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Conducting in Italy

Many of you know that during the months of November and December, I traveled to Italy for an orchestral conducting competition, and to Mexico to conduct a concert with the Chiapas Symphony Orchestra and to visit family, Many people have asked me to share a little about the trips, so I decided to contribute the telling of my adventures to the church blog. I was gone for 6 weeks, and there’s so much about these trips that I will split it in 2 parts. Part 1 will focus on the trip to Italy, and part 2 on the trip to Mexico.

Before I tell you about my trip to Italy, I would like to share with you some background on orchestral conducting and how I became a conductor.

Since an early age, I have always been attracted to conductors and what they do. I was fascinated by the work of my local church choir conductor, and when I had my piano concerto debut with an orchestra at the age of 12, I wanted to have a chance to wave my hands at the orchestra at least during one of the rehearsals. I didn’t have the chance.

Time passed by and I almost forgot about that interest. Musically speaking, I became a lonely pianist who played solo piano repertoire. Many years later, while majoring in piano performance in college, I decided that for my senior recital I would put together an ensemble of friends, whom I conducted from the piano. The work was the Mozart D minor concerto. It was a wonderful experience, but then again, the busyness of school distracted me, and I went on to do a master’s degree in piano performance.

In 2015, I accepted a call to serve as Music Director at Central Congregational Church in Chelmsford, MA.

They wanted me to conduct the choir, but I had a courageous idea. What if for the big Christmas concert, I hired an orchestra to play with the choir? I did, and it was spectacular. It was a huge success, and everyone requested we do that again. For the following 4 years, our special Christmas and Easter concerts had an orchestra. Very quickly, the concerts became standing room only. They kept getting more and more elaborate, the music was more challenging every time, and the level of performance, both of the orchestra and choir, was also higher each time. For our last concert together, we did Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy and 9th Symphony. This was a dream come true for me, I had discovered, or rather, rediscovered my true musical passion!

In 2019, my wife and I moved to Ann Arbor, MI to study at the University of Michigan. She was doing a doctorate in cello performance, and I got accepted into their prestigious orchestral conducting program to do a master’s degree. I was excited, and I knew I had much to learn but to be honest, I thought I knew more about orchestral conducting than I actually did. At this point, I had been conducting choirs successfully for several years, and the last 4 years had been filled with multiple orchestral conducting opportunities. I was already a good musician with a good ear, and I knew how to cue, cut off, and show what I wanted musically with my hands. I knew I needed to learn more repertoire and get more experience, but I thought it would be easy for me. After all, I already had a master’s degree in music performance.

Oh, how mistaken I was! The next two years were some of the most difficult of my life. There were so many things I didn’t even know existed and needed to learn. I became aware of how clueless I was about conducting, even when I thought I was already a good conductor. (and some professional orchestral players had also told me so)

I needed to learn to develop a clear, fluid, expressive, and specific conducting technique. Let me tell you, this is much harder than it sounds, and it requires many many hours of hard work and study. I also needed to understand that orchestral score study, with the many skills needed for it, and as difficult and time consuming as it is, is the conductor's privilege and responsibility. It's a life-long task, and the process can be expected to mature with years of experience. There’s no shortcut to this. To be bestowed the privilege of deciphering scores that contain masterworks that reflect the creative impulses of the human spirit, and with all their complexity not to make them a piece of academic work, but rather a transformative expression that touches and inspires everyone who is part of it, fellow orchestral musicians and listeners alike, is not easy. As a conductor, once you learn and understand this, you are off for a life-long, infinite journey of learning.

In October of 2022, I received an invitation through email to participate in the final phase of the 2nd International Lake Como Conducting Competition in Italy. There were 630 applicants who submitted their videos from all over the world, so receiving this invitation was already an honor and accomplishment in itself. My wife and I debated over the idea of whether I should go or not. If I won, it would be a great opportunity to help me advance my career. Preparing for it though, would require many hours of study and with the babies I would nee

d to neglect my father duties to be able to learn all the competition repertoire. That would also make it harder on my wife. After much thought and taking advantage of my mom’s extended stay with us, we decided I should give it a try.

For the next entire month, I spent between 8 and 10 hours a day learning some, and re-studying some of the following: Beethoven’s Symphonies No. 1, No, 2, No. 5 and No. 7; Liszt Piano Concerto No. 2; and Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings and Violin Concerto.

Finally, the day of my trip arrived, and I traveled to Milan, Italy. I got to Italy a week before the start of the competition to be able to fully adjust to the time difference. During this time, I continued to focus on preparing the music for the competition, but I had a chance to visit some historical places.

In Milan, I visited the impressive Duomo di Milano and La Scala. I also visited Bellano and Lecco, small towns around the lake Como area, and Vercelli and Tricerro, towns to the east of Milan. Every church, every museum, every building in historic districts attest to a vast and rich history, in some cases millenia old. I walked on streets and entered buildings where great artists and musicians of the past got inspired to write, paint or compose masterpieces. I saw all kinds of artistic and inspirational landmarks; I even saw a house where Napoleon Bonaparte stayed in one of his visits to Italy.

The natural landscape was also impressive. While my wife sent me pictures of the first snowfall of the season in Appleton, with single digit temperatures, I was enjoying the sun and mountains around the beautiful lake Como area, with temperatures in the mid to high 70’s. I only wished she and the children could be there with me.

At last, it was the day of the competition. I woke up extra early to have the time to mentally rehearse the music and prepare. I had breakfast and took the train to the venue, allowing enough time for the unexpected. I arrived with more than 2 hours to spare, so I found a corner to sit and continue focusing. Competitions like this require top preparation, and during the moment, also a great deal of concentration, mental readiness and sharpness.

The instructions where, conduct the 1st and 3rd movements of Beethoven’s 5th symphony. You have the freedom to rehearse, run through or a mix of both. I decided to run through a good chunk of the movements relying on my conducting technique to make things happen, and rehearse small portions afterwards. I felt good about my conducting and felt the musicians were responding well to my musical gestures. It was 15 minutes of work that felt much shorter than that. The jury announced my time was over and politely thanked me with a smile.

I felt so good about my participation that even with the beautiful landscape around the lake and the gorgeous weather, I decided to spend the entire day indoors studying and preparing for the next round. That evening the results were announced. I didn’t pass on to the next round.

I felt extremely disappointed, especially because I felt so good about my performance. I almost had a hunch I would go on in the competition. I called my wife, and she helped me calm down and see things from a different perspective.

Music could be an extremely cruel discipline. For years, you spend countless hours working hard, but to improve you need to learn to hear what doesn’t sound good. It almost becomes too easy to keep telling yourself over and over that it is never good enough. Music is an exact discipline, but above that, music is an expression of the human spirit. It is art. In some sports, it is easier to determine who is faster or stronger. But in art, so many things are subjective. Referring to music competitions, the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók said, “Competitions are for horses, not men.”

After the conversation with my wife, I felt much better and decided to enjoy my final days in Italy, while I continued studying and preparing for my coming-up concert in Mexico, but that’s part 2 of the story.

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