Passing baton, and passion, along; Young conducting students come to Peabody from far and wide to study with Gustav Meier; Classical Music


If you want to get a rise out of Gustav Meier, the courtly 70-year-old maestro who teaches the art of conducting at Baltimore's Peabody Institute of Music, ask him if he agrees that great conductors are born, not made.

"That's absolutely not true," the Swiss-born Meier says with a shake of his head that led with the chin. "There were many students I may have had some doubts about, but they are doing extremely well. With hard work, they have made themselves into talented conductors."

It would be folly to argue the point, for talented young conductors are Gustav Meier's stock-in-trade.

Indeed, after four decades at such elite institutions as Yale, the Eastman School of Music and the University of Michigan, as well as the 16 summers he spent from 1980 to 1996 overseeing the prestigious conducting seminars at the Tanglewood Festival in Massachusetts, he's become one of the world's most celebrated and sought-after conducting gurus.

"He's the greatest mentor of conductors nationally, and probably internationally as well," says Edward Polochick, Peabody's associate conductor of orchestras.

Meier's students can be found in concert halls and opera houses all over the globe: Robert Spano, who recently was named music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and Paavo Jarvi, the newly- appointed conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony, both studied with Meier at Tanglewood.

Antonio Pappano, a Meier student at Michigan, is a mainstay at London's Covent Garden Opera House, and has recently recorded an extraordinary version of Massenet's "Werther" featuring opera's married superstars, soprano Angela Gheorghiu and tenor Roberto Alagna. Meier also coached Marin Alsop of the Colorado Symphony, who may well become the first woman to head a major American orchestra.

And of the 12 currently vying for the conductorship of the Hartford Symphony, no fewer than five are Meier alums. (A sixth, Enrico Arturo Demecq, is a junior colleague whose Mexican orchestra Meier has conducted.)

Choosing academia

Meier came to the Peabody in 1996. In the rarefied world of classical music, the Old Boy Network is, well, instrumental, in providing conducting opportunities for up-and-coming students. And perhaps no one is more of an Old Boy than Meier.

But a career in podium pedagogy was the furthest thing from his mind when he arrived at Tanglewood in 1958 for a summer of study. Educated at a conservatory in Siena, Italy, and already at work in Swiss opera houses, he joined one of the most stellar Tanglewood classes ever. Some of his fellow conducting students were Zubin Mehta, Claudio Abbado and David Zinman -- all destined to become major conductors. But after his summer in the Berkshires, Meier accepted what he thought would be a temporary job at the Yale School of Music, and soon abandoned the concert hall for the classroom -- a decision no one would have expected from such a gifted young conductor.

"After two years at Yale, I was offered the assistant conductorship of the New Philharmonic by Leonard Bernstein," Meier recalled.

"I had a real decision to make, and I wound up deciding to stay at Yale. The music school was incredible back then. Paul Hindemith, one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century, was on the faculty. And, remember, I had grown up a conservatory boy without a strong general education. I loved university life and the whole Yale environment. Academia, I found, was for me."

Now, 40 years later, after stints at Harvard, the Eastman School of Music and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor where he still lives, Meier is as absorbed as ever with the task of fine-tuning young talent.

"It's such an ego problem for a student conductor to be in front of an orchestra and be put down by a teacher," he said. "You have to build them up, but, at the same time, you want them to remain humble to the music by putting the composer first. That's the most important thing."

After Meier retired from the University of Michigan in the mid- 1990s, Peabody administrators immediately began courting him as a prospective replacement for the departing Frederick Prausnitz. Meier quickly became the faculty's overwhelming choice, but it took three months to persuade him to take the job.

"The only person in the country we could come up with was Gustav," according to Steven Baxter, Peabody's dean. "He's been a real find. Gustav is as sensitive to other people as he is to music, and because of his teaching skill and his reputation, he attracts students from all over the world. Some even have fledgling careers before they get here."

What's in the music

Few musical topics engender more heated debate among musicians than what Nikolai Rimski-Korsakov, the Russian composer, called the "black art" of conducting.

