Updated: Sep 26
In May 2022 I got called on a day’s notice to guest conduct the San Francisco Civic Symphony. The scheduled conductor had tested positive for Covid, and although had mild symptoms, was unable to conduct the concert. I had one rehearsal, plus a short dress rehearsal. The program was music I was familiar with, but hadn’t previously performed:
Gershwin – An American in Paris
Barber – Violin Concerto
Hanson – Symphony no. 2
Here are a few lessons from that experience, should you find yourself in a similar situation.
Once you get the gig, it’s your concert
The orchestra had already rehearsed with the scheduled conductor. He offered to send me his tempos that the orchestra had already gotten used to, but I politely declined. The orchestra deserves a conductor who is fully committed to the music. You have to conduct the way you think the music should go, not try to copy somebody else’s conception of the music. If I had no rehearsals I would ask for tempos, where the conductor is in 2 or 4, etc. I would want the orchestra to see what they’re used to seeing. But 1 rehearsal is enough to start out by being yourself.
As soon as rehearsal starts you’re going to get a lot of information. You’re going to have to decide what to try to change and what to let go. You’re going to get hands up, saying things like, “Are you doing that in 2? Because she was doing it in 4”. Then you’re going to have to decide if it’s easier to just do it in 4 because that’s what they’re used to – and maybe it’s even better, you only had 1 day to learn the score after all. But start off on the right foot. You’re on the podium to be musical and expressive to the musicians, which means being genuine in everything you do.
Be flexible - and extra calm
This next point contradicts the previous point. When jumping in at the last minute, your main job is to get the best out of the musicians. The musicians are going to be extra nervous, especially if they’re never worked with you and don’t know you. You have to immediately convey a sense calm and control. If you take the podium with an air of panic or a look of deer-in-the-headlights, that will not set their minds at ease and they will not play better.
When jumping in, you’re not there to enforce your interpretation. Yes, start out with your interpretation, but you need to be extra flexible and accept how they are already doing most things. If things fall apart because you’re doing it completely differently than they are used to, just ask to do it again. But be flexible and try to meet them where they are. Now is not the time to insist on them being flexible, now is the time for you to be flexible. They will appreciate your equal commitment to the music and the orchestra, and will play even better for you.
Have a plan
If you only get 1 rehearsal, you can’t just do a run through and see what needs rehearsal. Don’t waste time conducting through large sections in the same tempo – trust the orchestra can do that on their own. They need to see how you are going to start each movement, do each transition, cue difficult entrances, etc. Additionally, you might not be sure how you want to conduct certain sections. I only had a day with the scores, and each work has several tempo changes and difficult transitions. To be honest, I wasn’t completely sure how I would do each before rehearsal started.
Start off rehearsal with a few sections you’re sure are going to work out. Build everyone’s confidence (including your own) with a few easy wins. Then get to the more challenging sections - those you aren’t as sure about. You might have to ask for a multiple takes, just for yourself. But the orchestra will see that you have identified the challenges and are working through them systematically, and that will build significant trust and good will.
You can’t cram learning the music – you do have to prioritize
Shortly after getting the call I spoke with a good friend who is a very experienced concertmaster. I told her I couldn’t talk for long because I had to learn the program. She suggested I listen to recordings over and over and conduct along. Although I didn’t get into a debate with her, I thought this was completely the wrong approach. The conductor has to lead the orchestra – you can’t practice by being reactive. If you really don’t know the work, perhaps you could use several recordings to familiarize yourself with it. Otherwise, you need to internalize the music, and I firmly believe you can’t do that through recordings.
Learning music in a short amount of time is difficult. You have to prioritize what to learn. One of the most important things to identify immediately is, what is the most important part in any given measure? If things start getting shaky, this is the part everybody can hear to get things back together. This is especially important in dense music like the Gershwin. Make sure you identify that part for every measure of music. It also can help you – if you start getting overwhelmed and lost in the score, you have an anchor to hold onto until you can get your bearings. Whatever you decide to learn, make sure you know it completely.
Finally, if you have only a day to learn the scores, don’t practice conducing. Don’t even pick up the baton. Trust yourself and your technique to be musical. Spend your time learning the score. The better you know the score, the better you’ll conduct. The better you know the score, the better you’ll lead the orchestra.
Don’t be afraid to jump in. If you get the call, that means things are in a state of uncertainty and you can bring calm and order, which is a big part of leadership. It’s also a great opportunity to impress an orchestra. Case in point, the San Francisco Civic Symphony recently asked me to serve as their Principal Guest Conductor for the 2022-23 season, during which I’ll be conducting 2 programs. It’s a great challenge, and one that doesn’t come along all that often, so embrace it and enjoy the ride.