Conductor  Kate  Tamarkin

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Kate Tamarkin joined the faculty of the University of Virginia in the fall of 2006 bringing a background of over twenty years as a professional conductor and educator. She is currently the Music Director Laureate of the Charlottesville Symphony, having retired from the Orchestra and the University of Virginia in May of 2017.  She has been Music Director of the Monterey Symphony (CA), Vermont Symphony, East Texas Symphony, and the Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra (WI). She was also the Associate Conductor of the Dallas Symphony under Eduardo Mata

Her guest conducting credits include the Shanghai Symphony, Edmonton Symphony, National Symphony of Moldova, and the following US orchestras:  Chicago, Houston, St. Louis, Phoenix, Nashville, New Mexico, Oklahoma City, Tucson, Pacific (CA), Eastern Music Festival (NC), and Chicago’s Grant Park Festival.

Ms. Tamarkin is a Certified Music Practitioner on the harp, and is a Musician in Residence at the UVa Medical Center, as well as the Program Coordinator for “Music by the Bedside” for the Hospice of the Piedmont.  

Ms. Tamarkin holds a Doctor of Musical Arts from the Peabody Conservatory of Music, a Masters Degree in Orchestral Conducting from Northwestern University, and a Bachelor of Music Education degree from Chapman University in California.

On February 28 of 1992 (which, as it happened, was the next-to-last day of the month!), Kate Tamarkin was in Chicago, and she graciously took a bit of time from her schedule for a conversation.  She spoke with knowledge and humor, and it was clear why those who worked with her enjoyed the experience.

Here is what was said that afternoon . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   You started in music as an instrumentalist?

Kate Tamarkin:   I got started as a French horn player.

BD:   When did you decide you want to wave the stick instead of blow your horn?

Tamarkin:   When I told my mother I wanted to go into music, she got a bit of a pained expression on her face, and said,
Why don’t you get an education degree? which was actually quite good advice.

BD:   General education, or music education?

Tamarkin:   Music education.  So I did that, and the third year of the program we had to take a year-long course in conducting, with a very mean teacher who videotaped us.  Not only did you have to commit the crime, you had to view its labor.  I decided that I would practice very hard, because you could not get the music education degree without taking the required course.  I thought the course would be horrible, with the idea of getting up and waving one’s arms in front of people.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  But you’d been sitting in the brass section having someone wave his or her arms at you for a long time, so you knew what it was.

Tamarkin:   Oh, certainly and we all had made fun of them from the back of the orchestra.  [Both laugh]  It just never ever occurred to me to go to the front of the orchestra.  Then we had to take the class, and I got up on the first day and began to conduct.  The teacher wrote me a little letter which said,
You have a flare for conducting.  If you would continue with conducting, you’ll do very well!  He wrote it on a white piece of paper, and I saved it, so of course it’s very yellow now.  It was a very different experience than what I had anticipated.  It was freeing.  I was always the horn player who moved too much, and the teacher would say, Kate, if you would sit still, you might get the notes!  [Laughs]  So having that kind of kinesthetic response, it was better to do that.

BD:   You say you got up there and didn’t know what to expect.  Were you given no instruction at all before your first appearance?

tamarkin Tamarkin:   We were studying our little pieces, and stood up in front of the little orchestra with the video table looming somewhere between the first and second clarinet!  [More laughter]  Actually, we were given some very good instruction, but it’s a little bit like jumping off the high dive for the first time.  People can say that the wind will whistle by, and it’ll feel about like this, but until you really try it, you don’t know.

BD:   Has any of the advice that you were given before that first class proved helpful even now as you conduct today?

Tamarkin:   I don’t remember too much of it, frankly.  I’ve picked up lots of little bits of wisdom along the way from different teachers that I’ve studied with.  I’ve studied with quite a number, some for longer periods of time, some for just workshops.

BD:   What kinds of things have they instilled in you?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Robert Shaw, and Sir David Willcocks.]

Tamarkin:   They instilled the ideas in me of sincerity and concentration as powerful allies to a conductor.  Those types of armaments help more than tyranny and sarcasm.  Lynn Harrell, the great cellist who spent nine years in the Cleveland Orchestra [most of those years as principal], told me that an orchestra, being pack animals, will forgive a certain amount of nervousness, and even a certain amount of inexperience if they sense that you’re sincere, that you’re going after what you want, and you’re concentrating on that result.

BD:   On the other hand, they can turn on you if they sense fear.

Tamarkin:   They can, certainly.

BD:   Then we have the obvious question.  Are you, as a woman conductor, going to have to overcome a few more hurdles than Joe Dokes?

Tamarkin:   [Laughs]  Every young conductor has to find their way, and their personal style.  I don’t mean how they’re waving their arms, but their own persona, and showing what they’re going to present.  I do believe that for women there are a few more steps involved regarding how to give your directions, how to get comfortable giving direction, and how to get comfortable if there is some sort of opposition.  There aren’t a load of role models for that.

BD:   This is what I was getting at.  That the pack of animals hasn’t seen too many women in front of them.

Tamarkin:   That’s true.  On the other hand, orchestral musicians want you to do your job well, and be competent, and a little inspiration on top doesn’t hurt.  If you can do those things, you can earn their respect.

