Handel & Haydn Society conductor?
A: OK. I thought that sounded familiar.
J: And he was a scholar, and he was a very good musician, very, very good musician, so that was a nice thing to do. All of this stuff was underpaid, but it was – the only downside of being a professional chorister in New York at that time was that in the chorus, there was a sense – there was a back-biting sense of – I think we all wanted to be somewhere else. I mean, higher up in the profession, is what I mean. That's my guess.
A: Doing solo work?
J: Yeah. And, you know, just the frustration of not getting beyond the chorus. And the low pay. Although we were unionized, it was nothing, our scale was nothing like the instrumentalists' scale. But anyway, that was the only downside, and I was glad when I moved to Boston after seven years there. I was glad to leave that behind.
A: Why did you move to Boston?
J: I was singing Schubert lieder with Patricia Zander, who just died. She was at the Conservatory [note: NEC -alm] for several years, and she and Ben Zander, the conductor of – I can't remember. Boston Philharmonic?
A: Oh, OK.
J: --were newly married at the time, and they had newly come to this country, and they were studying in a chamber music class by a very eminent pianist named Leonard Shure, who had been a student of Schnabel, and had had a career, but mainly he was teaching at this time. In their private studio, and he had a class, once a week, of chamber music. I can't remember exactly how I met Ben and Patricia, but we sang a bit, Patricia and I, Patricia playing, and so I joined that class. So there was about half an hour each class we'd do lieder, and get, you know, severe criticism. Shure was not a punch-puller. [laughs] And he was a difficult teacher, but he was a great teacher of music. And so Ben got a position at the New England Conservatory teaching cello. Ben is a very accomplished cellist. And Patricia, of course, they came, so all I had in New York at the time was this professional chorus work, and I was substitute teaching at a public school, which was hair-raising.
A: [laughs]
J: And so there was nothing really to hold me.
A: Good practice for managing a chorus, I assume.
J: How so?
A: Well, in terms of if you can keep a classroom of high school students together, then, you know --
J: Oh, that. Right. That's a big if.
A: -- no chorus is really going to look that scary, right?
J: This was grade school, and it was just filling in for whatever grade was...anyway. It might have been such training. So anyway. So I moved just to be able to continue doing lieder with Patricia. And I got substitute teaching here, and I got a job at the Commonwealth School which was part-time, and I got another job at the Buckingham School, teaching music, also part-time. And I formed a quartet called the Orpheus Singers at that time, which did – its principle activity was doing young audiences concerts in schools. We'd go out two or three times a week, do two, sometimes three concerts in the morning. That was that. So it was not a great – it was not a move to better myself career-wise, but it was a musical reason.
A: And then did you get a master's somewhere?
J: I didn't have a master's.
A: You went straight to a doctorate program?
J: I went straight to a doctoral program, and they allowed me, when I did, to have the experience that I had substitute for the master's.
A: Oh, wow.
J: Well, I went to school for the graduate program when I was 46. So I'd already been teaching at Brandeis several years.
A: Oh, I didn't realize that.
J: Yeah. And I was able to get a two-year leave from Brandeis in order to do a two-year residency at University of Michigan.
A: Oh, wow, that's interesting.
J: Before I got the job at Brandeis, I did recognize the need to do some conducting study, and at that time, Gustav Meier was at Yale, with the symphony orchestra, and running a conducting program I think there. So I took some private lessons, just by going down, and you know, having an hour with him. And he's the first one that introduced me to recitative conducting. Which was...bewildering to me at first. So then, when it came time to do a graduate – when I thought it was a good idea to do a graduate program, I thought of him. And he was at the University of Michigan then. And just by happenstance, the choral person there at the time is named Tom Hilbish. And I had known – I worked under Tom as a chorister when he was living in Princeton and doing the Princeton High School. And he was putting together – let's see if I can get the details of this straight. He was putting together a chorus, an ad-hoc chorus, to do a piece by Salvatore Martirano, who used to be a faculty member at Illinois, but is now deceased, called “O O O O, That Shakespeherian Rag.” I think that's taken from Eliot. But it's four movements of Shakespeare texts with chamber ensemble, instrumental ensemble, and chorus. I had run into Martirano the previous year at Tanglewood where I had been in the chorus, the section-leader in the chorus, because Martirano came to visit. And he showed this piece around, and when I heard that it was being done, I called and asked to be invited into it. And invited myself into it. So for once a week for months I took the bus down to Princeton, NJ, and did this rehearsal, and we did a performance at Town Hall. So that's how I got to know Tom Hilbish, who was also at Michigan when I went to my graduate program. So I think having known them helped me be admitted. And with the whole master's thing.
