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NYO-USA Musician Blogs: Rehearsing with Charles Dutoit

Conducting apprentice Christopher Vazan discusses some of his personal highlights from the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America's residency. He also describes the initial rehearsal with NYO-USA conductor Charles Dutoit after his arrival at Purchase College, SUNY.

Christopher Vazan
Conducting Apprentice

The first week of NYO-USA was replete with memories to cherish for years to come. The ubiquitous smiles as we walked back to the dorm after the first rehearsal. Field day and luau dinner on the Fourth of July. Impromptu rehearsals in dorm rooms (I once ran into a sextet of two violins, flute, piccolo, bassoon, and horn playing through Symphonie fantastique). By the end of the week, it felt as though we had all known each other for months.

NYO Chris Vazan conducting
Christopher conducts members of the orchestra during the "Lab Orchestra" workshop, under the watchful eye of NYO-USA Orchestra Director James Ross.

By the second week, the NYO community was fully established and firmly in place. We had become an ensemble, in and out of rehearsal. But on Wednesday morning, we welcomed a new member into our orchestra: Maestro Charles Dutoit. He appreciated our hearty applause, but within less than a minute of stepping on stage, he began to rehearse. He stopped after half a measure. For the next 15 minutes, he worked on crafting the melody of the first violins into what he wanted while the rest of the orchestra listened in awe. Mr. Dutoit’s voice is very soft, so the whole orchestra sat still in their chairs in order to be able to catch every word. Once he was satisfied with the first violins, he went back to the opening wind chords. He then proceeded to deconstruct them and build them back one note at a time. He would work with each individual instrument on intonation and balance. We had already had many sessions of sectionals, but during the first week, full rehearsals would naturally be spent working with the full ensemble, so it was surprising to see Maestro Dutoit work at such a microscopic scale with the rest of the orchestra standing by. But it was clear, once Maestro Dutoit put everything back together, that the results were immediate and extraordinary. By the end of the three-hour session, NYO-USA had found its sound.

Charles Dutoit at NYO Purchase (Jennifer Taylor)
NYO-USA Conductor Charles Dutoit arrived at Purchase College, SUNY, this week. He will lead the ensemble at each stop on the 2015 tour. (Photo: Jennifer Taylor)

For me, the highlight of rehearsal came during the fourth movement of the Berlioz—the “March to the Scaffold.” Right before the guillotine decapitates the symphony’s opium-addled protagonist, he sees one last vision of his beloved, whom he dreams he has murdered, and the idée fixe, the recurring musical theme that represents her, appears with unbelievable tenderness in a clarinet solo. In the brief instant before the blade crashes down, Maestro Dutoit’s face expressed this tenderness to a heartbreaking extent and everybody held their breath. He held that note for just a fraction of a second longer than what I have grown accustomed to from recordings and previous rehearsals, but it made all the difference in the world. The furor that followed, the drumroll and billowing brass chords, the sheer intensity of sound that came from every individual player in the orchestra, all catalyzed, consciously or subconsciously, by that added fleeting millisecond.

Intensity and stability are the two words that came to mind while watching Maestro Dutoit at work. At times, he keeps his left hand in his pocket. His upper right arm stays firmly in place and his beats come from the elbow. The expressive details that he conveys are subtle and deeply concentrated, usually very calm. When he makes a sudden movement that breaks free of his pattern, the orchestra responds with an explosive intensity unlike anything I have heard before. When not in his pocket, his left hand is faced upwards and slightly cupped, as if supporting the entire sound of the orchestra in his palm. Orchestra Director James Ross told me last week that “the conductor must be a tree.” What a tree we have found ourselves!

View Christopher's profile, and learn more about the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America.

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