"It's easy. All you have to do is waggle a stick," harrumphed Sir Thomas Beecham, the British conductor whose takes on the symphonies of Haydn and Schubert still set the standard a half-century after he recorded them.

Composer Igor Stravinsky once likened conducting to the system for signaling aircraft landings with lighted sticks. "Conducting is semaphoring," he grumped, adding that maestros are "the lapdogs of musical life."

Oscar Levant, the pianist and humorist, described Leonard Bernstein's hyper-emotional demeanor on the podium like this: "He uses music as an accompaniment to his conducting."

But as Meier begins coaching his students in Peabody's East Hall on a recent Tuesday morning, the mechanical aspects of beating time take up only a small part of the agenda, and no one seems the least bit interested in showing off.

Meier accepts only three or four students from the 40 to 60 applications he receives each year.

"An awful lot of conducting teachers will tell you how to move your arms, and that's about it," says Benjamin Loeb, who has put his New York career as a piano accompanist on hold to move to Baltimore and enter Meier's program.

"Mr. Meier never makes a comment that stands on its own technically. He always comes back to the music, which forces us to go beyond the technical aspect. That, by the way, is what great conductors do when they're conducting. He's about finding what's in the music and sharing it with the orchestra."

'Don't say a word'

On this March day, seven of Meier's conductors-in-training are at work on the jagged transitions in Beethoven's Overture to "Egmont," and on the constantly shifting effects of color and meter that animate Claude Debussy's languid "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun."

The final challenge is Mozart's "Prague" Symphony, which is filled with enough rapid-fire orchestral entrances to drive even an experienced conductor to distraction.

For the morning session, the students conduct an ensemble of piano and strings, playing reduced versions of the three scores. In the afternoon session, an orchestra of Peabody players is assembled to give the trainees a taste of the real thing.

Danail Ratchev, an intense, eloquent fellow from Bulgaria, tries to begin his stint on the podium with a verbal explanation of how he wants "Egmont" to start. Meier cuts him off gently. "Don't say a word," he encourages. "Use your hands. Don't explain. Just do it."

Motion is a recurring theme. "Do you really want to slow down there?" Meier asks one of his charges. "You can if you want to, but I think you'll find the diminuendo takes care of it." (Meier was referring to a passage that gets softer.)

But his main message is that a conductor must convey a generosity of musical spirit to the orchestra. In other words, a conductor must use his physical gestures to communicate his love and respect for the music to the players.

"Invite them in. Make eye contact," Meier says when a student gives a perfunctory cue. "Look at them. The strings don't really need you there. Look at the woodwinds. They're the ones waiting for you."

Mark Shapiro, a Yale graduate who already has a dramatic, superbly recorded account of Frank Martin's opera-cantata "Le Vin Herbe" to his credit, finds Meier's instruction so valuable that he commutes to Baltimore from New York for the eight or nine two-day sessions Meier offers each semester.

"He has worked out things that can drive you crazy for years," he said. "I was feeling jaded about the standard repertory when I began here in September. He brought me back in a couple of weeks."

Other students echo Shapiro's praise.

"I have a hard time picking out one major technical thing he taught me," said Julien Benichou, a 30-year-old French clarinetist turned conductor whose supple way with Debussy's "Faun" wound up providing the day's most convincing music making. "But in two years I have relearned conducting. The main thing is how to be alive with the music."'

Still a resident of Ann Arbor, where he lives with his wife, Emy, a pianist and practicing attorney, Meier is the jet set conducting teacher in the age of the jet set conductor. On the Mondays he comes to Baltimore, he leaves Detroit's Metro Airport early in the morning and is at his desk at Peabody by 9:30 a.m. Catching a late afternoon flight back to Detroit the next day, he's home for dinner in Ann Arbor Tuesday night.

Assuming his program at Peabody continues to thrive, would relocation to Baltimore be a possibility?

"Yes, I have thought about that, and wouldn't mind moving eventually," said the man who turned down Bernstein for Yale. "I am just at the beginning here at Peabody, but I love the job and this program. I'm happy with the variety of students we get. This is the best situation I've ever been involved in."

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