Friday, October 30, 2009


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Conductors Retreat at Medomak, near Liberty, Maine, northwest and inland from the breathtaking coastal village of Camden, is a summer camp for conductor training run by the estimable Maestro Kenneth Kiesler, director of orchestral studies at the University of Michigan. Only two weeks earlier, after receiving a flurry of emails from our office, he had extended an invitation for me to perform MUSE for his students.

I had not known Ken previously (except by reputation) and was not only delighted to accept his invitation, but moved that he was a person of such open mind and heart as to eagerly welcome the story of another great conducting mentor into “the very heart of his kingdom.” Few maestros would so willingly (or so confidently) offer to their students a differing approach to how it’s done.

The Conductors Retreat at Camp Medomak is an idyllic location for study and contemplation. The facilities are not lavish—just cabins and a lodge under the pines, with a meadow across the road. No stage nor stage lighting for this performance of MUSE. I constructed my compact white and black set directly on the floor of a classroom that doubles as a rehearsal space—placing Bruck’s chair and platform (the focal point of the action) not five feet from the first row of seats.

At performance time, the hall was packed. It seemed as if every student at the school was there, along with Kiesler and famed pianist Lorin Hollander (a mutual friend from my old Opera Maine days.) 

On tour, I have discovered that once my set is in place and the lights are focussed, it does not really matter if the hall in front of me seats 90 or 900. I do adjust my vocal projection to suit the environment, but once the play begins, the set (not the auditorium) is my home. I simply tell my story to friends I cannot see sitting out in the dark.

Medomak felt a little different. Performing at audience level, with the ceiling lights in the room left on, I did not have the usual comforts of a stage on which to “hide” nor stage lights to “hide” behind. I could see everyone, and I could tell how every second of the play was being perceived. (The audience could not “hide” either. When, during the play, Maestro Bruck roars at hapless conducting students, those seated in the front rows reared back as best they could, squirming, trying to avoid the flood of saliva flying from my mouth.)

I loved the intimacy, and so, apparently did the audience: the standing ovation at the end was immediate.

Best was the give-and-take following the performance. Some students were horrified by Bruck. Others (especially students from Europe) recognized a familiar pedagogical method. It became clear, whatever Maestro Kiesler’s teaching may share in intensity and commitment with Bruck’s, it is absent screaming or sarcasm. “There are going to be some changes around here!” Kiesler remarked to the assembly afterwards, and everyone laughed, to which I added, “Hey, Ken, our plan worked!,” which made everyone laugh harder.

Ultimately, the play left some students shaken, others thoughtful; virtually all, I would say, had been moved, and entertained.

Upon leaving, I again thanked Ken for the uniqueness of the opportunity. “Bruck is an important part of the legacy of conductor training in America,” Ken said, deflecting my praise. “The students need to know of him.”

Driving back down the dirt driveway, leaving the camp behind me, I glanced at the school banner on the road. “Discovering the nature conducting,” it read. Perfect sentiment. Perfect place.

And also this: at Medomak, when the urge to find a bathroom strikes, simply select your composer: PUccini or PISton. Here's proof (click on the photo for a larger version):

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