There were times during Robert Pierce's search for a new chief conductor when he felt as if he were waiting for the Messiah.
The director of the Peabody Institute had been searching for someone to lead the conservatory's ensembles ever since Peter Eros resigned more than six years ago. But this past week, as he sat listening to Hajime Teri Murai, Peabody's first Ruth Blaustein Rosenberg Music Director, rehearse one of Peabody's two student orchestras, Pierce looked very pleased.
"Maybe he's not Jesus Christ -- no one walks on water -- but Teri's got a great way with the kids and we're all thrilled," he said of the young conductor, who makes his first public appearance with the Peabody Symphony in Friedberg Hall Saturday evening.
But for a man who can't walk on water, the San Francisco-born and -bred conductor, who arrived a few weeks ago from Cincinnati after a 15-tenure at that city's College-Conservatory of Music, isn't afraid of making mistakes. In fact, in a conversation after a three-hour rehearsal in which he painstakingly corrected mistakes in intonation, phrasing and articulation, the 38-year-old conductor spoke with almost evangelical fervor about the importance of taking chances.
"When you take a few chances, you make something happen," Murai says. "You'll miss a few notes, but it will be worth it. Performers are human beings, not machines."
It's almost impossible to overestimate how important a gap the University of California-educated Murai fills, Pierce says. Peabody's new chief conductor will not only conduct most of the concerts given by the conservatory's senior orchestra -- the Peabody Symphony -- he will also lead most of the concerts by its sister ensemble, the Peabody Concert Orchestra, which is made up primarily of freshmen and sophomores. Murai will also conduct the performances of Peabody Opera Theater.
"Orchestra training is something every major conservatory is concerned about," Pierce says. "Of the students we graduate, ++ the largest number will be involved in an orchestra in some way some day."
After the two-year search that followed Eros' resignation, Peabody hired (or thought it had) a young conductor who had been teaching at Northwestern University. But he suddenly reneged on the agreement, leaving the conservatory in the lurch.
"We were not ready for another search, so we put it off a year," Pierce says. "Then the Peabody [financial] crisis came and -- while we were striving to stave off bankruptcy -- that was clearly not the time or the climate in which to try to attract someone.
"We resumed the search last year. We were looking for a rare breed. We didn't want someone who would be conducting here but who would have his eyes and ears someplace else. In other words, we didn't want someone who would be dissatisfied with conducting a student orchestra. But though we wanted someone who was accustomed to an academic atmosphere, we also wanted someone who was capable of making professional demands upon our students. I think we succeeded."
How well Peabody succeeded was apparent at the Concert Orchestra rehearsal of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5.
His bird-like arms were waving, his frail frame was weaving and his bowl-like haircut was dancing on his head, but Murai was all precision on the podium. At rehearsals of professional orchestras, conductors generally tend to let the orchestras play pTC on uninterruptedly unless something must be fixed. But an orchestra of students must be taught the repertory as well as rehearsed. In fact, a rehearsal is as much an intellectual experience as it is a musical one. On Wednesday, Murai made the first violins repeat a four-second snippet of the scherzo's theme 12 times, patiently correcting them every time. Then he made the entire orchestra repeat the section six times.
But if he was a taskmaster, he knew how to keep the young musicians' attention.
"In this section we have to make the contrast between soft and loud as powerful as possible," he said at one point.
"I want you to play so softly that you make the people with hearing aids turn the volume up," he said. "Then I want you to blow them out of their seats."
"We might be a little rough around the edges, but there's a kind of excitement you can't get with professionals," Murai says afterward. "For most of these kids this will be the first Tchaikovsky Fifth they've ever done," he adds, his eyes shining with joy. "Can you imagine . . .?"
"If anyone can put fire into a student orchestra, Teri can," says Kenneth Jean, the music director of the Florida Symphony, the associate conductor of the Chicago Symphony, and widely considered one of the finest younger conductors in America today. "I used to hear tapes of the work Teri did with the students in Cincinnati and they were spectacular.
"So why isn't Teri in front of a professional orchestra instead of a student one? It's a matter of temperament," says Jean, a friend of Murai's since high school. "The kind of work I do or that David Zinman does fits impatience. We prepare a concert in less than a week's time. The good side is the variety we get and the repertory we go through -- the downside is that you can never really do anything that is completely to your satisfaction. The downside to what Teri does is that you work with students who are less good players. The plus is the enjoyment of teaching them to be better and enough rehearsal time to get every single detail.
"And Teri has an unbelievably organized mind that can $l understand every detail. He knows everything -- every bowing, every rest. If I'm doing 'La Mer,' I call him. I know he'll have done all the research about the six different editions and will be able to answer any question anyone could conceivably have."
But Murai, who moved here with his wife and two children, says it's more than just temperament that makes him happy to do what he does.
"Ten years ago I would have been thrilled at the prospect of being where Ken is now," he says. "But that was before Carol and I had children. All that guest conducting and travel is wonderful for a single man or maybe even some married men without kids. But my first priority now is my family. My second is to do repertory I like at a level I respect. I'd rather do less well than more indifferently.
"And this is a situation that is wonderful for me. Right now both of [Peabody's] orchestras can play at a level that matches that of any conservatory in the country, and their potential for getting even better is extraordinary."
What: Peabody Symphony Orchestra in a centennial tribute to John Charles Thomas, featuring works of Weber and Sibelius and, with baritone soloist Gordon Hawkins, orchestral songs and arias by Wagner, Mahler and Verdi.
Where: Friedberg Hall, 1 E. Mount Vernon Place.
When: Sept. 28, 8 p.m.