Setting the tempo

xxConducting an orchestra or ensemble is demanding. It also offers students deep and detailed exposure and experience to leadership qualities in the world of music. A roundup of Harvard students and professionals discuss their roles and reasons for pursuing the baton. 

By guest blogger William Swett '22

In typically ambitious fashion, the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra will be performing two major symphonic works for a concert on March 2: Symphony No. 3 in C Major by Sibelius and Symphony No. 104 by Haydn. What will not be typical, however, is the special role that student conductors will be playing in this performance.

“This will be the first concert in a really long time that the student conductors are conducting the entire program,” said Reuben Stern ‘20 after a recent rehearsal of the Sibelius. “It’s a fantastic program, for one, and just an absolutely incredible opportunity to get to conduct such a great, large orchestra in full symphonies, in real, meaty, deep, detailed symphonic repertoire.”

The last time an HRO performance was entirely student-led is unclear, but HRO music director Federico Cortese hopes to expand the scope of student conductors in the future. Heading into this semester, Cortese tapped two student conductors for another reason, however. He found out he would be having surgery, which would inhibit his ability to conduct. Rather than cancel the concert or have another professor conduct, Cortese

Ma Stern
Classmates Ma and Stern
decided to hand the baton to Stern and Gordon Ma 19’.

“This is definitely the biggest thing I’ve ever done,” Ma said after a recent rehearsal of the Haydn. “The challenge with Haydn is how to raise the bar from good to great, which requires knowing what you want.”

Both conductors are veterans in their own right. Stern is the music director of the Bach Society Orchestra, and Ma has served as an assistant conductor to the Bach Society. Stern and Ma have also takend Cortese’s conducting class twice.

Stern and Ma are united by another shared interest; they are both math concentrators, though neither says they see any connection between music and math. “People always remark, ‘Math and music, they’re so related!’ And to that, I have to roll my eyes, and say, ‘You’ve obviously never done both,’” said Stern. He does concede that there is at least one connection between the subjects. “Appreciating abstraction in orchestra music where the story isn’t explicit can perhaps help you appreciate abstraction in math, where things often aren’t explicit,” he added.

Arianna Paz '19 and Samuel Rosner '20 in HCO's "Cendrillon" conducted by Wenzelberg
Ma and Stern aren’t the only student conductors on campus. In February, Benjamin Perry Wenzelberg '21 led the Harvard College Opera in a run of Massenet’s Cendrillon in Agassiz Theatre. Preparation for Cendrillon began 10 months ago, when Wenzelberg began intensely studying the score. His dedication to the music didn’t go unnoticed. “During rehearsals most of the time he conducted with a closed opera score because he had the entire thing memorized,” said Arianna Paz ‘19, who played the title role. “I’m sure he could sing through every single word, every single orchestra part individually if you asked him to.”

As music director of HCO, Wenzelberg worked with the chorus, orchestra, producers, directors and a myriad of other people to put on the show. “I see conducting as one of the most excitingly collaborative things, and, at the end of the day, the way to get things done is to remember that you are there to make music,” he said. Wenzelberg also sees a strong connection between music and being an English concentrator: “I see analyzing a score the same way you would close-read a poem. You are presented with a story or narrative, you find things that mean something to you and you create an interpretation from it.”

Outside of the world of the opera and the symphony orchestra, student conductor Amir Siraj '21 is engaged in yet another conducting approach. A classically-trained pianist in the Harvard-NEC
dual-degree program, Siraj mixed things up this semester by auditioning and become the conductor of the Hasty Pudding Theatricals. “The Pudding has a particular auditory aesthetic – a brassy, swung, big-band feel,” Siraj said. “Believe it or not, this is my first conducting experience. Now I’m conducting 37 shows.”

While many of the great opportunities for conducting exist outside of the classroom, Harvard professors remain strong resources for students interested in the craft.

“Harvard is an excellent place to be a conductor,” Cortese said. “Between the opportunities [conductors] get and the conducting class offered, if they start early enough, they will come out with 90 percent of the experience that their peers don’t have.” As a result, Cortese has high expectations for his students. “I’m sorry if someone misunderstands it … but my message is: It’s hard. We are not even aware of how many mistakes we make. You need someone who says: Hey, that’s not good enough. And then you develop.” Ma said that though most of the students taking Cortese’s class are not studying music, they are “as serious as conservatory students.”

The Harvard University Band is a student-conducted ensemble, and in the fall semester, Mark E. Olson, director of Harvard Band, Harvard University Wind
Harvard University Wind Ensemble with Mark Olson, conductor
 Ensemble and the Sunday Jazz Band helps students on a more physical level with the demands of conducting by teaching baton skills. Throughout the year, he mentors them with the “physical and personal skills” needed as a conductor. In the realm of jazz, Olson says that though there aren’t official positions for student conductors, if he needs to miss a rehearsal, he’ll ask someone from the rhythm section with a good ear to lead the rehearsal. He'll hold the baton for a free Wind Ensemble concert on March 1. 

Do these students continue to conduct after they leave Harvard? Ma says it’s unlikely he’ll continue after Harvard, Stern is unsure, and Siraj says he’s caught the conducting bug, but isn’t sure if it will last after Harvard. Cortese estimates that at least four students he knew at Harvard have gone on to professional conducting, including one who went on to become assistant conductor at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Though career paths and concentrations may not unite the diverse group of student conductors at Harvard, one thing certainly does. They all gave the same answer to the question: What do you think about when you’re walking down the street?” Wenzelberg summed it up this way: “I’m the kind of person who will bump into a pole because I’m so focused on the music that’s inside my head.

For info about the Harvard Wind Ensemble Concert, directed by Mark Olson on March 1, click here.
For tickets to the HRO concert, conducted Reuben by Stern '20 and Gordon Ma '19 on March 2, click
For tickets to the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, conducted by Amir Siraj '21 through March 10 at Farkas Hall, click

See also: Jazz, Music