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The battle for the baton

Four young music students compete to conduct the Fort Wayne Philharmonic in “The Conductor’s Apprentice”

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


Anyone familiar with NBC’s The Apprentice knows the scenario: a demanding job position, and a handful of eager young contestants willing to eat broken glass by the spoonful in order to win the approval of the boss and land the gig.

The Fort Wayne Philharmonic reveals its own version of that set-up with “The Conductor’s Apprentice” this January. The contestants aren’t obnoxious and desperate, the boardroom isn’t as harsh, and the boss doesn’t reek of self-satisfaction, but the rest of the scenario is very similar.

Four young hopefuls from the most prestigious music programs in the Midwest will vie for the opportunity to be hired to conduct the Fort Wayne Philharmonic during an upcoming pops concert. The Conductor’s Apprentice takes place Friday, Jan. 14, and Friday, Jan. 21 at Scottish Rite Center. The students will conduct pieces in the Philharmonic’s “Unplugged” concert, and be critiqued by the boardroom. Audience members will help pick the winner, and then join the orchestra the following week when one of the lucky apprentices will hear the coveted words: “You’re hired.”

The boardroom team includes Anna Ross, the Philharmonic’s Director of Education and Operations, and timpanist Eric Schweikert, representing the voice of the musicians. Heading up the whole process will be the Fort Wayne Philharmonic’s Assistant Conductor Bradley Thachuk.

Thachuk laughs when I ask him how it feels being cast in the Trump role. “I think it’ll be a little less, err… severe, but yes, I’ll be in charge of the final decision.” In other words, they’ll be a lot of intense criticism going on, but don’t worry that you’ll see some young hopeful get called “inept,” “stupid,” or “dumb” like in that other board room.

The four contestants have impressive resumes, and are probably used to the competition. Most graduate programs for conductors only admit a couple of candidates per year, and after they graduate the candidates usually have to go through the same gauntlet of interviews and self-promotion that most people in the job market face — with the added challenge that the field of “orchestral conductor” isn’t exactly rife with vacant spots.

One of the contestants is Andrew Altenbach, a second-year doctoral student at Indiana University with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in music from Northwestern and extensive experience as an opera coach (just to skim the surface of his bio). He says “The Conductor’s Apprentice” is a great way to dispel some of the myths and misconceptions people have about classical music. “I think it’s a great way to show that (classical music is) very interesting and that there’s a lot of energy, and it’s pertinent to our own lives. It can be fun. Applying these kind of pop culture ideas makes the whole business look less… stiff. Lots of people don’t even feel comfortable going to a concert hall. They feel they don’t know enough, or dress a certain way, or talk a certain way. That’s kind of silly, but it’s certainly understandable for people who don’t know what it’s all about.”

“The Conductor’s Apprentice” gives audiences a fun opportunity to see “what it’s all about,” and those worried that their knowledge of the finer points of baton technique might be a little hazy shouldn’t be concerned. These days, being the conductor of a community orchestra incorporates a wealth of skills and talents that aren’t always musical.

To make The Apprentice analogy even more explicit, the conductor has to have many qualities you’d want to see from any project manager — the ability to connect with the musicians, to engage an audience, and to be the face of the orchestra to the community. “Administratively, we’re looking for someone who can be an ambassador for the orchestra,” says Anna Ross. “How they program the concert, how they respond to the administration, how they work with volunteers… We’re going to critique all that as well.”

The whole public relations aspect of the job is essential, though not something graduate school courses spend much time on. Assistant Conductor Bradley Thachuk says he was lucky: back home in Canada, he was in a rock band called Alliance (“no one would know us down here”), which gave him the opportunity to learn how to talk to the media and to an audience before he became a conductor. But part of “The Conductor’s Apprentice” will focus on the candidates’ ability to engage the audience and the public. “Young conductors usually take a while to develop that skill,” Thachuk says. “They don’t train you for the public speaking and the interviews and the fund-raising aspects.”

On the musical side, Thachuk says he’ll be looking at things such as stick technique and how the conductor communicates with the musicians. “The more a conductor can show without opening their mouth, the more effective they are as a conductor,” he says. “If they can fix most things without talking, when they do talk, they’re in fine-tuning mode.”

Thachuk says he’ll also keep a sharp eye on how the candidates manage their rehearsal time. “It took me a while to learn this,” Thachuk says. “(Young conductors) get fixated on making something the way they want, and they run out of time, and the whole scope never gets there. Also, they’ll rehearse things that will fix themselves. You have to have respect for the musicians, and assume most of the technical problems will fix themselves.”

The Conductor’s Apprentice
Friday, January 14th, & Friday, January 21st
Scottish Rite Center, 431 W. Berry
Individual concert tickets: $20 for adults and $15 dollars for students.
Two-concert package: $35 for adults; $25 for students.
Tickets are available at the Philharmonic Box Office, 2340 Fairfield Av., Fort Wayne, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday; by telephone at 260-456-2224 (11 a.m. to 6 p.m. M-F); or at www.fortwaynephilharmonic.com

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©2018 Fort Wayne Reader. All rights Reserved.