A: Right. What did you think of the program at Michigan? And if you know anything about it now, what do you think of it now?
J: I thought I'd definitely gone to heaven when I got there. I went when I was 44 – 46. There is a big difference, I think, between going to a graduate program at 46 and at 22. I'd already had a job. I didn't have to worry about a job. And school really meant school. It was just learning. There were so many opportunities put in my way of conducting beyond the classroom. But the classroom under – with Meier. I had no idea conducting could be that. What he – what he could do, and what he knew, and what he could show...was beyond anything I could have imagined. If you watched him, you could almost miss it, it was so sophisticated. He was always with someone in the orchestra. He was always there doing something, including knowing when to stay right out of the way. There was a time I had – I got to conduct for a year the Michigan Youth Symphony Orchestra, which was a big high school orchestra that the University of Michigan formed each year. It was 80-90 kids playing, and they could really play. And we were doing the Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet Overture Fantasy. You know, just a stunning piece. And there's a place where the trumpets – where the brass, the trumpets and I'm not sure who else at this point – had to do this very tricky rhythm. Off-beat with an upbeat. And Meier had instructed us in class, because we had had this piece in class, not to conduct that. Just stay out of their way, they'll do it. And I mean, that very idea, that they're going to take care of themselves and anything you can try to do will only interfere, was a brand new idea to me. I thought you had to do everything. And there was one rehearsal to which he came. And it was not easy for him to do this, he was very busy. He came, and that place had been fine before. And when he was there, of course it fell apart.
A: [laughs]
J: And I said, “Why did that happen?” I said to him afterwards, “Why did that happen, I wasn't conducting them.” He said, “You were facing them.” And that was enough. Facing them made them look, make them get completely off. What I needed to do was face a different way. And just show them they were on their own.
A: Having faith.
J: I think – it did feel like that, but I think his point was, it wasn't – players were so good. And brass players were so used to doing this sort of thing, that they were going to do it best by themselves. They were going to stay in time. They were going to be accurate. They didn't need any help. And any help was interference, it was like a friend trying to help somebody up who doesn't need it. And if you try it, you might make them fall over. So it was more than faith, it was an aspect of technique.
A: Huh. That's so interesting.
J: It is! [laughs] And then we who work in schools, I mean, you know, sometimes you feel like pliers won't do, you know?
A: Right, yeah, no, I know.
J: Like crowbars. And so at this level...there had been a lot of talk in the paper about James Levine last year, not so much this year – well, at some point in his tenure with the BSO, about minimal, and people complaining, and blah-di-blah, and all this. I think he knows what he's doing. He knows how good that orchestra is.
A: I've heard that instrumentalists like James Levine a lot as a conductor.
J: You hear all sorts of things. Well, I sure do. And one of reasons I like him, besides his musicality and his expertise, is because he's allowed us to hear a lot of 20th-century music that had been forbidden. Schönberg. Elliott Carter. He even had the brass to play, and I mean this --
A: Both ways?
J: Psychologically, not – the chutzpah, the courage to play a Milton Babbitt piece. And that – I think that took courage. He allowed us to hear it and say, “Oh, that's what it sounded like.” He didn't say, “They're not going to like this.” Or, “It's dangerous to program this,” or “The box office will suffer.” He didn't say any of that stuff. He played it. This, I think, is admirable.