BD:   So will they be rooting for you?

Tamarkin:   I hope so.   I never go in anticipating trouble.  I never go in with a chip on my shoulder at all.  In fact, the first orchestra I had, the feedback I got was that the most unusual thing for them to adjust to was my voice.  They were just used to a lower voice giving directions.   They weren’t used to some higher voice, and when I get excited, and the music is exciting to me, my voice tends to wave up and down.

BD:   Do you purposely compensate for this, and do more in the arm gestures and the hand gestures, rather than spoken words?

Tamarkin:   I’m always trying to do more with the hands.  I try and talk as little as possible.

BD:   Why?

Tamarkin:   Because time is money, and they can read your hands faster than the time it takes to say it.  This is true on many things, but not everything.  But I’ve discovered that orchestras basically want you to show them how the music goes.

BD:   You have an orchestra in Vermont, and you have the Dallas Symphony.

Tamarkin:   Correct.  I am the Associate Conductor with the Dallas Symphony.

BD:   So, you’re working with a front-rank orchestra and a second-line orchestra.  What are the differences in your rehearsal technique between those two?

Tamarkin:   There’s much more rehearsal time in Vermont.

BD:   Is this of necessity?

Tamarkin:   Partially, but the Dallas Symphony plays together six days a week, so they have a great advantage.  The Vermont Symphony is made up of professional freelance musicians who come together on certain occasions to put a concert together.  So there are certain built-in disadvantages to that.  However, there are a few advantages to it, such as the real feeling of camaraderie and spontaneity in Vermont of coming together on an occasion to make music, versus having to make it on demand every day, which can be tiring to an orchestra.  An orchestra like Dallas gives over 250 concerts a year.

BD:   Then it can become routine?

Tamarkin:   Right.

BD:   What can you, as the conductor on the podium, do to break the routine?

Tamarkin:   Drop the baton, or faint!  [Both laugh]

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Such a very *womanly* thing!

Tamarkin:   [Continues laughing]  Yes, or flutter to the ground.

BD:   That seems rather counter-productive, I’m afraid.

Tamarkin:   I think so, too.  [Being serious again]  I do all types of concerts with the Dallas Symphony.  I do about fifty concerts a year, anything from youth concerts, and occasionally a subscription concert, and in my mind I try to treat them all the same.  I try and get up every time with as much energy as I believe the piece demands, no matter what hour it is, or no matter who is in the audience.

BD:   [Genuinely surprised]  Really???  You treat a subscription audience the same as you would a group of seventh and eighth graders?

Tamarkin:   I do in my mind, yes, absolutely.  Some conductors don’t like doing pops concerts, but I love to see an audience as happy as those who come to them.  I enjoy the rapport with that audience.  There aren’t any unimportant concerts to me.

BD:   Not to say there is any unimportant music, but is there any less-important music?  Perhaps Tubby the Tuba, or something of that nature?

Tamarkin:   Not if you’re playing it for a child who’s never heard it, or who’s never heard an orchestra and who can’t believe how much air it takes to get through that huge instrument.  To me it’s a little bit like a racehorse.  You put a racehorse on a track and he runs hard each time.  He doesn’t run as though this race is not quite as important, or he’s not quite up to it today.  It is all part of being professional.  People always say excellence is professionalism, and I say, yes, it is, but one needs consistent excellence.  You can’t be brilliant one day and terrible the next day.  That’s not what it is.  Even if you have a bad day, or you don’t feel well, or someone’s fighting with their spouse, the audience doesn’t care, and they shouldn’t know.  I loved watching the Olympics this year, especially the skaters and the ice dancers, because you know what they’re doing is so athletic, and so difficult, yet they make it look easy.  They may be sweating and dying up there, but the effect to us is pure fantasy, and transports us somewhere else.  That’s what music can do.

BD:   I often ask singers if they are athletes.  Are you, as a conductor, an athlete as well as an artist?

Tamarkin:   I believe so.  I’ve studied Tai Chi.  I’ve done all kinds of body work, and movement work, and continue to do a certain amount of working-out, because if the body doesn’t feel good, and function well, it’s very hard to get the art out.  One of the nice things about conducting is that you can do it until you drop.  I read a statistic that the average conductor who died last year was eighty-four, which is way over the average for males.  There are certain physical ailments... you’re prone to shoulder trouble, or back trouble.  These arms and hands and wrists and elbows have to last a whole lifetime, so it’s good to take care of them.  Besides, we get to vent on people, so we live longer!  [Both laugh]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You work with a major orchestra and with the Vermont orchestra.  Is all your work done in rehearsal, or do you leave something for that spark of performance, and is it different in the two places?

Tamarkin:   In Dallas, my position on the music staff does not afford a lot of rehearsal time, so it’s almost all done in performance, and the orchestra seems to like that way.  They’re very much a performing orchestra.  They don’t seem to care to rehearse too much, but they always come to play and to perform.  In Vermont, there is more time to rehearse, and there are more things one can set in a rehearsal.  But for me, the performance is always another occasion.  As my teacher, the former Northwestern professor, Bernard Rubinstein used to say, “It’s your last chance to make something new.”  Music doesn’t sit in stone.  In a performance art, you can’t set it there, and think you have that balance just right, and come back tomorrow and find it there, and take it off the shelf where you left it.  It doesn’t work like that.  The horoscope changes, the barometer changes, people’s lives change, and their feelings change.  You can perform a piece ten minutes later, and it’s going to be different.  That’s part of the beauty of it, so it is always different.

