You are here

The Making of a Conductor

November 21, 2014
Benjamin Klemme on the conductor's podium
Benjamin Klemme, candidate for a Doctor of Musical Arts in Orchestra Conducting degree, is supported by a graduate assistantship. Advisor: Mark Russell Smith
Photo by Lisa Miller

It looks like dancing. Benjamin Klemme stands on a podium before a baby grand and a classroom of fellow student-conductors. His gestures alternate between grand sweeps of the arms and tiny flicks of a skinny white baton. He stops to cup his left hand before his face, pressing thumb to fingers as if pinching out a candle; two pianists, crowded behind the single keyboard, let the room fall silent.

Klemme's eyes lock on instructor Mark Russell Smith, the artistic director of orchestral studies, who mirrors him behind the pianists. He and Klemme could be twins, save for Klemme's wire-framed glasses and mop of brown hair. Both wear black button-down shirts, black jeans, black sneakers. Smith is quick to critique. "It's really about capturing the atmosphere," he says. "It's so much more magical if you stop moving and the audience is like: sigh."

Klemme lifts his arms with new energy. The pianists pound out the climactic scherzo of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2 while Smith calls out beats like a drill sergeant: one-two-three, one-two-three. Mid-phrase he halts Klemme, his voice sharp. "It's not energetic enough! It's not savage enough!"

Klemme lowers his baton, then, determined, raises it once more. This time there are no interruptions. The piano eventually dampens, and Smith grants Klemme the response he's worked for the last 20 minutes.

"That was much better," Smith says. "Now let's move on."

Every gesture considered

Historians say the first conductors were string players who, much like today's concertmasters, led their ensembles by keeping rhythm with their bows. Although contemporary conductors don't play with the orchestras they direct, "The conductor should be the best musician in the room," says Smith.

Portrait: Benjamin Klemme
Photo by Lisa Miller

Klemme began his career as a trombonist. From the back rows of high-school and college concert bands, he cataloged the detailed movements of his conductors' wrists during the long rests low brass sections often count. After learning to play the cello, clarinet, flute, French horn, and trumpet, he grew confident in his ability to communicate music not only to an audience but also to the performers themselves. He understands how a saxophonist breathes. He knows how a violinist bows. It's crucial to how he translates a musical score to an orchestra: Klemme inhales with the horns, swoops with the strings. That the conductor's postures mimic his musicians' is not coincidental.

"The conductor comes to the first rehearsal with every note as part of him, every gesture thought about and considered," Klemme says. But manifesting rhythm through one's body is just a small part of a conductor's work. If the podium performance is the iceberg's tip, then rigorous research is its underwater mass. For each piece Klemme conducts, he puts in hours of painstaking study to understand the historical, cultural, and political context in which it was written.

"I want to know where the composers were living, what they were doing for work, if there were special circumstances about the work they produced -- if the piece was commissioned or written for an event," Klemme says. He digs through newspaper clippings, reads letters sent between composers and friends. He's part historian, part psychologist.

Although Klemme argues no conductor can relay composers' emotions entirely, he does his utmost. "There are only imperfect performances," he says. "But we have an ideal. We try to advocate for the composers and understand the compositions in the context of the 20th century."

Translating a musical heritage for today's audiences

Such skills are not innate. Every conductor must be taught how to translate effectively music written perhaps hundreds of years ago for modern musicians and modern audiences. Seasoned conductors like Smith pass this knowledge on to novices like a family heirloom.

"The world is changing. The role of classical music is changing. But I so firmly believe in its intrinsic value," Smith says. "I still believe in its power and the necessity for civilized people to have it. I pour everything I have into sharing that legacy with my students."

Benjamin Klemme on the conductor's podium
Benjamin Klemme rehearsing musicians for the opera The Bartered Bride.
Photo by Lisa Miller

Maestro, as Klemme calls Smith, has conducted the St. Louis Symphony, Houston Symphony, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and Minnesota Orchestra, among others, and has collaborated with Yo-Yo Ma. A Juilliard-trained cellist, he studied conducting at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music under virtuoso conductors Max Rudolf and Otto-Werner Mueller. Like his mentors, Smith belongs to what he calls the alte schule (old school) conducting tradition. As much a philosophy as a physical approach, this European style isn't about flamboyance or pleasing audiences. It's about understanding and interpreting music, which is why Klemme spends as much time behind books as he does on a podium.

And that's saying something. Klemme estimates he's on stage at least 12 hours each week. He conducts the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies and the MacPhail Center for Music's Chamber Orchestra. He's guest-conducted the Cleveland Pops Orchestra, National Repertory Orchestra, and others. Today, when he's not conducting rehearsals for the University's Campus Orchestra, Symphony Orchestra, or Opera Theatre, or working on personal projects, he's likely within a stone's throw of Smith, soaking up advice. "Sometimes he will get a twinkle in his eye, and he'll recall a certain time he learned something from Max Rudolf, and he'll share that with me," Klemme says. "It's a tremendous privilege."

Meanwhile Smith says it's a privilege to impart knowledge to students. His pedagogy combines tough love with compassionate guidance. His doctoral conducting seminar is ordered and quiet, aside from piano chords or a student's foot tapping the beat. His orchestras are attentive, all eyes fixed on his baton. He says the key is to instruct using both the brain and the heart.

"It's not my goal to make a bunch of little 'me's.' It's my goal to help each student find his or her unique nonverbal language," Smith says. Klemme hopes to engage a similar approach as a professor of conducting. A James Sample Conducting Fellow, he will graduate in spring 2014 with a doctor of musical arts degree.

Chelsea Reynolds is a doctoral student in CLA's School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She has worked as a research assistant for the Association of Health Care Journalists and as an instructor of news writing at the Missouri School of Journalism. She has written for Men's Health, Better Homes and Gardens, and Midwest Living, among other publications.