A: Yeah. I want to give you time to talk about the Orpheus Singers, so – the second, or whatever incarnation they are.
J: It is the second, and it's a chamber--
A: I mean, I have an idea of how they started, but you can...
J: Well, I'd be glad to talk about that too, I mean, not happy, but --
A: I mean, not in explicit detail, but you started them because you wanted a...
J: I started it because I had found in my previous in-town attempts at taking over a chorus that already had an established life that it did not go well. It happened twice to me. I resigned twice from standing groups that had hired me. And, you know, the common denominator here, it's not the groups – well, there may be something there – but it's me, of course. And so finally I figured out this is not the way I should be doing it. If I'm going to do it, this is not the way, it's clear, for whatever reasons, and there are plenty. So I – actually, it was with the encouragement of one member of the Back Bay Chorale who left around the same time I did, that I started up this group. And I started up with a core of people – we started it up with a core of people who also had become – who, through the difficulties with the Back Bay when I was there – I decided to leave the group, and so they're the core of the group now. But I decided to do two things differently than I had been doing them. And one was to hire professionals to augment and lead. And in that way, I knew that I could do repertory, at least I thought, and it's so far true – I could do repertory that had gotten – that had been part of the reason that I had had trouble in past groups. Repertory choices were part of the problem. But I knew I could do, with professional leading I could do some of that repertory. And also vocal leading. Because they set a standard which other people could come up to. Although I must say that the core amateurs are quite skilled. They are very skilled, and it's great to have them. So, the other thing I did differently was I decided not to have a once-a-week rehearsal through the year, but in the three weeks prior to concert week, including concert week, we rehearsed twice a week, and maybe did the Sunday before. We rehearse twice a week and do it, and then we go fallow until spring. We do two concerts a year. And people allot – can do that intense experience, although it's difficult for them. But then they take the time off, and they like it. And it's good for me as well. Another thing that I found difficult – I spoke earlier about score study and repertory and it being time-consuming. I found it difficult with a once-a-week through the year, just the constant pressure of repertory preparation. I found it difficult, and it put me on edge. So.
A: Yeah. I can understand that.
J: So the Orpheus Singers has been all a cappella. This coming concert there actually will be four pieces with the keyboard, and the rest a cappella. And we've just – we're just starting an audience-building effort which could, we'll see, lead to a money-raising effort. And if we can raise sufficient money to hire instrumentalists, we'll widen the repertory. But the repertory, as you know, is so vast that there's no problem with living for years on a cappella repertory.
A: Yeah. What's the repertory of the coming concert, and why did you choose whatever it is?
J: The choices are – have been on a piece of paper in a loose-leaf of mine for – since graduate school.
A: Wow.
J: And it's kind of walking through the ages. There are two Lassus, one Dufay, and one Josquin. There are two Purcell, and one Monteverdi. One Mendelssohn, and one Brahms. Two Carter, and one Copland. previous years – our previous concert we did music of Irving Fine and Brandeis-associated composers Marjorie Merryman and Donald Martino.
A: We sang music of theirs when we were in Back Bay Chorale.
J: Yes, we did “The Garland,” and we did that last year as well, along with a piece called “Evening” which she has composed since.
A: I love the Martino, I remember that.
J: We did that piece again. That's in a set called “Seven Pious Pieces”. And when Donald was living, he was a Brandeis composer for a short time, between New England – he had a position at New England for a long time, and he was at Brandeis for a short time, and then he went into Harvard. But when I was talking to him, and I was asking advice about which of the “Seven Pious Pieces,” I knew we could not do all. And he said, “Well, the beautiful one.” [laughs]
A: [laughs] Of course.