BD:   That helps to keep it alive.

Tamarkin:   It should.

BD:   You are Music Director in Vermont, so you get to set programs.  From the vast orchestral literature, how do you decide what you’re going to play, and what you’re going to leave for next season, and what you’ll just never get to?

Tamarkin:   There are a few composers whose music I have looked at, that I have difficulty with.  Every so often I pull out a number of their records and try to indoctrinate myself one more time.  I don’t want to name them, but I do try to see if I can get a feel for them.  So far, there aren’t that many, maybe two or three that I’ve been unsuccessful with.  Then I put them away, and say I’ll try again another year.  It’s a formidable task to find programming, especially if you take it seriously, and especially if you want to include composers who are living, and people you’re going to talk to about the music.  It’s their music, and it is difficult.  In Vermont, we have a Vermont Composers Forum, and they’re quite well-organized.  That’s been interesting to finding out who the Vermont composers are, so that we can have a relationship with them.

BD:   Who are the Vermont composers?

Tamarkin:   Nick Thorne, Jim Grant, Erik Nielsen, Gwyneth Walker...


Born in Copenhagen in 1953, Nicholas C. K. Thorne,
the son of an American military and diplomatic officer, came to the United States in 1963. He trained at the Berklee School of Music and New England Conservatory in Boston studying composition with William Thomas McKinley, John Heiss, Donald Martino, and, later at Tanglewood, with Gunther Schuller.

Surrounded by a wide variety of musical styles from his earliest years, Thorne (not to be confused with the composer Francis Thorne) played both guitar and piano, performed in rock bands and jazz ensembles, and studied improvisation with Pat Metheny. An eclectic compositional style is marked by emotional directness and an irresistible rhythmic energy. His Three Love Songs (for solo piano) displays this spontaneous, nearly improvisatory style, eschewing any overt lyricism implied by the title. In other works that span genres of orchestral, chamber, and solo repertoire, the composer consistently links both tonality and atonality and popular and classical traditions.

Thorne's constant, close communion with nature is often a unifying element in his creative work. Compositions such as The Voices of Spring, Rain Sketches, or Songs from the Mountain evoke awe and mystery, capturing at times the "stony silence of the mountains" in block-like granitic harmonies or at other times the "linear vocal quality" of a brisk, northerly wind. Thorne has been commissioned by several orchestras and ensembles including The Philadelphia Orchestra for whom he wrote Revelations.

grant For nearly four decades, James Grant has been commissioned by individuals, choruses, chamber ensembles and orchestras who have performed his music throughout the world. He is a past first-prize winner of the Washington Cathedral Choral Society's choral composition competition; the South Coast (CA.) Choral Society's International Choral Competition; the Louisville Orchestra Competition for New Orchestral Music; and, in 2002, was one of five American composers to win the Aaron Copland Award.

Grant's colorful musical language is known by musicians and audiences for its honed craft and immediacy, and his ability to compose music appropriate to specific levels of experience has found him working with groups ranging from professional orchestras, choruses, solo recitalists, new music ensembles and ballet companies to community choruses, university choral and instrumental ensembles, and youth orchestras. His music is regularly programmed at music festivals, symposia, and clinics; and his desire to compose new music for a given repertoire and specific instrumentation has led to many successful consortium commissions, a concept championed by the composer.

Recognized by Cornell University's Graduate School of Humanities and Arts and by the Vermont chapter of the National Music Teachers Association for exceptional contributions as an educator, Grant continues to be active as a lecturer and private teacher of composition, often using Skype technology to beam in to seminar rooms and rehearsal halls for brief cyber-residencies.  

A dual citizen of the United States and Canada, Grant lives and works in Oxtongue Lake, ON, and in Sarasota, FL. along with his wife, fine-art photographer Elizabeth Siegfried. During the summer months, Grant gets out from behind the composition desk, puts on his apron and, as The Oxtongue Baker at Dwight Market, prepares authentic French pastries and sourdough breads for the residents and guests of the Dwight/Lake of Bays region in Ontario and for the Muskoka North Good Food Co-op in Huntsville, Ontario.

nielsen Composer Erik Nielsen has created works for chorus, orchestra, wind ensemble, solo instruments, chamber music, works for dance, film and electronic music. His pieces have been performed all over the world by ensembles including A Far Cry, the Amabile, Chiara, Emerson and Ying String Quartets; the National Symphony Orchestra; the Killington and Manchester Chamber Players; Bread and Puppet Theater; the Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble; Vermont Opera Theater, Vermont Symphony; Vermont Youth Orchestra and Village and Northern Harmony. He has won awards from ASCAP, the Vermont Arts Council, and the Vermont Music Teachers Association. In September 2015, his opera, A Fleeting Animal, a collaboration with poet/playwright David Budbill that premiered in 2000, was performed in a newly revised edition to great acclaim in six locations in Vermont. 

