Here's the transcription of the fifth part of my interview with Amelia LeClair. You can find the first part here, the second part here, the third part is here, and the fourth part is here, and there is more to come. Don't forget that Cappella Clausura, the group she directs, is performing this weekend! They will be at Grace Church in Salem this Sunday, May 10, at 7:30 pm. (They also performed this past weekend - hopefully some of you made it to those concerts!)
Interview with Amelia LeClair at the Cafe Algiers, Cambridge, MA, on 4/22/09, cont.
Q: So talk to me about some of your ideas about conducting. What’s your philosophy of conducting? Imagine other conductors, and the ways you agree or disagree with them.
A: I guess the…huh.
Q: What do you think are the most important skills to have as a conductor? What do you feel it is that you’re doing?
A: I think the most important skill is to be able to communicate what it is that you are looking for. And I would say that communication comes both from your gesture and from your words. If you’re not a very good spokesperson for music, if you can’t say it, then you should be able to show it, and if you can’t show it, then you should be able to say it. And I think there are an awful lot of conductors who do one or the other. There are very few who do both. I don’t know if I can do both.
Q: Which one do you think you are?
A: I think I show better than I say. I think I do. Because I think that when I started conducting, I felt like --
Q: That’s interesting, because I would say you’re a good sayer, but…yes.
A: Really? Oh, well thank you.
Q: Yes. I mean, your gesture is also very easy to follow, but I would have said that you are very verbal.
A: Oh. Huh. Well, that’s good. I always feel that I’m tripping over myself. [laughs] But I think the reason I say that is because when I started conducting, I felt like I’d found my voice in my hands. It really felt like, this is so natural to me.
A: Yes. Yes. Do you feel that way?
Q: [laughs] No.
A: No? Really?
Q: No. Oh, I’m very – I’m definitely a verbal – “This is what I want. Here we go.” You know.
A: But when you do that…
Q: No, it’s not – I have to work at it. I have to sit there and figure out in a bar, like, how am I going to do this fermata, you know, what this hand has to – and if the hands are going different directions, then I have to practice that.
A: I have to practice that too. Yes. I do too. But there’s something about – you know what taught me the most, and this is what I think everyone should do, this is something that I thought was really genius of Simon. This is the one teaching thing, teaching tool that he had that I thought was fabulous. Do recit. Do recit. Because if you can conduct recit., whether it’s accompanied or dry, if you can conduct that, you can conduct anything. Because there’s so many movements in one measure. Or maybe there isn’t a movement in one measure and you’ve got to stop yourself. And you can’t sing along with the singer, you just have to hold, because you’re just telling the instruments to hold, but then maybe you’ve got a violin who needs to move, you know, and then you’ve got other people holding, so you got to have the left-right agility. And then, you know, you’re going to have some movement for everybody. And then the singer’s going to move. And you’re going to stretch, and contract, and all that kind of stuff. And fermata. You know. It’s all – it teaches you so, so much. And when I first conducted a recit., it was actually one of our exams, I think, a year-end exame where we had to conduct a recit. And I worked and worked and worked and worked at it. And I felt like – at the same time as I knew that I was working really hard to get this right, I also felt like, “This is fabulous. This is great. This is where I belong, you know, doing this.” So it was a nice experience for me, really nice. And as a result of that, I felt like – and this is what I think you need to feel if you really want to bring voices out, or instruments, I guess it works – I don’t know. One of the things I loved about conducting was feeling like the voices were coming out of my hands. You know. All that sound is coming out of my hands. That’s very powerful. Because at the same time, you’re also communicating with your singers on a level that you never communicate with human beings. It’s a real spiritual thing, going on, you know. It’s fabulous. Very exciting.
Q: What in other conductors – you can name conductors who do things you like, or you can not name conductors, but talk about what it is that you don’t like.
A: There are a lot of conductors I’ve sung for whose beat you can’t find. That drives me crazy. [laughs] I mean, I don’t think I have that as an issue, nobody’s told me that’s my issue, I hope it’s not. But if I can’t find the beat, then I just –
Q: Mai-Lan totally would tell you. Hendrik? Come on. If you have issues, you know they’re going to tell you! [ed. note: Mai-Lan Broekman and Hendrik Broekman frequently play viola da gamba and continuo, respectively, with Cappella Clausura and other early music groups in the greater Boston area.]
