No matter how proficient you’ve become as a musician over the years — and how accustomed you’ve become to being in the public spotlight — there has to be at least a tinge of anxiety when you sit down and play a solo for your former teacher.
That’s the case this weekend for Thomas Loewenheim, who has an extremely busy three days in front of him between performing as a guest soloist with the Fresno State Symphony Orchestra on Saturday and conducting the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra on Sunday. When he sits down Saturday night to play the Dvorak Cello Concerto, Loewenheim will be following the baton of David Effron, the head of conducting at Indiana University, the former head of conducting of the Eastman School of Music — and, not concidentally, Loewenheim’s conducting teacher. It will be the first time the pair will collaborate together in a live concert. (8 p.m. Saturday, Paul Shaghoian Concert Hall).
Of course, you can’t muster up too much sympathy for Loewenheim — he asked for it, after all. He’s the one who invited Effron to work for a week with the Fresno State orchestra, which he conducts on a regular basis. I caught up with him via email to ask him about the experience of playing for his mentor.
Question: Are you nervous?
Answer: Even though Prof. Effron has been very supportive and very complimentary about my playing during and after rehearsals, performing with/for your teacher is very intense, and in a way scary. You know, Maestro Effron performed and worked with some of the finest musicians in the history of classical music. He even performed the Dvorak Concerto with my cello teacher, Janos Starker, who is one of the greatest cellists in history. The stressful thing is not so much that he was my teacher, but that he has so much knowledge and experience. Add the fact that he truly is one of the great musicians of his generation, and this is all very inspiring and humbling.
In addition, we are performing with my students, who are listening very carefully to the way I am playing, and the last thing I would want to do is disappoint them.
What has Effron’s time been like in Fresno so far?
I asked Maestro Effron that exact same question yesterday after the rehearsal. He is very happy to be here and very happy to see what we have accomplished so far with our orchestral program. He said it was an honor for him to come and work with the students of his student. He also mentioned that he found the students to be very genuine and very attentive. He was impressed with their ability to listen, learn, and remember what he asked them to do in the next rehearsal, something most university orchestras are not able to do.
He is working with the orchestra like a professional orchestra, pushing the students to new heights and demanding them to be like a professional group. In addition, he had a Q & A session with the students in which he shared his life story, his experiences (good and bad), answered students and faculty questions, and maybe most importantly, shared with the students his life experience and his views and philosophies about music. A very inspirational hour in which the students got to connect with a seasoned and very experiences musician who has toured the world and taught in some of the top institutions in the world.
Over this week, he will have four rehearsals and the concert this coming Saturday. We will perform Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and the Dvorak Cello Concerto.
What are some of your memories of being his student?
Well – I could sit here for many hours and write down the memories from Maestro Effron’s classes – and I mean – many hours…
I think that over all his helping us understand the complexities of music, and how to understand it, analyze it, and find solutions for conveying our interpretations to the musicians we conduct, was the most important thing he taught us. But probably the most memorable are all the stories that accompanied every example he gave us. For every opera aria there was always a funny story about a singer who missed their entrances, came in with the wrong aria, or some other catastrophe, which always ended with a hilarious punch line.
The colorful stories that accompanied each and every lesson, each example, and each phrase, were definitely the highlight of each class, making the music world look very colorful and exciting, and we all just wanted to go out there and experience what he was so lovingly and excitedly describing to us from his own experiences on stage.
What was the most important thing he taught you about conducting?
What was most amazing for me to witness in the past few days, was how different Maestro Effron conducts and his interpretations are quite different from mine even though he is the one who worked with me on same repertoire when I studies with him. What I am trying to say is that I am so impressed with the way he was teaching us to solve problems and deal with our own interpretations, guiding us in our quest for transforming our interpretations into hand motions that direct the musicians we work with, but at the same time, leave our interpretations unique and fresh. He would of course share with us the traditions of interpretations, of past great conductors, and shared many conducting techniques which I use constantly in rehearsals today.
I also think it is very important to mention that in addition to conducting issues, Maestro Effron always made sure we think like human beings first, treat our colleagues with respect, and continue to share our love for music in a genuine way, without having an attitude. Staying grounded, as he used to say, was very important to him, and even though he was always very demanding in class, he also was one of the most caring teachers I ever had, which I hope I can pass on to my students.
Give us a brief pitch for the “Viva la Mexico” concert you’ll be conducting Sunday with the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra (7 p.m. Sunday, Paul Shaghoian Concert Hall). What are some of the highlights on the program?
The “Viva la Mexico” concert is going to be a huge feast of exciting works one after the other. We will start the concert with one of the most exciting works in the American literature – “El Salon Mexico” by Aaron Copland. This work has many solos for all the instrumentalists in the orchestra, and feels like a trip to Mexico with all different styles and pictures of Latin music visited in this exiting work. We will continue Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with soloist Prof. Andreas Werz from Fresno State. This is an exciting collaboration because we get to work with a phenomenal pianist and because the kids LOVE this music and it shows in their performance.
After intermission we will focus our attention on Mexican composers: we will start with Moncayo’s “Huapango,” an exciting work with fast rhythms and beautiful melodies. We will continue with “Sinfonia India” by Chaves. This piece is extremely challenging since it has complex rhythms and a different meter every measure. This piece incorporates several sections which alternate between complex rhythmic areas and some beautiful slow melodic sections. In the middle, it has a mysterious section with an interesting orchestration where the horns have a slow melody with an accompaniment of trumpets, harp and percussion. This section sounds like some old Mayan music, which then grows in intensity, culminating in a repeat of the complex and intense rhythmic sections. We will finish the program with the orchestra’s favorite piece of this program, Danzon No. 2 by Marquez, a passionate work that starts with a beautiful melody in the clarinet and grows into a passionate and exciting dance for the entire orchestra.
Over all, the pieces have a great combination of exciting rhythms with some of the most beautiful and passionate melodies that music associated with Mexico can offer. We are very excited and honored to be able to offer such a program here in our community.