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Humble Pie and the VYO

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Everyone makes mistakes. To err is human, right? Right, except journalists aren't supposed to be that human.

This week it was my turn. I made the mistake of referring to a secondary source, and then, apparently, freaking misreading the source. In my introduction to this week's performing-arts preview, I stated that Ronald Braunstein (pictured at right), the new music director and conductor of the Vermont Youth Orchestra, would be assuming his post next spring.

Imagine my chagrin when the lovely and kind Lisamarie Charlesworth, marketing director for the VYO, emailed to gently tell me Mr. Braunstein had actually arrived this spring, and had been working with the young musicians since. His debut concerts with the kids are next weekend. All of which I could have learned by double-checking the VYO website. Cripes.

Immediately I emailed Mr. Braunstein to apologize, my mouth full of humble pie, crow, and every other culinary symbol of humility, and to let him know that this carelessness is not typical of me, nor of Seven Days in general. That we would print a correction in next week's paper and had already corrected the web version of the story. But, I said, I would like to make it up to him asap, with an interview I could put on our staff blog.

Turns out Mr. Braunstein, too, was very kind. In fact, he didn't seem to really care that I had so blithely erased his last few months in Vermont. But I cared. So, we finally found time to have that interview, which you can read below.

But first, I want to say that I'm now almost glad I made that mistake, because otherwise I probably would not have had what turned out to be a most enjoyable talk with Ronald — we quickly got to first-name terms. He was thoughtful, expressive, sincere, and funny in ways that probably don't come across in print. He told me, for instance, that he had to learn to drive when he moved to Vermont, and that the number of cars honking at him on every outing has declined from about 100 to about 15. Not bad in half a year. I didn't have the heart to tell him about winter driving.

Talking with Ronald made me recall my own youth in the school orchestra (I played the tuba: yes, it's true), and how our director attempted to herd us cats with equal parts discipline, affection and exasperation, and how much I loved playing classical music. Especially Tchaikovsky, which has really good tuba parts. Ultimately, I loved rock 'n' roll more. Still, I envy the young musicians in the VYO with their new maestro.

Here he is:

Me: Your own training includes instruction from the likes of Herbert von Karajan, Seiji Ozawa and Leonard Bernstein, among others. What did you learn from them that informs the way you work with your young charges now?

Ronald Braunstein: I learned several different lessons by studying with those three. With Karajan, how to train an orchestra that can play with precision and at the same time with elasticity. Also how to build an orchestra that can deliver on a consistent basis music that is detailed yet profound.

From Bernstein I learned the importance of being yourself on the podium. He had infinite charisma.

And then Ozawa, his main lessons were about how to not insist, just suggest.

Me: Very Asian.

RB: Yes. His feelings and direction to the orchestra, his teachings had a lot to do with rooting oneself in the ground like a tree. The Asian people have a low center of gravity, shorter legs. Ours is higher — longer legs and solar plexus.

Another thing from Ozawa: Never relate everything to gravity. [Ronald takes a moment to compose an explanation for this.] If you take an orange and throw it up into the air, the force decelerates as it goes up and accelerates as it goes down. The tempo is controlled by how much energy is expended when you throw it up. So, you must never stop the beat, because it's an attempt to manipulate gravity. If you go up, and then stop, and then come down, it creates for the conductor the illusion of control. So, once he stops the beat, it disengages from nature and he loses control of the orchestra.

Ozawa studied with Karajan and Bernstein, and is a hybrid of them. I studied with all three, so am a hybrid of all three. It does actually help me here and there. And now, I have a few students in conducting. My best one is Allen Gilbert, new music director of the New York Philharmonic. He is not returning my phone calls!

Me: You have a BFA in conducting from the Juilliard School, and won first prize in the Herbert von Karajan International Conducting Competition in Berlin not long after graduating [in 1979]. That's impressive! But many of us can't imagine what that might be like. What do judges look for in evaluating conductors?

RB: Oh, God. First of all, they are a group of people from many disciplines. There were 15: executive directors of orchestras, conductors, record producers, sound engineers, A&R people. There were about 700 contestants. … There were six rounds, one each week. Each week they cut the number down. I guess what they were looking for was someone who was, hmm, who communicated with the orchestra physically and verbally. Someone the orchestra had chemistry with. It's starting to sound like a dating service. A technical expert, musically full feeling, charismatic, trustworthy, practical and spiritual.

Me: I read that your conducting style is "rooted in German influence." What does that mean?

RB: I would say my style is rooted... my teacher was Herbert von Karajan. He was my influence, not Germany. Maybe it meant rooted in the German repertoire. I would say the German composers — my repertoire is rooted in German, Austrian and Czech composers.

Me: The San Francisco Chronicle once wrote that you had "mastered the most elusive aspect of conducting, that of personal magic."  What is your magic? Or is it a secret?

RB: I guess my answer to that would be, I have no idea what those people are talking about, but they must be talking about something.

Me: Maybe it's the charisma you mentioned before?

RB: Charisma is something that just happens. It can't be explained, and it can't be summoned — it's the grace of the moment.

Me: I like that answer. New question: You have conducted orchestras around Europe and Asia as well as the U.S. Can you share a particularly thrilling and/or meaningful moment in your international experience?

RB: There were certain orchestras that gave me what I wanted. But there were a few orchestras that were able to give me more than I had in my imagination. Those were the most eye-opening times. It's interesting that sometimes orchestras do something that is so synchronized and yet so natural that no one would ever ask what inspires them. It's a sort of mass feeling.

Me: Like, you are all one?

RB: Yes, like riding a horse.

Me: How do young musicians learn the "language" of a conductor?

RB: God knows. Well, by experience with the same conductor. A lot of experience. After they learn the "language," to use your word, of this one conductor, then their learning goes further when they get the influences of other conductors. They learn through a strange process of osmosis. They need to do work with a master.

Me: Your worldly career leads me to ask: Why Vermont? What attracted you about the opportunity to work with the Vermont Youth Orchestra?

RB: First of all, I love Vermont. There's nothing in New York that I miss in living here. Except one small Japanese restaurant across the street from my apartment on E. 57th Street. As far as the orchestra, I was looking for one that was freestanding — not part of a school — giving me control of the controllable elements.

Me: I also read that one of your goals with the VYO is to further the musicians' understanding of "core repertoire." Could you elaborate on that a bit?

RB: Core repertoire — it's like studying Shakespeare. Everything comes from Shakespeare, right? To concentrate on core repertoire — Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Schubert, Haydn, Bach — I feel that the musicians learn more about the nuts and bolts of how to play in an orchestra, including style, and technical and musical aspects. Once an orchestra has mastered — if that's possible — this core repertoire, they can branch out into other repertoires with élan.

Me: Does this emphasis on the classics preclude playing or commissioning any works from Vermont (or other) contemporary composers, as the VYO has done in the past?

RB: No, it does not.

Me: The VYO organization has grown so much over the past 15 years. What vision do you have for its continued evolution?

RB: Not only am I certain that I can continue their artistic growth, but, as importantly, it is my desire for the musicians in the orchestra to grow as individuals and at the same time as "owners" of the orchestra. It is a microcosm of a society.

The VYO performs its Fall Community Concert, with Ronald Braunstein conducting, on Friday, September 24, 8 p.m., at St. Mary's Church in St. Albans; and Sunday, September 26, 3 p.m., at the Flynn Center. More info, www.vyo.org.

Photo: Stina Booth

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