A: I know, that’s true! [laughs] They have told me.
Q: So clearly that’s not one of your issues!
A: Yes, right. Yes. I think you have to be very clear with your beat, even if you just do a tactus. If you have no gesture whatsoever, if you just do a clear tactus, then – and you may have to strip back down to just a tactus if you’re all flowery. I’ve worked with a couple people who just did these circles. Circles and circles. What the hell does that mean? [laughs] What am I supposed to do with that? Then there are other conductors who never tell you what the meaning is of what you’re singing. You never get a translation, and they don’t talk about – you know, what’s the meaning of the text? And I think the meaning of the text is number one. Absolutely number one. Way before notes, way before rhythm, the thing that makes us different from orchestral conductors is that we have words. And we’ve got to express those words, and tell a story. It’s really important. And I confess, sometimes I get caught up with – depending on which group, when you have an amateur group and they just are not learning the notes, you get caught up in singing, you know – just working on getting the notes, working on getting the notes, and by the time you think about text, it’s almost too late. But that’s an amateur group, you know, and I guess you’ve got to [inaudible] with amateurs not knowing the notes until the concert. Ideally, ideally, I think it’s important to talk about text. I sang for ten years with a group whose conductor never once mentioned the text. And I wanted to raise my hand and say, “What is this word? What does this mean? We don’t have a translation. What am I saying? What am I singing about? Should I feel sad? Should I feel happy? I can’t follow your beat either.”
Q: He didn’t give you a translation?
Q: How weird.
A: It is weird. He never talked about it. Never talked about it. And even with English, if you know what the words are, it’s helpful to have a conductor guide you and tell you what this means. Maybe do a little research about the poetry, or something. Something. Even if it’s just telling you the circumstance under which the composer set this particular poem. Something. For example, last night it occurred to me as we were trying to get a handle on this little Margaret of Austria piece that we’re going to be doing, which is this lament written by a royal person – it’s a very private piece of music – and as I was thinking about how to explain the atmosphere you want to put yourself in to sing this music, it occurred to me that – I don’t know if you’ve ever seen these little – in French castles – have you ever been to a French castle? An old French castle?
Q: Probably, but not in memory.
A: In a lot of them, or the ones I’ve been in, they have these little kind of votive areas. It’s a little part of the room that has a hat. It’s like a little round ceiling with a fringe on it or something, and something drawn in that ceiling. It’s like a tiny little chapel ceiling. A dome. And there might be a candle that you’re supposed to put under that. That’s where you do your praying, or that’s where you do whatever, something very private. And it occurred to me that this would be where she might have been praying, at this particular spot, you know, lamenting, weeping, whatever she’s doing, under this little dome. This little dome in her private royal room. So it makes it a very intimate piece. It makes it a very private piece. So that kind of thing, if you can conjur for your singers where they want to put themselves, where they want to be when they sing this piece of music, I think that you help them sing it better. Because then they bring their spirit to it. They’re not just [inaudible] notes, they bring their spirit to it. There was a conductor I sang with – I sang the Brahms Requiem and I will always remember this story, because I thought it was so perfect. She was conducting – which part of it? Oh, I can’t remember which part of it. But it was – it was a section that, as she pointed out, she was saying – and there were two hundred of us – she was saying, “OK. All of you need to think of this piece as basically a piece where you’re holding yourself. And you’re, you know, kind of doing this [hugs self] and you’re rocking yourself.”
Q: Probably the middle movement.
A: I think so. I’m sure it’s in the middle somewhere. But you’re rocking yourself, you’re sort of cradling yourself, you’re trying to soothe yourself because it’s so sad. And you are so sad. And that whole image, I think, changed the way all of us sang it. All of a sudden it was about us, it was about us who are left behind, which is what’s so wonderful about the Brahms Requiem. I hope I can conduct that once before I die. That would be nice.
Q: Simon Carrington would tell you that you just do it.
A: He would. [laughs] “You just do, don’t you?” OK. But that was a neat experience, and it taught me a lot about what you should be as a director. You’re directing. You’re not just teaching notes, you’re directing people in a way to sing a piece of music, in a way to make it come alive, in a way to make it meaningful. Not just for you, but for your audience. Otherwise your audience is going to “ZZZ.” Snores-ville.
[to be continued!]