It takes a special personality to be a conductor, to stand in front of a coterie of passionate (often opinionated), well-trained, intelligent musicians and tastemakers to lead them in performance.
Maestro Victor Yampolsky is that very special personality, his instructions quirky and his music-making precise. Which is what rendered this friendly conversation with him that much more entertaining.
Ahead of the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra’s “Sliding Into Home” program on April 9, we chatted with Victor to learn more about his thoughts about conducting, new music and sour cream.
Q: When one asks concert-goers what the role of a conductor is, one receives a myriad answers. In your opinion, what’s your job when you step onto the podium?
Victor Yampolsky: My job is to be an ambassador for composers — that’s what I do. I pick up a score that is lying on the dusty shelf in a library. I open the score, I prepare the orchestra, and then we deliver the score to the public the best we can.
That is what a conductor does. I am a composer’s ambassador and right hand man.
Q: Baton or no baton? What’s your preference?
Victor Yampolsky: I definitely prefer conducting with baton because it provides a higher degree of clarity in the timing and the pulsations of music. On the other hand, it economizes the muscle movement.
In other words, instead of waving your entire hand back and forth, you do it with the baton. It’s much more economic and much more precise. And that’s not my personal opinion; it’s been proven time and time again. However, there is a footnote.
There is a big difference between conducting with a baton in your hand and conducting with a hand holding a baton. Next time, you may look and see the difference.
Q: When preparing to conduct a piece you’ve never heard before — such as the world premiere of Dorothy Gates’ work — how and where do you begin?
Victor Yampolsky: I begin by reading the score from the beginning to the end. I read it like a book. I read it first to discover the more strategic points of development of the score, like the overall musical form and shape. Then, I read it again to see more details, like the structure of the trombones parts. Then, I read a third time to see more details, like how the trombone and orchestra collaborate.
And so I read it four or five times, and each time I try and look for more and more details. Then, I form an opinion about the piece, which is, of course, very preliminary because the only way to create a truthful opinion is to hear the piece performed.
Q: What happens when something unexpected happens in performance? How do you handle it?
Victor Yampolsky: To be ready for the unexpected is an extremely important part of conducting. And from that point of view, the conductor of the orchestra and the conductor of a train are the same, because the train conductor also needs to be prepared for emergencies. The train conductor has to reach for the emergency stop. He yanks that lever and brings the train to a full stop.
In conducting, we do not have this option. We need to carry on. Therefore, I need to make extremely fast decisions. What to do next, and show my intention with a gesture of the left hand. That decision takes less than a second — half of a second. It is an instantaneous thing. I raise my left hand finger to alert and then show with my right hand what we do.
In case of emergency, everything boils down to the actual skill of the conductor to deal with it. Some deal with it well, others not very well. I hope greatly that there will be no emergency.
Q: What’s your funniest musician joke? Because everyone has one.
Victor Yampolsky: Well I am famous for lots of jokes. It would be hard for me to find which the funniest is, because I joke all the time.
Actually, one of the musicians whom I know well created a special website called Yampolsky’s jokes. They share jokes that I have been sharing for years and years. The funniest is the sound that I hear. It’s very, very thin and has no meaning. I usually compare it to flies in sour cream. You can imagine how thin and insignificant the sound is if it’s flies in sour cream.
I like to make my jokes vivid. And people remember them.
Q: One more for good luck?
Victor Yampolsky: When a musician makes a sound that is really ugly and inappropriate for classical music, I compare the sound to a little Texan chain saw, which, as you know, has nothing to do with performing classical music — and people get that right away.
ROCO presents “Sliding Into Home” on April 9 at the Church of St. John the Divine. Tickets are $35 general admission, $25 seniors, $15 students, and can be purchased online.
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