J: Which also implies that the others aren't of that quality of beauty, and they're not, they're different, they're thornier. This has – this has the thorny places where it modulates from Db to D, from D to Eb, and then from Eb down to Db, it's – you just – the gears are really grinding. But quite elegantly so. Anyway. The concert before that we did an Italian concert of Marenzio, Monteverdi, Italian pieces of Arcadelt, and Verlot [sp?], and Dallapiccola, and Pizzetti. And before that we did a Brahms-associated concert, we did folk song settings of Brahms, folk-art lieder of Brahms, a Brahms motet, and Senfl, and Schoenberg folk-song settings, and a few other – and Federici, a composer I know almost nothing about. Before that we did all English, which was American and English, madrigals and contemporary. And before that was our debut concert, when the main piece was the Palestrina Missa Brevis. Which was an eye-opener for me. I found, I think, what probably lots of people have known for years, for a long time, which is that there's an architectonic shape to that piece, that the – which is an academic word. It just means that all the movements fit together in a way to make a greater whole. That there's a kind of a -- almost a narrative building to the end of the Credo, and then a scaling down from the Sanctus to the last Agnus Dei that's just – it's just stunning. Very moving. And it had to have been written in a time when belief was strong. Religious belief.
A: I think it's strong now, it's just fractured more than it might have – well, I don't know, it's been fractured throughout history. I'm going to keep an eye on the clock so I'm sure I don't make you late.
J: Oh, thanks.
A: So what – speaking of repertoire, is there anything that you would love to conduct, and haven't yet, that you still have your eye on? I mean, there must be numerous things, but is there anything that really kind of is currently obsessing you?
J: I'd like to do a lot more Renaissance. I'd like to do the a cappella German 19th-century repertory, the 8-part choruses of Schumann that are really wonderful. I'd like to do atonal music, which is quite wonderful. Much, much, much of it is quite wonderful. It's the sort of thing – my impression is that there are a few people in the United States doing it, that it's done in Germany and other European countries, and in England quite a bit. Very skilled professional choruses in Europe. They do Harrison Birtwhistle no problem. I don't know how much rehearsal they put in, but when they're done, they've got it. Frieder Bernius has done this stuff. I think that's the right name, Frieder Bernius.
A: I don't know.
J: Stuttgart. I think. I think – this may be inaccurate, but my impression is that in the 80's, the United States choral conducting world decided that they weren't going to do atonal music. And for a long time, you saw Benjamin Britten's music representing the 20th century on a lot of programs. Not that there's anything wrong with that, it's just that that was it. And I think – this is a sidebar. It's very funny to me that when – now that Britten is done much more in proportion to other music, now David Hoos and the Cantata Singers are going to do a year of Britten.
A: Oh, really?
J: Yes – there's something -- David --
A: Do you think he waited?
J: Something like that. David is the most penetrating musician I know. His gifts and aptitute are beyond anything that I have ever seen before. And there is a wonderful contrarian streak. He would never have done that while everybody else was doing it! But now that – [laughs] It's great. So. So, I think again the United States choral world decided that atonal music was – we just weren't going to do it. I think there are exceptions, for sure.
A: Do you think that...I've gotten the sense that in academia, the composers had a very, sort of...sort of walled-off attitude of – first of all, you ought to be doing – you hear a lot of people saying, “I went to composition school and they forced me to do atonal music [note: In retrospect, I meant serial, not atonal – very bad mistake for me to make! sorry! -alm] and if I wanted to do other things they wouldn't let me,” and second of all, you hear repeated that people thought they had this attitude that, like, well, I'm going to do what I want, if you don't like it, I don't care, and, you know, if you don't appreciate my music then --
J: Right, there's that --
A: – clearly, then, you don't know what you're talking about. So do you think that attitude existed, and do you think it affected how – because choruses are so often made up of non-professional musicians, or less professional – it's just the way it works out, you just have to have less training to sing. So, do you think that those interacted in any way, that the attitude of the composers affected how much their music was performed?
