Conducting Mozart 25.1 – Part 1

I am very fortunate to have many hobbies — especially motorcycling and music. I wrote about the origins of my love of music back in December 2000 (with a few minor edits since) so I won’t repeat it here — suffice it to say that my interest in music has continued to increase. I find almost all kinds of music enjoyable and have recently organized more than four hundred CDs as mp3 tracks which I can select and play via a Lansonic digital audio system which is on the home local area network (more about that in a future posting). Of all the music and great composers of the world, my favorite for many years has been Mozart. The chance to conduct an orchestra playing a Mozart composition was not even in my dreams.

The Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra has existed for many years in Ridgefield, Connecticut and in recent years has become quite accomplished and celebrated, thanks to music director Sidney Rothstein. Maestro Rothstein is also music director of the Reading (Pennsylvania) Symphony Orchestra. The major annual fund raising event for the Ridgefield Symphony is a Gala evening held at a local restaurant where many supporters meet for a nice dinner followed by an auction. The items to be auctioned are contributed by various merchants, music lovers, and other supporters and include works of art, dinner at a restaurant a week at someone’s vacation home, or a weekend in New York City. Several years ago Maestro Rothstein and the Orchestra decided to introduce a new item to the auction — the "Golden Baton". The winning bidder of the Golden Baton is entitled to conduct a short piece of music at an RSO concert and also receives conducting lessons from Sidney.

I have to admit that I had been thinking about bidding for the Golden Baton for some time. Over the last several years I have witnessed the joy of prior guest conductors and talked to them about the experience. Each of them left the stage on Cloud 9. There were several bidders but I was the lucky person to win. Even before the bidding began, I knew that my selection would be from Mozart if I turned out to be the winner.

Sidney and I exchanged quite a few emails about possible selections — mostly focused on one of the overtures from Mozart’s operas. I listened to nine of them a number of times — each one is great in its own way but I was having trouble narrowing it down to one I was really excited about. Then Sidney suggested a possible alternative would be the first movement of one of the Mozart symphonies and in particular suggested that perhaps the twenty-fifth would be a good one. I immediately liked the idea and after paging through my Mozart mp3 collection and listened to it, the decision was made. Only one thing left to do — I have to learn to conduct sometime between now and the night of the concert on December 7, 2002!

I played the clarinet for quite a few years — from 5th grade to college — and know how to read music for an instrument but have never conducted anything other than some stereo speakers. Sid assured me this would be no problem and all we needed to do was schedule some time for some lessons. Lesson 1 was in a boat on a rainy day. Lesson 2 was via email. This is where the term "25 dot 1" came in. Mozart would probably not appreciate having one of his great works being referred to like an IP (Internet protocol) address!

Now it was time for a real lesson — in person — but the problem was the both the maestro and me are very busy and we couldn’t find a time when we could both be in Ridgefield. Sid invited me to visit Reading, Pennsylvania where he lives for some immersion conducting training. The 186 mile motorcycle ride to Reading was a joy. In spite of my prior critique of the interstate highway system, it was clearly the best way to go. Down I-684 I went, then southwest on I-287, west on I-78, and finally 32 miles down U.S. 222 to Reading. The Garmin StreetPilot GPS kept me apprised of where I was, traffic was moderate and the weather was just right.

The definition Webster offers for maestro is "a master usually in an art; especially an eminent composer, conductor, or teacher of music". This meets Sidney Rothstein to a tee. I knew he was a great conductor, having seen him in action many times, but I had no idea he was also a great instructor. The vastness of what I didn’t know became clear but so did some hope that I could learn enough to pull off six minutes or so with the orchestra without making a fool of myself. Sidney showed me how to hold the baton, how to articulate the tempo, anticipate the changes in the music and highlight the various instruments in the orchestra, and how to add some character to the conducting. I can’t say I am yet able to do any of these things very well but at least I know what I need to practice.

The return ride was also a joy but not because of the weather or the roads — it was listening to the tape (the Harley doesn’t have a CD player). I listened to it a dozen times at least. On one stretch of I-78 the road was wide open and smooth as could be — very little traffic — and I could not resist conducting with my right hand while the Harley cruise control kept the throttle in the right place. I have to confess that at one point I was so carried away that I was conducting with two hands while cruising at 70 mph. I have a lot of practicing to do before my next lesson. Stay tuned!