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Master Class: What does an orchestra conductor do?

TAMPA

The young man lifted his hands, one of which held a baton, and brought them down.

A grand piano took off like a racehorse hit with a whip, the pianist slamming chords in Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6, better known as the Pathétique. It and Jeancarlo Gonzalez, a graduate conducting student at the University of South Florida School of Music, had gotten this far together several times.

A few seconds in, Michael Francis stopped the performance again. The Florida Orchestra's music director was giving a class to a half-dozen of Gonzalez's classmates, most of whom were pursuing master's degrees at USF. Francis, 40, walked across the stage of a rehearsal hall and asked Gonzalez a question.

"What do you think the composer was feeling?"

There are things in every college budget a student does not need. New textbooks, for example. For aspiring conductors, on-the-spot tutoring by someone of Francis' expertise and visibility is one of those benefits without a price tag.

Just what does a conductor do, anyway? Anyone with a computer and rudimentary percussion skills could learn the basics in an hour. They could watch plain-spoken instructors demonstrate how the dominant hand (usually the right) keeps time and cues instruments, while the left hand controls builds, dimenuendos and cutoffs.

Is even that much necessary? Couldn't professional musicians just play the music? Numerous major media outlets have asked those questions. All reached the same conclusion: If your orchestra is going to be any good, it will need a conductor.

"My job," Francis said, "is to unite and bring the best out of the musicians, so that the listener may experience the fullness of the composers' intentions."

Good conductors know a concerto better than anyone else. They serve both as unifiers and interpreters of sound. The best ones make their musicians think.

Gonzalez, 29, had already devoted thought to the mental state of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The 19th century's greatest Russian composer debuted Symphony No. 6 in 1893. He died nine days later of unexplained causes, leaving some to suspect suicide.

A theory in wide circulation suggests that the composer's homosexuality and a physical relationship with his nephew, to whom he dedicated the Pathétique, were about to become public knowledge.

"I think he was angry over being without his nephew," Gonzalez told Francis.

Gonzalez entered USF's graduate conducting program after six years teaching middle school, finishing last year as the orchestra conductor for Chain of Lakes Middle School in Orlando. His Facebook avatar shows a slightly built man with a neatly trimmed beard and black-framed glasses, an inset on a Pray for Orlando sign, a reminder of a couple of friends he lost in the Pulse nightclub shootings.

As a student in professor William Wiedrich's conducting class, he had a new responsibility. Pick a section of the first movement from Symphony No. 6 to conduct. He picked a moment of drastic change, or "development" in the score, when a funereal silence is shattered about nine minutes into the symphony with an enormously loud crash of horns, strings and a stampeding timpani.

"I chose it because I felt like one of my weaknesses is showing that passion and anger," Gonzalez said later. "I feel it, but I have trouble showing it without being tense."

They took it from the top of the development. Again the student slashed the air with his baton, and again the teacher raised his hand.

The point of all the waving, Francis said, is not to play with the orchestra musicians but to signal them, to stay just a fraction ahead so they are trying to catch up.

Francis stopped the music yet again.

"You're coming in a beat too early," he said.

They repeated the same few measures more than 15 times.

"What I want you to take away from this," Francis told Gonzalez, "is remembering that whatever you do, everything is your upbeat — the direction, the preparation."

It's a message he would revisit after a break, when the workshop reconvened in USF's concert hall, and three students conducted the entire Florida Orchestra.

"Show the music," he said. "They don't need you beating the time."

Sometimes he took the baton himself to direct lightning bolts, to jab an invisible pork roast with a meat thermometer or scoop up all the air around his ankles and throw it over his head.

"This is not air traffic control," he told Andi Zdrava, who had just conducted the full orchestra. "You are trying to take what this dead composer wrote as the last tome of his life and emit it in a way that they can play at their best."

Zdrava, 29, is due to graduate soon with a master's degree in conducting. The concert pianist speaks four languages. After the workshop, Zdrava recalled growing up in Greece, where his Russian piano teacher gave him one "bravo" in 15 years.

"I like from personal experience the way that Michael Francis did it, it's much better," he said. "Because you need to get some confirmation that at least something went okay."

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

University of South Florida graduate student Lindsey Jones conducts the Florida Orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, as music director Michael Francis looks on.

Photo by Kelly Smith

University of South Florida graduate student Lindsey Jones conducts the Florida Orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, as music director Michael Francis looks on.

>>About the series

Master Class

In this occasional series, Tampa Bay Times arts writers will explain various arts and entertainment topics, helping readers understand things we often take for granted. This time, we ask: What does a conductor do?

Master Class: What does an orchestra conductor do? 03/08/17 [Last modified: Sunday, March 12, 2017 4:52pm]
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