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Inside the Mind of a Conductor

Jorge Mester travels the world to guest-conduct famous orchestras, but he has chosen Southwest Florida to put down some roots—a full wardrobe, at least. This is his fourth season as conductor of the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra; he splits his time between Naples, the Pasadena Symphony in California and the Louisville Symphony in Kentucky.

A musician in his own right—he plays viola, violin and saxophone and was once a member of the prestigious Beaux Arts Quartet—Mester has a talent for drawing the best out of musicians. His vast experience includes directing the conducting department of the Juilliard School, spending 21 years as artistic director of the Aspen Music Festival and conducting operas for the New York City Opera, the Sydney Opera, the Spoleto Festival in Italy and the Washington Opera.

He has made more than 72 recordings with the Louisville Symphony, and in 1985 he received Columbia University’s prestigious Ditson Conductor’s Award for the Advancement of American Music—an honor previously bestowed upon Leonard Bernstein, Eugene Ormandy and Leopold Stokowski.

A Twist of Fate

Mester first fell in love with the sounds of the violin while growing up in Mexico, listening to the gypsy music his Hungarian-born parents played for him. He took lessons with the Lerner Quartet, a famous Hungarian quartet living in Mexico, but it was actually his lack of discipline that led to his prestigious career in music.

After his parents sent him to military school in Hollywood, Calif., Mester learned to play the saxophone. However, his violin drew the attention of famous cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, the father of a classmate. After hearing Mester play a Mozart concerto, Piatigorsky sent him on a scholarship to the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer home.

That’s where Mester met Leonard Bernstein, who recommended that he finish military school before setting his sights on Juilliard. "He was a charismatic guy. I think he could sell refrigerators to Eskimos," Mester says.

While on Christmas break in Mexico, he crossed paths with Bernstein again. "He wanted to play chamber music," Mester says. "So he says, ‘Can you get a string quartet together so we can play?’ I couldn’t find a viola player, though I could find a viola. So I learned to play the viola for that occasion."

Mester later was accepted into Juilliard’s conducting class and continued studying violin, but he became principal violist and leader of the viola section of the Juilliard Orchestra. "Eventually I earned my living as a freelancer in New York," he says. "I played Radio City Music Hall and stuff like that. It wasn’t classical music, but that’s OK. I could eat. I played 14 weeks with Harry Belafonte at the Palace."

Mester then traveled the world as part of the Beaux Arts Quartet. But once again, his military school connections changed the course of his career. Former teacher Jean Morel introduced Mester to Gian Carlo Menotti—creator of The Medium, The Telephone and Amahl and the Night Visitors—who was looking for a ballet conductor.

"That’s how things happened," Mester says. "I was lucky and had people who were in a position to be helpful to me who were my mentors."

Mester uses the discipline he attained in military school to analyze the elements of a rehearsal. In his own words, he shares a behind-the-scenes look at the art of conducting:

The Maestro Speaks

Rehearsals can be tedious because conductors sometimes don’t understand what the musicians need. Instead of helping musicians clarify their own little parts in the whole picture, conductors go off in other directions. Getting past this problem has helped me do rehearsals in a way that leaves musicians feeling that there’s been some progress.

The first thing you have to know is a lot of music of all kinds. Then when you’re programming for a particular organization, you have to know the history of the organization, the kind of audience you’re playing for and the qualities of the musicians.

Then comes the job of finding the right menu not only for each individual concert, but for the whole season as well. It’s really like being a chef; you’re planning a meal. You’re planning a series of offerings. But I consider it extremely important that the musicians are excited about the repertoire. That’s how it works.

It’s important to get feedback from the communities, or from the people who represent the communities, so you’re not off on your own trip; you’re part of a presentation. Right now the orchestra knows everything they’ll be performing through the 2008-2009 season. And I’ve already started working on ’09-’10 because you have to line up the guest artists, and they’re busy. Or if you’re working with the soloists from the orchestra, they need time to prepare.

In a sense, conductors have to work in long structures, not only in terms of planning. For example, I’m now at my desk studying the music that I’m going to be doing next year. You have to show up having internalized all that music. Then you have to know where to ship it for it to be there at the appropriate time for the first rehearsal.

Packing is the worst part. I do have a complete wardrobe in Naples, so I don’t have to pack anymore, just a little thing here and a little thing there. But in the next few days, I’m going to be shipping a whole bunch of scores to Naples. And some of these are scores that I’m going to be doing elsewhere, but have to continue working on while I’m in Naples.

And so this creates a situation where a conductor’s brain is active all the time. That’s why so many conductors live to be so old—because their brains, as well as their bodies, are fully engaged. Imagine the aerobics going into this, the rehearsals, the concerts, planning.

And while you’re conducting, you need to be in three zones all at once. You have the present, which you’re taking care of, but the present is a result of what was just the immediate past, in terms of timeline, musically, the continuum. Plus, you’ve got to be ready for what’s coming.

