Stern brings historian’s perspective to conducting; returns to lead CSO through seafaring repertory

Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra assistant principal cellist Jolyon Pegis and principal cellist Chaim Zemach play in Thursday’s concert. Photo by Lauren Rock.


Kelsey Burritt | Staff Writer

Keeping with the theme of the week is a challenge for the programming of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra. Guest conductor Michael Stern, however, managed to do so fluidly. He will steer the CSO through a water-themed concert at 8:15 p.m. tonight in the Amphitheater.

The program includes Ravel’s “Une barque sur l’océan” from “Miroirs,” and Leonard Bernstein’s “Symphonic Suite” from “On The Waterfront,” but Stern most looks forward to the closing piece of the program — Debussy’s “La Mer.”

“It’s like seeing through a wonderfully prismatic glass. The color is incredible,” Stern said. “You’re looking through glass. It’s a shimmering image of the sound.”

Stern has been a guest at Chautauqua before, when he conducted soloist and then-Music Director Joseph Silverstein in 1986. He returns to conduct the CSO’s concert this evening and Thursday night.

“I’m looking very much forward to coming back. It’s a very special place,” Stern said. “It leads to a lot of interesting discussion — I remember that. The fact that music can be part of that climate is wonderful.”

Of course, “Water Matters” is not solely about H20, Stern said. It also concerns the political, economic and social issues surrounding it — a forum in which music can participate.

“Music changes people. Music is the greatest communication, and it changes the way we see the world,” Stern said. “And we need change in the world. What’s important is that we continue to fight to make sure that arts have as important a seat at the table as any political or economic discussion.”

Stern is currently the music director of the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra. The son of a violinist, Stern always had music in his life but studied at Harvard, where he received an undergraduate degree in American history.

“I had a good fortune of being able to go and study other things,”
Stern said. “I was a player from a very early age and decided at a certain point that I was not going to be going down that path professionally.”

Stern said his degree taught him, like any conductor, to contextualize and research any piece of music he conducts. The history of a piece informs the decision-making and the style the conductor can bring.

“The more you can understand about the context in which the piece was written and what it meant to the audiences at the time,” Stern said, “the more you can make it relevant and meaningful to the audiences of our time, which is, I think, the more you know, the more it helps you.”

As crucial as understanding the piece in its own time, Stern said, it is also critical to view the piece as a blueprint for an artistic statement in 2012.

By the end of his undergraduate career, Stern realized that music was pulling him back. He discovered a book that would prove formative in more ways than one: The Grammar of Conducting: A Comprehensive Guide to Baton Technique and Interpretation by Max Rudolf.

“As an American history major, you have this idea of research and scholarship, and yet being a conductor is very much being a performer, so it’s really a combination of those two things if you do it right,” Stern said. “And that, I think, was the initial attraction for me.”

Captivated by the book and by the notion of conducting, Stern contacted Rudolph and began to study with him privately while enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music as a performance major. Three years into his degree, the school re-founded the conducting program under Rudolph’s leadership, and Stern remained two extra years to study with him.

“When I met him, he was already well into his 80s,” Stern said of Rudolf. “And that book, that great book that had been so important to me, the publisher asked him to do a third completely revised and expanded edition, and I was lucky enough to work on that with him.”

Rudolf lived long enough to see the book published in 1995 — what Stern saw as a final thank you to his mentor.

Stern then held the position as assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra and traveled as a guest conductor before achieving his position with the Kansas City Symphony.

Ravel’s “Une barque sur l’océan,” the orchestra’s first piece tonight, was originally a movement from a piano sonata illustrating the quiet scene of a ship on the ocean. Ravel transposed the movement for orchestra himself.

Next on the program is Bernstein’s “Symphonic Suite” from “On The Waterfront,” a 1954 film starring Marlon Brando about corruption in dockworker unions in New Jersey.

“ ‘On The Waterfront,’ first of all, is a wonderful score. And it’s the first movie he ever scored, and he just intuitively knew how to do it great,” Stern said. “The whole idea that the waterfront, and the life on the docks, is an integral part of that story. I thought that was related to the (week’s water) theme.”

The concert closes with “La Mer,” a piece that was groundbreaking for its time and still stands among the classics of symphonic repertory.

“That piece is illusionary. It’s absolute genius,” Stern said. “Nobody could imagine music like that before. And he does it with such evocative and perfect balance.”

Aside from the balance of research and performance that first drew Stern to conducting, he said he is captivated by the human energy and the artistic focus that bonds the ensemble.

“There’s something magical about the idea of bringing together all of these like-minded, extraordinarily talented people to make this one thing happen in time,” Stern said.