Recent commissions include a
film score for the 2019 Green Mountain Film Festival, The Adventures of Prince Achmed (premiered March 23, 2019 by the Montpelier Chamber Orchestra and funded in part by a Creation Grant from the Vermont Arts Council); a new work for chorus and brass or organ, All This Night Shrill Chanticleer, a commission from the Vermont professional chorus Counterpoint, premiered in December, 2018; a new work for the Northern Third Quartet, , Piano Quartet #1, premiered in October, 2018 (funded in part by a grant from the Vermont Community Foundation); A Voice in the Night, a four-movement work for bassoon and piano (funded in part by a grant from the Vermont Arts Council); Fanfare in B Flat, commissioned by the Vermont Symphony for their 80th anniversary; and Glimpses of Azure, commissioned by the Boston string orchestra, A Far Cry. Mr. Nielsen is Senior Composition Mentor with Music-COMP (formerly the Vermont MIDI Project). He also teaches music theory and composition with the Green Mountain Suzuki Institute, the Monteverdi School and privately, as well as music appreciation classes at the Montpelier Senior Activity Center. He was elected a Fellow by the Vermont Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2016. Mr. Nielsen lives in Brookfield, Vermont.


Gwyneth Walker is a proud resident of New England. She was the recipient of the 2000 "Lifetime Achievement Award" from the Vermont Arts Council and the 2018 "Alfred Nash Patterson Lifetime Achievement Award" from Choral Arts New England. In 2020, her alma mater, the Hartt School of Music of the University of Hartford, presented her with the Hartt Alumni Award.

A composer since age two, Gwyneth Walker has always placed great value on active collaboration with musicians. Over the decades, she has traveled to many states to work with instrumental and choral ensembles, soloists, and educational institutions as they rehearse and perform her music. A number of these visits have developed into ongoing relationships. In 2018, Walker was named Composer-in-Residence for the Great Lakes Chamber Orchestra in Petoskey, Michigan.

Walker's catalog includes over 350 commissioned works for orchestra, chamber ensembles, chorus, and solo voice. A special interest has been dramatic works that combine music with readings, acting, and movement.

Walker (b. 1947) is a graduate of Brown University and the Hartt School of Music. She holds B.A., M.M. and D.M.A. degrees in Music Composition. A former faculty member of the Oberlin College Conservatory, she resigned from academic employment in 1982 in order to pursue a career as a full-time composer. For nearly 30 years, she lived on a dairy farm in Braintree, Vermont. She now divides her time between her childhood hometown of New Canaan, Connecticut and the musical community of Randolph, Vermont.

BD:   [Genuinely concerned]  I’m afraid I
m drawing a blank on all of them, and I pride myself on knowing American composers.

Tamarkin:   That’s okay.  I
m just beginning to know them myself.  There is a person who lives there part-time, Marga Richer, who you may know.

BD:   [Somewhat relieved]  I’ve heard of her, yes.  [As you can see by the link, she would become another of my interview guests!]

Tamarkin:   It’s difficult to know year-to-year because you want to strike a balance, and everyone’s idea of what makes a balance is different.

BD:   What, for you, is the balance?

Tamarkin:   It’s a very tricky subject because I have composers I lean to.  I lean towards the Americans in the Twentieth Century.  Given a choice, I’m more liable to play an American, even an older American such as Chadwick or Carpenter.  When you serve the needs of a state or a community, there are certain major composers that you want to play, so you can get them heard by people who may not have heard them live.

BD:   I assume that all of this would be many years’ worth of concerts for every one you could do?

Tamarkin:   [Laughs]  Right, that’s the problem.  The frustration is not enough concerts, especially if you want to do things that are interesting, and maybe tie in theme concerts.  You don’t want to just do the three Bs all the time, which I don’t.  Then it becomes frustrating.  It’s more like being the kid in the candy store trying to do as much as possible.

BD:   Then how do you decide?  What kinds of things help make your decisions?

Tamarkin:   Sometimes it
s just a whim.  Sometimes it’s a piece I’ve been listening to lately, and I just really want to do that piece.  I want to find a way to make it work, or try a theme that strikes me.  I’ve been thinking lately about the idea that there is the Second New England School of Composers, so why don’t we start the Third?  Because I’m new to that area, Ive been looking into the background there, and I’ve talking to Steven Ledbetter [Musicologist and Program Annotator for the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1998] a little bit.  So that’s the track I’m on right now.

The Second New England School or New England Classicists (sometimes called the Boston Six) is a name given by music historians to a group of classical-music composers who lived during the late-19th and early-20th centuries in New England. More specifically, they were based in and around Boston, Massachusetts, then an emerging musical center. The Second New England School is viewed by musicologists as pivotal in the development of an American classical idiom that stands apart from its European ancestors.