J: I guess the – I'm going to come back to that. And I will. But I wanted to – as a result of our, in effect, dismissing atonal music, we did not train ourselves. Nor did we train our students to have the ability to do it. It's just skill-building. It's not a secret. It's just skill-building. There's more to hear, different intervals to learn, but it's not arcane. Now back to your question. First of all, anything I would say about general attitudes in the country has to be limited. I've worked at Brandeis for 37 years, I'm in my 37th year. So – and we're in the northeast. Where schools, you know, are a big part of what we – how we live. There was a time, after World War I, [note: as he says below, he meant WWII. -alm] when Perspectives of New Music out of Princeton and Columbia became a leading journal in new music, when there was an attitude, I think this is accurate, that if you didn't write serial music, you weren't to be taken seriously. And a lot of people were hurt by that. Very talented people.
A: And that was after World War I.
J: Two.
A: Two. After World War II.
J: Now, Two was – the influence of Webern as extended by Boulez and Messaien. So I think that – the people that I know that have been burned by that are composers. There wasn't a monolith, although it may have appeared so, of attitude. At the same time, these same composers who were hurt by that attitude “if it's not serial, it's not good” -- wrote dissonant music. It just wasn't following those procedures in writing. They were doing something much more guided by ear, training, talent. And collection -- they were using pitches as collections out of which they would build harmony and motive. It was similar, in a way, to serial techniques, in the limited way that I understand them, but not the same. So. And then of course this statement that Schönberg wrote that he, in founding his new system, he had established German hegemony for the next hundred years, was really – people took that up in a very angry way. They really used that – it was an unfortunate thing to say -- especially given the wars --
A: Oh yes, of course.
J: -- that followed in the second – in the 20th century. But then people use it, I think, in a way that maybe was beyond its value. They use it as a way to dismiss atonal music. There are all kinds of people writing atonal music, as there were all kinds of people writing tonal music. Charles Rosen had a wonderful article years ago about Dicherdorf's [sp?] music is filled with variety. And yet, it's not interesting. Mozart's music is much more concentrated in material, and yet is abundantly interesting. Dicherdorf would change every eight bars, or every sixteen or every 32 or whatever to something new, but it just didn't cohere. So, the way I look at the problem that you're pointing to, and your question wonders if those arrogant attitudes, dismissive and excluding attitudes, made it difficult for people to sing the music. My take on it is, and I'm sure it's limited, is that – we didn't put ourselves through the training. And so we didn't train our students. We didn't train ourselves to do it, and that was the end of that.
A: You mean yourselves as singers or as conductors?
J: Well, both.
A: OK.
J: But conductors. We conductors didn't train ourselves. We would have had to have done it on our own. And I was – I haven't done that much, but I've done enough to know that it's worthwhile. And I just had to do it by sheer repetition. Working with the music.
A: That leads me to another question, which is what – it's kind of, I guess, a two-parter. The first question would be: What skills do you most recommend young conductors to try to acquire, and connected to it is: What skills do you most often see lacking in conductors as a group that particularly frustrates you?
J: Well, I think I'm getting over frustration, having turned the age I currently am. But I'm sure that any answer that I would give to those questions, Allegra, are the same ones you would – most conductors would give. One of the difficulties with a school job, with amateur and partly untrained personnel, membership in the groups, is that they're actually not conductable yet. And if one tries, one does serious damage to one's conducting. It becomes heavy and forceful and unreadable. So a clear beat, a clear pattern, just no trouble distinguishing the patterns. And then making those patterns as expressive and filled with variety as possible, all the standard things, staccato, tenuto, the ability to do fermatas, standard stuff, accelerandos, ritardandos...And then the ability to somehow do all that and listen at the same time. That's serious multi-tasking.
A: You make it sound so easy. [laughs]
J: Oh, no, I don't think it --
A: Not easy, but you make it sound simple.
J: I think the idea's simple, getting there --
A: Yes. Yes.
