Passing baton, and passion, along

Young conducting students come to Peabody from far and wide to study with Gustav Meier

Classical Music

April 09, 2000|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,Special to the Sun

If you want to get a rise out of Gustav Meier, the courtly 70-year-old maestro who teaches the art of conducting at Baltimore's Peabody Institute of Music, ask him if he agrees that great conductors are born, not made.

"That's absolutely not true," the Swiss-born Meier says with a shake of his head that led with the chin. "There were many students I may have had some doubts about, but they are doing extremely well. With hard work, they have made themselves into talented conductors."

It would be folly to argue the point, for talented young conductors are Gustav Meier's stock-in-trade.

Indeed, after four decades at such elite institutions as Yale, the Eastman School of Music and the University of Michigan, as well as the 16 summers he spent from 1980 to 1996 overseeing the prestigious conducting seminars at the Tanglewood Festival in Massachusetts, he's become one of the world's most celebrated and sought-after conducting gurus.

"He's the greatest mentor of conductors nationally, and probably internationally as well," says Edward Polochick, Peabody's associate conductor of orchestras.

Meier's students can be found in concert halls and opera houses all over the globe: Robert Spano, who recently was named music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and Paavo Jarvi, the newly- appointed conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony, both studied with Meier at Tanglewood.

Antonio Pappano, a Meier student at Michigan, is a mainstay at London's Covent Garden Opera House, and has recently recorded an extraordinary version of Massenet's "Werther" featuring opera's married superstars, soprano Angela Gheorghiu and tenor Roberto Alagna. Meier also coached Marin Alsop of the Colorado Symphony, who may well become the first woman to head a major American orchestra.

And of the 12 currently vying for the conductorship of the Hartford Symphony, no fewer than five are Meier alums. (A sixth, Enrico Arturo Demecq, is a junior colleague whose Mexican orchestra Meier has conducted.)

Choosing academia

Meier came to the Peabody in 1996. In the rarefied world of classical music, the Old Boy Network is, well, instrumental, in providing conducting opportunities for up-and-coming students. And perhaps no one is more of an Old Boy than Meier.

But a career in podium pedagogy was the furthest thing from his mind when he arrived at Tanglewood in 1958 for a summer of study. Educated at a conservatory in Siena, Italy, and already at work in Swiss opera houses, he joined one of the most stellar Tanglewood classes ever. Some of his fellow conducting students were Zubin Mehta, Claudio Abbado and David Zinman -- all destined to become major conductors. But after his summer in the Berkshires, Meier accepted what he thought would be a temporary job at the Yale School of Music, and soon abandoned the concert hall for the classroom -- a decision no one would have expected from such a gifted young conductor.

"After two years at Yale, I was offered the assistant conductorship of the New Philharmonic by Leonard Bernstein," Meier recalled.

"I had a real decision to make, and I wound up deciding to stay at Yale. The music school was incredible back then. Paul Hindemith, one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century, was on the faculty. And, remember, I had grown up a conservatory boy without a strong general education. I loved university life and the whole Yale environment. Academia, I found, was for me."

Now, 40 years later, after stints at Harvard, the Eastman School of Music and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor where he still lives, Meier is as absorbed as ever with the task of fine-tuning young talent.

"It's such an ego problem for a student conductor to be in front of an orchestra and be put down by a teacher," he said. "You have to build them up, but, at the same time, you want them to remain humble to the music by putting the composer first. That's the most important thing."

After Meier retired from the University of Michigan in the mid- 1990s, Peabody administrators immediately began courting him as a prospective replacement for the departing Frederick Prausnitz. Meier quickly became the faculty's overwhelming choice, but it took three months to persuade him to take the job.

"The only person in the country we could come up with was Gustav," according to Steven Baxter, Peabody's dean. "He's been a real find. Gustav is as sensitive to other people as he is to music, and because of his teaching skill and his reputation, he attracts students from all over the world. Some even have fledgling careers before they get here."

What's in the music

Few musical topics engender more heated debate among musicians than what Nikolai Rimski-Korsakov, the Russian composer, called the "black art" of conducting.

"It's easy. All you have to do is waggle a stick," harrumphed Sir Thomas Beecham, the British conductor whose takes on the symphonies of Haydn and Schubert still set the standard a half-century after he recorded them.

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