The specific "Boston Six" are John Knowles Paine (1839–1906), Arthur Foote (1853–1937), George Chadwick (1854–1931), Amy Beach (1867–1944), Edward MacDowell (1861–1908), and Horatio Parker (1863–1919). Other composers associated with the group include Edgar Stillman Kelley (1857–1944), George Whiting (1861–1944), and Arthur Whiting (1861–1936). These composers were greatly influenced by German Romantic tradition, either through direct study with Germans or by association with German-trained musicians in America. Their works were published by A. P. Schmidt, the most important music publisher of that time

Yankee tunesmiths (also called the First New England School) were self-taught composers active in New England from 1770 until about 1810. Their music was largely forgotten when the Better Music Movement turned musical tastes towards Europe. The principal tunesmiths were William Billings, Supply Belcher, Daniel Read, Oliver Holden, Justin Morgan, Andrew Law, Timothy Swan, Jacob Kimball Jr., Lewis Edson, and Jeremiah Ingalls. They composed primarily psalm tunes and fuging tunes, which differ enough from European fugues to warrant the spelling "fuge".

Chamber music of the Second New England School is considered the first successful body of American repertoire. While there was no official "First New England School," many independent composers heavily influenced the development and success of The Second New England School. The first influential figure was William Billings (1746–1800), a native of Boston, who was a self-taught amateur musician and a tanner. William Billings was part of the colonial working class and lacked the benefit of much formal education, let alone the chance of attending college (which remained a privilege of the genteel class). Billings gave expression to a provincial, American culture instead of aspiring to the cosmopolitan ideal of British culture. At the age of twenty-three Billings had already composed more than one hundred original pieces of sacred music, and in 1770 he published his first tunebook, The New England Psalm Singer. Only a dozen or so American-composed tunes had previously been published. Collecting more than 120 new compositions, The New England Psalm Singer was the first published compilation of entirely American music, and the first tunebook composed by one American composer. Perhaps even more significant as a sign of both Billings’s intentions and the times in which he lived, he advertised the work as “never before published” and stressed that it was composed by “a native of Boston”—made in America by an American. Published by Benjamin Edes and John Gill, who also published The Boston Gazette and Country Journal, a major Patriot newspaper, and including an engraving by Paul Revere, the book suggested that Billings was strongly aligned with the Rebels. His tunebook is striking for the manner in which it boldly signals these nationalist sentiments. Billings’s best-known tune was “Chester”.  [More about Billings appears in the box at the bottom of this webpage.]

The second influential figure was Lowell Mason (1792–1872) born in Medfield, Massachusetts. His family education was rooted in the New England singing school tradition handed down by his grandfather. In 1822 he published The Handel and Haydn Society’s Collection of Church Music. The first edition was published without attribution, but later editions acknowledged the Mason as editor. Mason returned to Boston in 1827, having negotiated a position as music director at three Boston churches. Between 1829 and 1869 he published about 20 further collections of hymns. Those collections favored adaptations of tunes by prominent European composers rather than the traditional rural hymn tunes. He expertly adapted the melodies of instrumental works from European masters such as Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert into his collections of sacred music and published them. By simplifying their musical content and harmonic language, he introduced them to the American public. Mason devoted his life to music as a composer, a publisher and, most significantly, a music educator. In 1832 he founded the Boston Academy of Music. In 1838, because of his insistence that singing should not be absent from children’s education, the Boston School Committee added introductory music to the primary and secondary school curriculum, appointing Mason to lead the program.  These two (Billings and Mason) educated those who were later call the Boston Six.

Other scholars working from a classical music perspective worked backwards, beginning with research into the Boston Classicists ( "Boston Six") of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, who were first defined as a "school" in 1966,Shape note singers who have kept this music alive to the present day sometimes use the term "Yankee tunesmiths", as did academic musicologists such as H. Wiley Hitchcock (1966). Then Hitchcock explicitly defined as this group as the "Second New England School" in 1969, generating the term "First New England School" as a by-product. The Yankee tunesmiths were definitely not a "school". All were self-taught, scattered across New England, and did not share common publishers or affiliations. All were craftsmen who worked part-time as itinerant singing school teachers, which gave them opportunities to sell their self-published tune books.

The works of the early New England composers were rediscovered in the 1950s, with compositions such as William Schuman's use of "Chester" in his New England Triptych (1956), which he later expanded into the Chester Overture.

BD:   Is there a real regional feeling that Vermont is part of the New England community?

Tamarkin:   [Laughs]  Not exactly.  They feel different.  They feel like themselves.  But continuing about the selection process, sometimes it’s a matter of even having heard a performance of a piece, and it makes me excited about it.  Then I’ve wanted to do it, or I want to do it again.  There are certain pieces that I did the first time, and I said that I would meet them another day.  Especially coming into a new job, I like to look at the repertoire lists from about ten years back.  That gives me an idea of where it’s been, and where you might want to go.

BD:   You want to find things that you can use to continue, and then other directions you want to take that are divergent?

Tamarkin:   That’s right.  For example, if I look back and see that the former conductor has done nothing but German music, it makes me want to go in a different direction.  In Dallas, our conductor has done a lot of Latin music, so I’ve become familiar with some nice Latin pieces that I just was not aware of.  Every place you go you add to your bag of tricks a little bit.  It’s interesting, and it’s a great programming opportunity to really make a statement.  It’s risky, too, because you can really alienate people.  But I don’t mind if people have a strong reaction to a concert.  What I do mind is if they don’t have much reaction to the programming.

BD:   I assume you don’t want them to have only a negative reaction.

