Passing the baton requires peculiar process - The Buffalo News

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Passing the baton requires peculiar process

A peculiar drama is unfolding at Kleinhans Music Hall, where the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra is auditioning aspiring associate conductors.

On the one hand, the job could be seen as a stepping stone. Matthew Kraemer, who is leaving at the end of June, was appointed in 2009 to succeed Robert Franz, who is now music director of the Boise Philharmonic. Franz’s predecessor here in Buffalo was Ron Spigelman, now music director of the Lake Placid Sinfonietta.

At the same time, the position is very visible. Kraemer has shared the stage with celebrities including Wynonna Judd, the Four Tops and Chris Botti.

The associate conductor presides over classics concerts when JoAnn Falletta, the BPO’s music director, is out of town.

He or she also conducts children’s concerts. And until a pops conductor is appointed, pops concerts are also the associate conductor’s domain.

The BPO received 250 applications for the associate conductor job, said Dan Hart, chief executive operator. Last week, the orchestra auditioned five of them. Another five will audition in May.

The first five gathered at Kleinhans eager to make a good impression.

It’s a tall order. A conductor cannot audition behind a curtain, like an instrumentalist can. Comportment counts. Charm counts. And finally, there is that elusive thing called “musicianship.”

At the audition, Falletta and David Crane, the BPO’s general manager, took their seats at stage left to watch and listen.

The orchestra, mostly in jeans, assembled. Suspense hung in the air. At 10 a.m., the drama began.

‘Can I hear that sexier?’

The candidates drew straws to determine the order of the auditions, and the first slot fell to Lucas Waldin, from Edmonton, Alberta.

“I’m Lucas,” he told the orchestra. In a minute, we are into the music from the movie “E.T.”

The conductors may choose their first piece. After that they have to be ready to conduct anything from a list they were given in advance. It’s mostly familiar music with vivid orchestration, including Stravinsky’s “The Firebird,” Brahms’ First Symphony, Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” and the overtures to Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus” and Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”

Waldin opted for the hipster look, a cute kind of rock get-up with red jeans and an orange vest. He started with the theme from “E.T.” Falletta had what looked like the score and was studying it intently. Brahms came next, and then the overture to “Die Fledermaus.”

“Lucas, please feel free to do some rehearsing,” Falletta told him.

Waldin complied. “The second bar, it feels as if we’re late and we catch up later,” he said. He turned to the violins. “Can I hear that sexier? It’s very dry.”

There was a little eye rolling. Conductor candidates are in a delicate position, having to guide the musicians but at the same time not irritate them. They also have to conduct with authority at their audition while, at the same time, be ready to be cut off by Falletta.

“I appreciate the rehearsal, but let’s go forward,” Falletta told Waldin, abbreviating his fine-tuning of the score.

Waldin kept his cool and appeared to find a good middle ground: He got courteous applause at the end.

Erin Freeman, the morning’s second candidate, looked happy and confident.

Freeman could be said to have the inside track. She is the current leader of the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus, and she and Falletta have worked together in Virginia, where Falletta also serves as music director of the Virginia Symphony, and Freeman is associate conductor of the Richmond Symphony. At the audition, she was lucky also in that she got the plum slot: The musicians were warmed up but still fresh.

She began with the overture to Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide,” which soared past with no problem. “I love that piece. I thought, ‘That’ll make me happy,’ ” she explained later. Falletta invited Freeman, as she invited Waldin, to feel free to rehearse. But it wasn’t really necessary: Freeman is a familiar figure. The flutes and oboes of “The Firebird” appeared with magical ease. “Appalachian Spring” sparkled.

She clearly has a rapport with the BPO and with its music director. When Falletta asked for the Stravinsky, Freeman answered: “Sure!” In the middle of Beethoven’s Fifth, Freeman flashed a relaxed smile when signaled to stop. She walked off confidently, carrying a pile of scores. “Take care, everyone. Thanks!”

Cutting off the Brahms

When Benjamin Rous appeared, following Freeman, he presented yet another image: loose trousers and a tucked-in shirt.

The outfit was more formal than Waldin’s, yet not quite dressy. One might think the would-be conductors would show up in formal wear, as if they were on the job, but that is apparently not the convention.

Rous smiled throughout the overture from “Die Fledermaus.” He did a good job with the accelerando – the tricky, gypsyish part where the music picks up speed. Falletta asked for Brahms’ First and gave Rous the speech about feeling free to rehearse. “Play very softly,” Rous told the strings, shaping a pizzicato section.

Throughout the long morning, the musicians were not exactly encouraging. They listened poker-faced in their jeans and sweatshirts. Falletta, off to the left, was on her feet, arms crossed. She listened, absorbed.

Agonizingly, she cut off Rous’ Brahms right at the glorious main theme, a jarring reminder that things were all business. Rous froze, smiling, the baton over his shoulder. He got some appreciative laughs.

After a 10-minute break, there were still two candidates to go.

Troy Quinn, a New Englander who went to Providence College, cut a natty figure with his dark hair and sports jacket, which he tossed over a stool. He began with “E.T.” and then was asked to switch to the uplifting overture to Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” “Feel free to rehearse,” Falletta said, and so Quinn polished the opening chords. There was one awkward moment while, in silence, he fussed with the score. But it was thrilling then to hear the music roll forward, finding its balance like a bicycle.

Falletta stopped him. “Let’s go on,” she said. “Copland?”

Finally it was Stefan Sanders’ turn. He is a former BPO trombonist and was an apprentice conductor here.

The last couple of conductors, one can’t help thinking, have a disadvantage. It was almost noon, and people were getting tired. Falletta neglected to tell Sanders he was free to rehearse.

Sanders had his head together, though, and the Mozart shone. A stocky figure, he grew graceful, all but dancing on the podium to the quicksilver piece. As he complied with Falletta’s request for Chabrier’s “Espana,” he smiled and became more handsome. It is funny, the effect music can have on people who love it.

Backstage afterward, the feeling was good. Waldin had added a cute cap to his rocker outfit. All the candidates, in an egalitarian Buffalo ritual, were eating subs.

It was interesting to study each candidate and imagine how it would affect the atmosphere of the BPO if he or she were given the job. Waldin, with his hipster vibe, would be very different from Kraemer. Sanders, with his accent and rolled r’s, would add a note of the Old World.

All the possibilities seemed promising, at least in the glow of Mozart and Brahms. Whoever the new associate conductor turns out to be, his or her tenure will probably be fun – while it lasts.

Round Two takes place May 6.


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