It’s hard to believe Marzena Diakun and Keitaro Harada haven’t been close friends for years, but the two only became acquainted when they arrived in Chestertown two weeks ago to participate as apprentice conductors at the National Music Festival. (Harada noted that they both attended a competition a few years back, but had made no attempt to know each other.) The two were laughing and finishing each other’s sentences when the Spy managed to catch them between rehearsals on Tuesday for a brief lesson on all things conducting .
The apprentice conductors (there are three at this festival, the third is Tiffany Lu) attend all the concerts, conduct their own pieces, and are understudies for the main conductors: Richard Rosenberg and Leonardo Rubin. Both Diakun and Harada have impressive bios.
Harada, originally from Tokyo, now lives in Phoenix, Arizona, where he is principal guest conductor for the Sierra Vista Symphony Orchestra, assistant conductor for Arizona Opera and music director for Phoenix Youth Symphony. He was also recently featured on NPR’s “From the Top.” Diakun, whose website is in three languages, resides in Wroclaw, Poland. She is currently a guest conductor with the National Philharmonic Orchestra in Warsaw, the Czech National Radio and Television Orchestra, the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, among others, and artistic director of the Wroclaw Youth Orchestra. She also plays piano, but said she has always wanted to be a conductor. Diakun also admitted that conducting can be a, “… difficult job for a woman,” and that she, “..needs extra skills.” Apparently not all orchestra members are happy seeing a female holding the baton.
The discussion turned to a job description. Diakun stated that perhaps 50% of the conductor’s time is spent with music; Harada added that not only does the conductor need to have good management skills, but that he (she) is also a figurehead, a desired presence at functions, and a key figure in fundraising. They arrived a week early to perform librarian functions and attend donor events. Caitlin Patton and Richard Rosenberg, executive and artistic director, respectively, of the National Music Festival, made sure to involve the apprentices in appearances with the festival donors; trusting them to be good representatives.
The conductor must also know the parts of all the instruments in all the scores. Diakun and Harada were notified of the selections a month prior to the festival. Both emphasized that conducting is very interpretive; there is no ‘wrong move,’ no manual for each piece. Diakun described it as, “… hearing, analyzing and anticipating…and finding a solution if something is not correct.” Harada said, “For example, you could have eight different conductors with the same piece and the same orchestra, and the performances would all sound different.” Conversely, if a musician plays a wrong note, everyone is aware of it immediately. It is the conductor’s job to make sure that the oboist who is busy changing his reed comes in at the right time. Diakun likened it to an air traffic controller; it is her job to keep everyone going in the right direction at the right speed. Both agreed that it is wrong when a conductor does not know the score; it is then not a collaboration, and definitely not respectful to the musicians. Diakun said that orchestras and conductors generally know within three to five minutes whether they want to work with each other, and that on occasion you can tell just from the conductor’s walk. Harada added that sometimes professional orchestras will even make deliberate mistakes to test conductors.
Do all performances need conductors ? Harada remarked that it depends on the size; four to eight people may not need one; and more importantly, the difficulty of the piece. Diakun noted that ninety percent of the conductor’s work is done during rehearsals; and that the actual appearance during the show is more for the public.
They emphasized the collaborative aspect of this particular festival, and their pleasure at the lack of aggressive competitiveness that is present at many other similar events. Harada said that Richard (Rosenberg) gave them plenty of artistic freedom; that he was very honest and told them if, “something didn’t work.”
Both will be conducting this Friday, June 15; Diakun: Verdi’s Overture to La Forza del Destino; and Harada: Hummel’s Concert for Trumpet and Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Four Winds. Diakun will also conduct Haydn’s Concerto #1 in C for Violoncello tonight, Wednesday June 13, at Washington College’s Decker Theatre. ( She described the piece as, “..very difficult for the solo cello,” and that the, “…sound should be very pure, almost transparent.”
The festival concludes Saturday, June 16, with the Festival Symphony Orchestra performing at the college. (Diakun will be conducting there, as well; a Jazz Nocturne by Dana Suesse.)