Tamarkin:   No!  Hopefully not.  I consider a concert a great success if three or four people come up afterward, and each one liked a different piece the best.  Then I go home and say that’s it!  That makes me very pleased.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’re conscious of the audience then when you’re programming.  Are you conscious of the audience then when you’re conducting?

Tamarkin:   Yes, and no.  When I’m conducting, I have no sense of being the focal point at all.  I just feel I’m in the middle, in the fray, on the front line, as we say.  But even if they’re sitting passively, I believe the audience is not passive because they’re adding their sympathetic response, and their energy, and their excitement as they react to the music, and when that is added into the pile, I feel that when it’s going well.

BD:   So that heightens the temperature?

Tamarkin:   It does!  It literally heightens the temperature.  It feels to me like heat, and not just the heat of the lights, but there is this warmth coming from the back.  It’s a little bit like an electric current, if you think about it.  The conductor generates energy to the players, who generate a lot of energy back to the audience, who generate their energy back to the stage.  It makes a current, and that kind of current is very buoyant.  When it’s working, it feels effortless, and when that time comes, it’s absolutely matchless, and maybe something Nirvana.  I have a sister who is a Buddhist, and I don’t know what she’d say about it, but things become effortless, and you become mystical doing it in the moment.  There’s not a place where you can say who is starting what.  It’s just all evolving of its own.

BD:   Perhaps no one person can start it, but are you still in control of it?

Tamarkin:   [Smiles]  Yes, in a nice way.  When you drive a very fancy car, you don’t grab the wheel and stamp the gas.  You don’t have to.  It responds to a light touch.  Leonard Bernstein had that very much.  He’d be absolutely in control, and then if a solo came up, or he knew that ‘the band’ (as he would call them) were really, really in the groove and working well, that’s the time when he’d start jiggling his shoulders, and he’d take his glasses off and wave them.  But then if they needed him, he’d be right there.  He had that way of encouraging the individual musician to come forward and make their statement.  Later, they would say that’s why the New York Philharmonic really loved him.  It’s a control issue.

BD:   You’ve had lots of conductors as models, both as teachers, and conductors you’ve seen and heard on recordings over the years.  Do you learn a little something from each one?

Tamarkin:   You can, and you can even learn in a negative way.

BD:   What not to do?

Tamarkin:   Right.  Sergiu Comissiona used to say,
Don’t be afraid of a big flop!  You learn so much from it!  Two conductors that I admire from recordings are Bruno Walter, and Sir Adrian Boult.  Those two I just like a lot about what I hear, and about what I understand about the way they managed.  I also heard a recording of Bruno Walter rehearsing, and it’s nice to listen to.

BD:   That’s the good side of recordings.  Is there a down side to the fact that when you get up to conduct, say, a Beethoven symphony, people might have heard a hundred different records of it?

Tamarkin:   Yes, there is.  Tempos have become much more standardized as a result of recordings.

BD:   That’s a bad thing, isn’t it?

Tamarkin:   I think so.  You can almost always turn on a Klemperer recording and it’s slower, or a Toscanini rendition and it’s going to be faster, or a Szell disc and it’ll be tighter and cleaner.  These are the words you can use to characterize them.  Nowadays there are just standards, and you can see that with the major orchestras because they are the tempos that they just tend to take.

BD:   It doesn’t matter who’s waving the stick?

Tamarkin:   Right!  I get the sense on some pieces that they know well, that you could almost count to four and get them started, and they’d find a pretty standardized tempo.

BD:   Then is the conductor really following the big orchestra?

Tamarkin:   [Thinks a moment]  No!  If the conductor follows, that’s what you get!  This is what I’m saying, but they shouldn’t, no, they shouldn’t.

BD:   I was wondering if the conductor was powerless to do anything other than that, but a could a strong conductor move it differently?

Tamarkin:   Sure, but is it just the one person?  Kondrashin used to just stop and beat his chest, and say;
My tempo!

Kirill Kondrashin (6 March [O.S. 21 February] 1914 – 7 March 1981) was born in Moscow to a family of orchestral musicians. Having spent many hours at rehearsals, he made a firm decision at the age of 14 to become a conductor. He studied at the Moscow Conservatory from 1931 to 1936 under conductor Boris Khaykin. Kondrashin began conducting in the Young People's Theatre in Moscow in 1931, continuing in the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Academic Music Theatre three years later. He conducted at the Maliy Opera Theatre in Leningrad from 1938 to 1942, and the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow from 1943. His performance of Shostakovich's Symphony No.1 attracted the composer's attention and led to the formation of a firm friendship. In 1947, he was awarded the Stalin Medal.

kondrashin In the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958, Kondrashin was the conductor for Van Cliburn, who won the first prize. After the competition he toured the United States with Cliburn, being the first Russian conductor to visit America since the Cold War began. They performed and recorded the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No.3 and Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No.1, which they had played in the competition. Millions of the recordings were sold in America, and their Tchaikovsky recording for RCA Victor was the first classical LP to go platinum. Later, in 1972, a live performance of Brahms's Piano Concerto No. 2 reunited Cliburn and Kondrashin with the Moscow Philharmonic in Moscow. RCA Victor eventually released the performance, along with a studio recording of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini on CD.