Breathing and Conducting for Non-conductors

In the ’70s, I had a conducting class for non-conducting majors at Juilliard. People like Itzhak Perlman. I built up, through a series of graduated exercises, a bunch of good conducting habits for them. If you know a little bit about conducting and what it takes, and what type of breathing to do, it carries over to their instruments, too.

Without breathing, there’s no energy. The breath is basically the motor that propels the music. If you’re breathing correctly and you’re centered correctly, your body’s working for you. If you don’t breathe correctly, and you’re not centered, then you have trouble organizing your gestures to fit the musical idea you have.

The conductor who breathes well immediately relaxes the whole orchestra, and you get a different sound because they’re breathing with you. And so the whole thing is like one big, vibrating organism.


The musicians show up completely prepared. Very often if there’s a piece that they don’t know, they buy a recording, so they hear how their part fits into the whole thing. And I’ve never known the Naples Philharmonic to not be 100 percent prepared for the first rehearsal. It’s really wonderful.

We have four rehearsals before a program of maybe nine hours total. If you have two rehearsals in one day, the first rehearsal is two-and-a-half hours with a 15-
minute break, and the second rehearsal is two hours with a 10-minute break.

In general, I like to go through the whole piece first. I think it’s important that they get the sense of how it all connects. I think in very special circumstances, if you’re doing a piece that’s built on very little details, it requires microscopic work. It’s amazing how they’re able to organize and internalize how they fit into the picture, so by the second rehearsal, everything is in place.

You keep editing until you have the complete thing. The important thing is not to peak too soon, because if you do at the dress rehearsal then it’s very possible that the energy has been siphoned off at the performance.

If I’m feeling bored, then I know the musicians are feeling bored. And if I feel, "Well, we almost reached the peak; everything is in place," then there’s no point in pumping energy at the dress rehearsal. You save the energy for the performance. Very often I will just play excerpts, not the whole piece, because they will have played it through, in one way or another, before.

Vibrations and Surfing

There are two different states of mind for a conductor. The rehearsal state of mind is one in which you are, as a conductor, projecting energy that may or may not be returned. It’s like sympathetic vibrations. And you know what to rehearse when the vibrations you’re getting back don’t match your vibrations.

It’s like a speaker. Sometimes you hear a speaker, and you doze off, right? There’s a monotone, or there’s no energy in the voice. Somehow the words are not put together right. So when you’re putting out energy, and it’s mirrored back exactly, then there’s nothing to rehearse. The rhythm is exactly the way you’re feeling it in your solar plexus, or the balance is the way you hear it in your brain. When there’s a dissonance between what you’re putting out and what you’re receiving back, you then know what to rehearse.

Conducting, at its very essence, is a silent art. A conductor’s technique ought to be able to transmit every single bit; it has to be as specific to the sound and the rhythm as is required. And the more you know an orchestra, the less you have to talk.

In a rehearsal, you’re using your critical faculties, whereas in a performance, you’re surfing. At a rehearsal, you tell the music how it goes. But at the performance, you listen to the music, and it tells you where to go. So you tune into your intuitive part of the brain and listen for the music to drive you.

And that’s what makes performances of even warhorses into fresh experience, because it’s like a conversation. You never know which way a conversation’s going to go. If you rehearse a conversation, then it’s stilted.

It’s like a surfer; you have to sense where the wave is starting to go, and you ride it. It’s less about control at a performance than people would think. That’s very anti-intuitive, but that’s what makes it interesting.

Obviously, if stuff starts to fall apart, then you jump in and fix it. There are techniques. If the orchestra starts rushing, there are certain things you can do. If things are not together, there are certain things you can do. But in general, this orchestra doesn’t need that. They are like a racehorse. You let them have their head. That’s what’s fun about a performance. You let an orchestra run. They feel good; they don’t feel like slaves. They feel like the artists they are.

Meeting with New Orchestras

With each orchestra, you have to adjust. Some orchestras have their own character, and they’re used to playing in a certain way. You have to know where you have to adjust, and where to let them do their thing. So every performance with every orchestra of the same piece might go different, depending on numerous variables.

The time I first came down to conduct the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra, I didn’t have any plans to apply for conducting here. I was just here as a guest. It was an amazing experience. First, I had never heard of the Naples Philharmonic. So when I got there, I was bowled over by how flexible they are. Proficient is an understatement. I mean, the musicianship of that orchestra is just world-class.

Apparently, they couldn’t figure me out. You get used to a relationship, and my way of working was obviously different from my predecessor, Christopher Seaman. So first, they were so used to him. He’d been there 11 years, I think. When I got there, I had my own way of working. So at the first rehearsal, they couldn’t figure me out. But by the second rehearsal, they understood, and apparently people were saying that the sound of the orchestra was so different at the concert. For some reason, everything clicked.

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