A new feature of the 2015 National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America is the addition of conducting apprenticeships, and this year two young musicians have been selected to fill these new roles within the orchestra. One of those is first-time NYO-USA member Christopher Vazan, who has ambitions to pursue a career as a professional conductor. He explains that his desire to "feel ... music in its entirety" has decided his intended career path.
One night a couple years ago, while lying in bed, I put on a recording of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. As I settled toward sleep, my other senses idle in the darkness, I entered a state of musical hyper-sensitivity. The sounds that poured into my ears were translated directly into emotional messages: highly abstract, yet all the more moving. The orchestra played its short introduction before dying away to allow the solo violin to enter with a brief cadenza. A breath. And then, over pizzicato punctuation in the cellos, the violinist began to play the most ethereal melody I had ever heard. I jumped out of bed.
“I wanted to feel this music in its entirety—I had to conduct.”
For years prior, music had been a tremendous passion and source of inspiration for me. Practicing piano was my favorite and most important activity. But I was determined to pursue a career in math or science. “Something practical,” people would say. But at this point, the realization occurred instantaneously: I simply had to be involved in the music world. No other part of my life could elicit such powerful, deep satisfaction. I now realized that my place in life lay on the other side of the speakers.
Yet the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto has no piano part, nor could any one instrument ever satisfy my thirst to experience and project the totality of the piece I was hearing. I wanted to feel this music in its entirety—I had to conduct. As a pianist, I derive tremendous satisfaction from the sensation of physically drawing sound from the instrument, from the knowledge that complete control over every detail of expression lies under my fingertips. But in transitioning from the piano bench to the podium, I feel a sort of transcendence come about. The pianist's body creates the music; the conductor’s body becomes the music. Mastering the art of this metamorphosis is to be my life’s quest.
In the two years since, I have spent my free time diving into every subject relevant to this pursuit. Aside from actual conducting lessons, probably the most important thing has been simply listening to music—all the time. I feel a burning need to absorb as much music as possible now, to have each piece that I may end up conducting grow to become a part of me years before I conduct it. Whatever grabs my interest, I download from the International Music Score Library Project and read at the piano. I have taken clarinet lessons to help me develop an empathetic connection with members in the orchestra—soon, I plan to pick up the cello. This summer, I’m going to pester my peers to tell me about their instruments and maybe even let me try them out myself. Finally, languages—my primary ambition is to conduct opera. To that end, I have studied French and German, and will start Italian this year. The amount of knowledge and experience a conductor needs to gain, in fields both musical and nonmusical, is enormous. That’s what makes conducting so inspiring to study.
As part of his role as conducting apprentice, Christopher will have the opportunity to learn from 2015 NYO-USA conductor Charles Dutoit (left) and Orchestra Director James Ross (right). (Photography: Dutoit by Lawrence K. Ho, Ross by Chris Lee)
For me, listening to music is a visceral experience, so the task of bringing it from the page into the physical world is one to which I am eager to devote my life. This is where NYO-USA comes in. At American conservatories, degrees in conducting are typically offered only at the graduate level, and there is only very limited conducting experience to be gained during one’s college years; thus, for an experience like this to be available to high schoolers is a unique opportunity—practically unheard of. As one of two conducting apprentices, I will get to lead a smaller ensemble within the orchestra in a “conductor’s lab” session, gathering feedback from Orchestra Director James Ross. I will also have a chance to lead the full orchestra during one of the rehearsals. And I will learn from the opportunity to observe in detail the work of maestro Charles Dutoit in rehearsal and performance. I look forward to developing a deeper understanding of the community of the orchestra—the dynamics of its inner workings and, in the words of Mr. Ross, “the symbiosis between the conductor and this organism in all its glorious complexity.”
View Christopher's profile, and learn more about the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America.