Kondrashin was also the artistic director of the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra from 1960 to 1975. During this period he premiered Shostakovich's Symphony No.4 in December 1961 and Symphony No.13 the following year. He gave several performances in Europe and America with other famous Russian musicians like Rostropovich, Oistrakh, and Sviatoslav Richter.

Kondrashin defected from the Soviet Union in December 1978 while touring in the Netherlands, and sought political asylum there, whereupon the Soviet regime immediately banned all his previous recordings. He took the post of Permanent Guest Conductor of Amsterdam's Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1978, and remained in that position until his death. He also established a brief but fruitful collaboration with the Vienna Philharmonic.

BD:   How dictatorial do you get, and how collaborative are you?

Tamarkin:   It depends absolutely on the situation.  If you are in a situation where you have half a rehearsal to prepare two programs, you might not choose to press details upon them.  Then, if one is in a situation of having the time, one should absolutely take it.

BD:   Can I assume that the Dallas Symphony is simply faster at grasping a lot of things than the Vermont Orchestra?

Tamarkin:   They’re a major orchestra with a budget over $10 million.  So, it’s a whole different caliber, and they are very quick.  They sight-read beautifully, and even on the second run-through what you didn’t get the first time, you almost always get the second time.  The question after that becomes, then what?  That’s when the conductor needs a real image to convey.

BD:   Do you always come with a pre-set group of ideas that you want to present, or do you get inspired by what you hear and see at those rehearsals?

Tamarkin:   That’s a fascinating topic.  Theoretically you come in with as clear an image as you can, but partly because I’m a young conductor, sometimes as I’m going along, I hear things that suggest different things to me.  My experience with American orchestras is that basically they would prefer that you not make their life difficult by either changing your mind, or on various nights trying it a little differently... but I do!  [Laughs]

BD:   Good.  Stand your ground!

Tamarkin:   I don’t mean that you go up and throw a curve, but, as I said, the horoscopes are different, and the moment is different, and things might feel a little different.  But you must remember that you can’t get up and just do something crazy.

BD:   [With a smile]  Well, you could, but you wouldn’t last.

Tamarkin:   [Laughs]  Because you’d make a train-wreck, right!  We’re not in the business of making train-wrecks, but we are in the business of making music.  There’s a certain amount of spontaneity... or there should be.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   How does your job change when there is a soloist either beside or behind you?

Tamarkin:   It’s a real collaboration then.  It reminds me of dancing.  You watch the skaters performing solo, and then you watch them in pairs.  There’s an artistry to each one, and to me, accompanying is wonderful.  I enjoy it very, very much.  It’s a love of mine, and when you can work with a soloist that you feel in sync with, it’s wonderful.  However, there are times when it’s not so wonderful...

BD:   What can you do when one you don’t like is foisted on you?

Tamarkin:   You need to be diplomatic, and you just make a mental list of what that experience was like.  What is interesting about it is that often a soloist will do one thing at a rehearsal, and you expect a certain set of events to happen.  Then, especially if you have a dislike for that person, you get to the performance and sometimes it can be just wonderful, and sometimes you’re very surprised.  It can be unfortunate.  There are times people either rush or slow down, or just aren’t performing in way in which they performed in the rehearsal, and you never know until you get there.


BD:   [Gently protesting]  But you don’t want them to be robots, do you?

Tamarkin:   No, you don’t, but you want them to be able to be in command of their nerves enough to do what they want to do.

BD:   [Surprised]  Most of the changes might be a result of nervousness?

Tamarkin:   Oh, I think so.  I don’t care what level you’re at, people don’t feel the same every time they go out to play, especially with a new piece, or if they’re trying out a work and maybe haven’t quite decided on an interpretation.  That happens at all levels.

BD:   Are they then looking to you for suggestions?

Tamarkin:   Yes, sometimes.  I had a wonderful experience with a pianist where we were both doing a concerto for the first time.  That was lovely, because we really discussed it, and came up with a collaborative effect.  Some soloists are more open than others.  Some come in and say this is how they do this work, and at that point I was just interested in what they did.

BD:   You just gave them what they wanted?

Tamarkin:   I believe that we are there for them at that point.  There are moments that you disagree, and you can ask if they really want that, or say that it seemed to interrupt the flow.  Then you discuss it, but you have to take into account the personality of the person you are working with.  Maybe this is just how they do the work, in which case that’s how they do it.  [Much laughter]

BD:   You probably would not get this opportunity, but is there a chance that music could get over-rehearsed, or over-analyzed, or over psyched up?

Tamarkin:   I think there is that possibility.  There are famous jokes about some old-time conductors, like Sir Thomas Beecham, who traditionally didn’t like to rehearse.  There is a story where he starts a Brahms symphony, and then he stops and says,
It’ll be fine.”  One of the oboe players says, “But Maestro, I’ve never played this Brahms symphony before,” and Beecham says, “Oh, you’re going to love it!”  [Both laugh]  That’s one extreme, and then there are other extremes where people analyze and analyze and analyze.  It’s a matter of how to build a performance from the rehearsals.  I’m always a little nervous when I see a conductor taking things down to little tiny pieces at the dress rehearsal.  Then, there are conductors who get up in front of the orchestra for the very first time, and they get to bar two and they stop, and they rehearse.