J: -- isn't so simple. I don't think most conductors practice conducting. First of all, it's very easy to fall into “there's no time.” Very easy. Because in school jobs...well, the amount of administration has grown over the years. The day that the computer appeared on my desk, given to me by the university, was the day that the administration that I had to do for my ensembles went “boom.” Before I could hand a scrawled program over to somebody, and say – and they would put it into beautiful formatted shape. Now I'm supposed to do it. That's just a simple example. OK. So. Practicing, I think, is a good thing. The ability to beat six – how many of us can beat six? In the German way and the Italian way? I didn't know about the Italian way until, again, our colleague --
A: What is the Italian way?
J: Our colleague David Hoos talked about a student showing up at his seminar, and being able to do it, because he'd worked out of the Max Rudolf conducting book. Max Rudolf used to be the conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony, professional orchestra. Well, the German way is 1-2-3-4-5-6. [note: here he goes down, left, left, right, right, up – this is the most familiar way of beating 6. -alm]
A: Right. That's what I was familiar with.
J: Well, the Italian way is 1-2-3-4-5-6 [note: here he beats down, left, right, left, right, up. -alm]
A: Really!
J: It's very legato. And David reported – our colleague David Hoos reported that in seminar it turned out that those two different patterns get very different sounds and results.
A: Oh, I believe it. Yes. Yes. [pause] Ah, let's see. I have to let you go soon. So, I don't know if you have ever seen the TV show “Inside the Actor's Studio”?
J: No.
A: It's on the Bravo channel. Well, they just interview an actor for an hour each week, and the interviewer, at the end of every interview, asks a series of ten questions, which tend to get very either amusing or interesting results. So, I've added two questions to this list. So I'm going to ask you twelve questions. And I know you will be able to know which questions I added. So, number one – and they're all, like, one-word answers. What is your favorite word?
J: Espressivo.
A: What's your least favorite word?
J: Watch.
A: What turns you on creatively, spiritually, or emotionally?
J: Music, literature, and religion.
A: What turns you off in those ways?
J: Academia.
A: [laughs] What is your favorite curse word?
J: [laughs]
A: There's no children around, I can see.
J: Damn.
A: What sound or noise that is non-musical do you love? By non-musical, I mean, you know --
J: Outside the concert hall or rehearsal hall.
A: Yes, right, exactly.
J: Oh, birds and children.
A: What sound or noise do you hate?
J: Sharp loud noises that I cannot see are about to happen.
A: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
J: Writer.
A: What profession would you not like to do?
J: Administrator.
A: Who is the most under-rated composer?
J: [pause] That's a hard one. [pause] Allegra, I'm drawing a blank.
A: I'm glad that they're – that's a good thing, it means the world is – better than I thought.
J: I guess I would give an answer that says the atonal 20th-century composers, with the exception of Berg operas, are, as a class, under-rated.
A: Who is the most over-rated composer? [pause] You're allowed to go outside the realm of classical music if you want.
J: I'm going to -- Oh, really?
A: If you want. But it's more interesting if it's a classical answer.
J: Then it's a different subject, almost. I guess I would say that I have not yet built up any fondness for the – what are they called? What's Philip Glass's music called?
A: Oh, the minimalists.
J: Yes, I have not yet built up an appreciation for them. I like counterpoint too much.
A: And if Heaven exists, what do you want to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
J: [laughs] I expect him to say, “Do you know Robert Shaw?”
A: And do you expect him to say, “He's just back there” or “You're at the wrong place”?
J: You know that joke, don't you?
A: No.
J: A chorister goes to Heaven, and meets St. Peter at the gate, and he notices over there a guy in a camel-hair trenchcoat conducting a choir, and the chorister says, looking over there, “Oh, my word. It's Robert Shaw.” And St. Peter says, “No, no, no, it's God, he just thinks he's Robert Shaw.”
A: [laughs] That's good.
J: [laughs]

[end of recording]


  1. The Italian songs are very unique and have some peculiar features which cannot be sung by everyone. I found some interesting info on Italian songs on

  2. @ Joy:
    Thank you for the link!