Maestro in the making

by Tom Lee

Yuga Cohler ’11, a computer science concentrator in Eliot House, is the 43rd music director of Harvard’s Bach Society Orchestra (commonly referred to as "BachSoc"), which was established in 1954 to study and perform works for chamber orchestra. He also serves as the assistant conductor of the World Civic Orchestra, with which he made his Carnegie Hall Isaac Stern Auditorium debut this past summer, performing Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings.

On February 1, Cohler was scheduled to moderate a public conversation with Hugh Wolff ’75, who served as BachSoc’s music director as an undergraduate; that event has been cancelled due to inclement weather. Wolff, the director of orchestras at New England Conservatory, is an acclaimed conductor whose interests span Baroque performance practice and the championing of new works. Harvard Arts Beat asked Cohler about BachSoc's history and what it takes to be a maestro leading an ensemble of his student peers.

How do you think the Bach Society Orchestra has changed since Hugh Wolff led it back in the mid-70s?

It's difficult to say if anything really has. The repertoire has expanded a bit—we now play more Romantic music (Brahms' Second Symphony in our upcoming concert)—and I imagine we are a slightly bigger orchestra now; however, I doubt that the spirit of BachSoc has changed at all. We are, and probably always have been, characterized by the entrepreneurial drive and collaborative effort that comes from being an entirely student-run orchestra.

BachSoc’s name suggests that it focuses mainly on baroque and classical music. How is the ensemble’s repertory relevant to contemporary audiences and musical tastes?

Our name is somewhat of a misnomer. Although in the beginning, BachSoc focused primarily on Baroque repertoire and pieces by Bach, it has since evolved into a chamber orchestra which performs everything from Beethoven to Stravinsky. For better or for worse, our season this year includes not a single piece by Bach. As for relating to contemporary audiences, we generally try to include at least one modern piece per season—this year it was Charles Ives' Three Places in New England. In addition, we hold a composition competition annually for undergraduate student composers.

What is the most important thing you’ve learned as conductor of BachSoc?

If there's one thing I've learned from music directing BachSoc, it's that conducting is tremendously difficult. Aside from the obvious musical requisites (a good ear, solid sense of rhythm), a conductor—especially a student one—needs to strike the right balance between humility and charisma in order to be effective. It is a conductor's job to lead an orchestra and point out the flaws and shortcomings in its playing; on the other hand, such direction can easily become abusive and overbearing. Aside from this, the music director is the face of the orchestra, in terms of marketing, publicity and so on. In this sense, the most important things I've learned from BachSoc have probably been more interpersonal than musical, more practical than theoretical.

Many people bemoan the fact that the audience for classical music is graying and dying out. What can orchestras and record labels do to bring in younger audiences, and keep them interested and engaged?

First, to some extent this is a misconception: There was never really a time when "classical" music could compete with the grandeur of today's popular music. In Beethoven's time, a concert was considered a success when 300 or so people came; now, the Boston Symphony gathers 2,000 people regularly. In this sense, I don’t worry about classical music "graying and dying out" any more than I worry about the same thing happening to Shakespeare's sonnets.

At the same time, I do believe there are significant opportunities for classical musicians to benefit from the more popular forms of music. As someone (I forget who) once said, "There are only two types of music—good and bad." As such, I see nothing wrong with the prospect of mixing and matching different types of music—as the Boston Symphony has done, for instance, with James Taylor at Tanglewood—provided, of course, that the music is good and the program coherent. Put another way: If someone like Lady Gaga were to offer to sing some sort of pop "concerto" on a BachSoc concert which concluded with a Beethoven symphony, I would say yes.

Due to inclement weather, "A Conversation with Hugh Wolff" presented by the OFA Learning From Performers program, scheduled for 4 p.m. Tuesday, February 1, has been cancelled. At 8 p.m. Friday, February 4 in Harvard’s Sanders Theatre, Wolff will conduct the New England Conservatory Philharmonia in a program featuring works by Ravel,
Shostakovich and
Stravinsky. Information: 617.496.2222 (TTY 617.495.1642) or visit the Harvard Box Office website.

[Caption: Yuga Cohler '11 conducts Harvard's Bach Society Orchestra.]