EVER so quietly last year, after finishing the first year of a masters in music at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, conductor Leonard Weiss slipped back into Canberra.
“It didn’t seem the right decision to take on a second year with all the social distancing and online studies, so I took the advice of an old colleague and came back here,” he says.
It was obviously a fruitful year in Baltimore until COVID-19 struck and everything went online. He took up masterclass opportunities with maestros like faculty members and conductors with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra and the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, including conductor Marin Alsop and music directors Gianandrea Noseda, Antony Walker and Evans Mirageas.
Sad to leave, maybe, although his plan is to resume his studies in Baltimore in 2022.
Weiss has also had to defer his Churchill Fellowship for a year, as no one is likely to be travelling much in 2021.
But he hasn’t been letting the grass grow under his feet and describes the rest of his 2020 as “a wonderful year, during which I’ve been making a lot of plans, getting myself in touch with the professional orchestra scene, both on the platform and as an observer, and getting some serious plans going for the Canberra Sinfonia”, which he co-founded after it languished last year except for a pre-Christmas performance at Wesley.
“There are so many musical and technical lessons I’ve been able to put into practice, and this time is giving me a chance to get a program of work with orchestras.”
There are irons in the fire with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.
Unexpectedly, he has found that covid has made it just that little bit easier, because all the orchestras in Australia have been doing it hard, so are keen to support new talent.
“I’ve got my study accolades under my belt, and everybody has been so respectful of what I’ve done,” he says.
As for the Sinfonia, he says, “It’s better for us to be ambitious… Last year we had to cancel all but one concert, so we decided we should be focusing on chamber repertoire instead of large works and we know we can excel in pieces written for a smaller number of people. It’s a new way of approaching things”.
Weiss noticed that a lot of the bigger orchestras “resorted” to chamber repertoire when the going got rough, then went straight back to Mozart and Beethoven, but he’s chosen a different path.
“I thought we needed to seek out masterpieces on a smaller scale, so we’ll kick off on March 13 with Aaron Copland’s ‘Appalachian Spring’, an exquisite piece and a most excellent piece of storytelling, written for 13 people,” he says.
The parts have been shipped from the US because there were none in Australia.
But he also wanted a world premiere, so has commissioned Chloe Sinclair, a Sinfonia alumnus based in Sydney, to create a longer form piece around movement and stillness, to contrast with the chaotic spirit of the past year.
A high point of the year for Weiss will be the planned collaboration in July with the Lisa Clark Dance Studio on Elena Kats-Chernin’s ballet “The Little Green Road to Fairyland”. She originally wrote it for 10 musicians, but revised it in 2019 for five – perfect – and she’s up for any needed changes.
His dancer friends from his musical theatre experiences in Canberra put him in touch with Clark, who agreed to come on board, choreograph and provide the costumes.
It will be a new experience for Weiss to learn how to conduct ballet, where the dancers dominate, and as his old alma mater Canberra Grammar School has a suitable venue in the Tim Murray Theatre, he’s approached them with fingers crossed.
The Sinfonia, which will also perform a concerto gala with cellist Julia Janiszewski, inaugural Kingsland Fellow with the CSO and saxophonist Jaime Grech from the RMC Band, collaborates with Luminescence Chamber Singers and Children’s Choir and plays Richter’s “Vivaldi Recomposed” with concertmaster Helena Popovic as soloist.
“I’m very thankful that I came home,” Weiss says, in understatement.
The full program for Canberra Sinfonia will soon be posted at canberrasinfonia.com