A funny thing happened to Randall Fleischer on his way to becoming a high school choir director. As an Oberlin Conservatory student, the Canton, Ohio, native got the chance to conduct a full orchestra. He never looked back.
Armed with degrees from Oberlin and Indiana University's School of Music, Fleischer pounded the New York pavements and soon became the assistant conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra and founder of a chamber ensemble at St. Bartholomew's Church in Manhattan.
Currently in his second year as Mstislav Rostropovich's assistant at Washington's National Symphony, Fleischer will conduct the Annapolis Symphony this weekend as the second entrant in the ASO's 1990-1991 conducting derby. The program includes Tchaikovsky's shattering "Pathetique" symphony, Saint-Saens' Third Violin Concerto and the "Solemn Overture" composed by Washingtonian Scott Pender. Alyssa Park, a 17-year-old prize winning violinist will serve as soloist in the Saint-Saens.
"It is nothing less than a window into the soul of Russia," says Fleischer of the "Pathetique," Tchaikovsky's last and most intense symphony. "The suffering is so real. Nothing is romanticized and the final movement becomes a musical depiction of death itself. The string pizzicatos are heartbeats that slow and finally melt away in the final movements."
Not surprisingly, this discussion of Tchaikovsky leads to Randall Fleischer's association with his NSO mentor and colleague, Mstislav Rostropovich.
"I had studied the 'Pathetique' with Otto Werner-Mueller, my conducting teacher in New York," he recalls, "and I'd developed a sense of the work.
But when I heard 'Slava' (Rostropovich) conduct the piece in Moscow on the National Symphony's tour of the U.S.S.R. last year, everything changed. It was Rostropovich's first return to the Soviet Union since his forced departure. There was more emotional intensity in that room than I've ever experienced. He took everyone inside that music and everyone knew it. What a response!"
Clearly, Rostropovich has greatly influenced his younger colleague and Fleischer admiringly explains the specifics of this impact.
"For one thing," he says, " 'Slava,' as everyone knows, is the world's greatest cellist and I've conducted the Dvorak Cello Concerto with him as soloist seven times and that made me a much more sensitive accompanist on the podium, I think. Not all conductors are good accompanists, but I think accompanying one of the world's superior soloist has been a great education."
There have been other lessons. "He is a musician through and through," says Fleischer. "He always gives it his all. Everything is played and felt to the hilt. He never has an off night. I'd like to think that this kind of dedication rubs off."
The non-musical aspects also have proved inspirational. "Rostropovich is a charmer," concludes Fleischer. "He's eloquent, poetic and has a great knack for people, both in and out of the orchestra. A conductor needs that too."
His exposure to Rostropovich and the Russian school has expanded Fleischer's repertoire as well. "Prior to my association with the NSO," recalls the conductor, "I would have been content to focus on the German Romantics from Beethoven on. Now? Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich . . . they're in my blood."
This is a conductor with broad musical interests, to say the least. "I love rock'n'roll," he says, "and I think there's tremendous potential in crossover styles."
True to these instincts, he is currently at work as a composer, creating a concerto for electric guitar and orchestra. Other more mainstream favorites include Benjamin Britten ("the Mozart of the 20th century," Fleischer calls him), Mahler and Bruckner.
"I also have a little musicologist corner of me that wants to try out compositions that are seldom done and find out why they've been ignored," he says. "The Schubert operas, for example. Why doesn't anyone do them? I'd love to find out what they're like and, perhaps, find a hidden masterpiece or two."
The directorship of the Annapolis Symphony would fit nicely into his career plans, a worthwhile stop on the road to a major symphony orchestra's podium. "Then I could move on to become the head of all music in the Western Hemisphere," he says with a laugh.