The baton man takes a final bow, for now

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Conductor Leonard Weiss… “It’s a challenge and an opportunity to convey a composition in a new way and I think it’s great when musicians embrace a young conductor.” Photo: Holly Treadaway

FOR the past few years, whenever there’s been a classical music concert in Canberra, it’s been a fair bet Leonard Weiss was conducting it.

The list is almost ridiculous and he has, at times, simultaneously picked up the baton for up to six orchestras at a time, not least the National Capital Orchestra, Canberra Youth Orchestra, the Qwire, the ANU Choral Society, Canberra Choral Society, the Canberra Sinfonia, Musica da Camera, the Maruki Community Orchestra, Dramatic Productions and ensembles from Canberra Grammar School, where he’s been teaching.

Now at the ripe age of 26, Weiss is doing what his supporters have been advising him to do for years – heading overseas to study conducting.

After a gruelling audition round in Baltimore in late February, he’s been accepted into the famous Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University in that city, where he will undertake a two-year master’s course under the watchful eye of super-conductor Marin Alsop.

“I’ve spent some years figuring it out while conducting here,” Weiss says, explaining that the Peabody and Johns Hopkins University, famous for its medical research, have established “a kind of a funny synergy or funny union”. 

Peabody is the oldest music conservatorium in the US, while Johns Hopkins is famous for its medical research, but together they’ve embarked on a project where music is seen holistically. Oddly, he adds, founding fathers George Peabody and Johns Hopkins were born in the same year, 1795.

The brilliant Alsop is on the faculty at Peabody, but is also artistic director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra. She has been announced as chief conductor designate of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, the first woman appointed to that role.

Baltimore’s super-conductor Marin Alsop. Photo: Grant Leighton

“She’s challenging, someone really worth studying with,” Weiss says. “She’s known for her integrity and astuteness… of course, I knew of her, but I first met her at the audition.”

You’ve got to give it to Weiss. For such a young musician, he’s game.

Describing the audition as “terrifying”, he says he was required to conduct two pieces in the first round, where 31 would-be conductors were put through their paces. 

For the second round, down to 17, he had to conduct Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 and Beethoven’s Fifth, as well as Leonore Overture No. 3, also by Beethoven. He was one of just five eventually selected.

Notified of the audition in early January, Weiss only had a few weeks to prepare, but he’d participated in the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra’s Australian Conducting Academy over two consecutive summers, so had learnt to expect the unexpected.

“For four or five years now people have been saying I should pursue further studies… Now I’ve got enough under my belt and I’m confident enough to walk into an orchestra, such a wonderful vibe.”

But inevitably some people, including some family members, have been asking him: “Why do you need to do a course? You already do this”.

“The answer is that I need to have someone technically scrutinising my work,” he says. 

“Also I want to find out how other conductors get musicians to do what they ask – and to devote 12 hours a day to conducting will be sensational… the faculty at Peabody is incredible, it will push my musicality.”

So what, we ask, does a conductor actually do?

Most musicians, he admits, can play a piece on their own as they’ve probably played the work many times before and they’ll judge a conductor in the first minutes. But over the years of watching other people do it, Weiss can confidently say that it’s not just waving your arms around.

“It’s a challenge and an opportunity to convey a composition in a new way and I think it’s great when musicians embrace a young conductor,” he says.

“I particularly like to reach out to new composers… you never know what a piece will sound like until you play it.”

One of the most exciting things for him recently was to conduct Michael Dooley’s new 39-minute composition, “Piano Concerto No. 1”.

“Imagine, to be the first person to play it with the composer in the room, what an amazing experience!”

Weiss has been easing out of his various musical directorships over the last half year and his final concert before heading to Baltimore will be on August 3. 

He’ll be conducting Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” with the National Capital Orchestra, where his eagerness to conduct the late Italian composers had become a bit of a running joke.

“Every year I pitched it to them and they said: ‘No, it’s too hard’,” he says; so Weiss was astonished when the orchestra suggested it to him.

Also on the bill will be “Harold in Italy” by Berlioz, with Lucy Carrigy-Ryan playing the viola and a new work, “Images of Obsession: 0236”, by upbeat young guitarist and composer studying at ANU, Dante Clavijo. 

As for conductors being domineering, he’s against it, saying: “Conducting is facilitating the best for your musicians. You have to have a vision, you have to know the music, but you don’t have to be dictatorial.”

“Pines of Rome”, Llewellyn Hall, 7.30pm, Saturday, August 3. Book at  premier.ticketek.com.au. Pre-concert talk by composer Dante Clavijo, 6.45pm.

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