BD:   Neither one knows how the other is going to react?

Tamarkin:   Right, and no one knows how it all goes.  There’s a real art to building a performance.  With a group that’s less than a major orchestra, you need to build a confidence factor, and one thing that builds a confidence factor is to get to the end of the rehearsal and they’ve gone through it.  They know they’ve played it all.  They know what’s going to happen, and then you are building on what should happen.  That is when you can add the performance magic that’s going to occur.  But a lot of them are afraid, wondering how this part goes because they never did this.  One of the things that I’m always a little sorry about is that there is a tendency nowadays to put the contemporary piece first on the program.

BD:   Here, it’s usually just before the intermission.  There’s an opening piece, and then the new piece, and after intermission is the big concerto or symphony.

Tamarkin:   That’s good, because I’ve had some experiences where it’s often taken the place of the overture, which is really not the place to put that kind of piece.

BD:   The audience is not ready for it?

Tamarkin:   Right.  You want to get into the concert.  Sometimes it fits there, and some conductors only pick ten-minute contemporary pieces.  [Laughs]  Then it is sort of like giving people their medicine.

BD:   What advice do you have for audiences that come to concerts regularly, or irregularly?

Tamarkin:   I would want them to come hoping and expecting to have a music experience, to have their blood pressure raised in the sense of hope of some excitement and transformation.  I want them to come with an open mind, and to treat the idea of not knowing a piece by thinking of it in terms that they might make a friend that evening.  I know that sounds a little naïve, but they can make new friends as well as hear old friends.

BD:   That’s how you and I would go to a concert, but what about the guy who’s been working all day at the office?

Tamarkin:   That person may come to get away from their difficulties, and there’s nothing more to say.  First of all, a new piece might not do that, and secondly, there might be something else on the program.  If one piece doesn’t do it for them, another one might.  People go to pops concerts a lot just to have a good time, and not to think too much, and get with their old friends, the old tunes that they know.

BD:   On pops concerts or on subscription concerts, is there a balance between an artist achievement and an entertainment value?

Tamarkin:   That’s a tough one.  My feeling is that art can be anything.  It can be the most serious, or it can be the lightest.  It can be religious, or it can be bawdy.  It reflects life, and life contains that gambit, so it should contain the gambit.

BD:   Does it have all these things at the same time, or at different times?

Tamarkin:   It’d be hard to get it all at the same time.  It would make a real smorgasbord, and maybe that’s the key.  It’s what you put together, and what themes you choose to represent on different evenings.

Smörgåsbord became internationally known at the 1939 New York World's Fair when it was offered at the Swedish Pavilion "Three Crowns Restaurant". It is typically a celebratory meal, and guests can help themselves from a range of dishes laid out for their choice. In a restaurant the term refers to a buffet-style table laid out with many small dishes from which, for a fixed amount of money, one is allowed to choose as many as one wishes.

In English and also in Scandinavian languages, the word smörgåsbord refers loosely to any buffet with a variety of dishes — not necessarily with any connection to Swedish traditions. In an extended sense, the word is used to refer to any situation which invites patrons to select whatever they wish from an abundant selection, such as the smorgasbord of university courses, books in a bookstore, etc.

Interestingly, in Vermont they are very fond of what you would call
heavy pops concerts.  We were told not to make to make our pops concerts too light.  This audience is more serious, and when I went to one, it was the quietest outdoor audience you ever saw.  The music started, everybody stopped and it got very quiet.  In Dallas it’s a whole different ball game.  It’s a field day.  They throw Frisbies, and wear cowboy hats.  I don’t want to give you the wrong impression, but we were told that they prefer very light concerts.  So it depends on what part of the country you’re from, and what the tradition is there.

BD:   Do you tailor to that taste a little bit, and at the same time try to raise levels just a little bit when you can?

Tamarkin:   Yes, although for me, Broadway music is great music.  Richard Rodgers wrote wonderful music, as did Cole Porter, so to me that’s not lowering in any kind of way.  I enjoy that, but it needs to be done well.  If you do light music, and you do it beautifully, you are servicing the art.  To throw it away as trash is inexcusable, and that’s a problem because pops music is difficult music.  There are lots of transitions, lots of tempo changes, lots of style changes, and usually it’s given less rehearsal time because they think the audience is less judgmental.  But those pieces need to be rehearsed for the forty and fifty tempo changes in a concert.  I believe in music.  I don’t think we have to try and get music to uplift people, or bring them along.  It does that by its nature.  I believe in the product.  We don’t have to over-sell.  It will survive, and by its nature it can transform people.  It does need help, including from advertising.  But it needs to be performed well, and with love, and with care.  That’s what it needs from us.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Is conducting fun?

Tamarkin:   It's a blast!  Conducting is an activity where I totally forget myself, and that is a great blessing.  It is a great blessing in life not to have to think about yourself too much.

BD:   Are you the servant of the music?

Tamarkin:   [Thinks a moment]  I had a teacher named Frederik Prausnitz who said that in the same way a person might say you need to have a personal relationship with a religious figure, like Jesus Christ, he felt that conductors and performers needed to have a personal relationship with the music, and that literally it was the combination of your personality interacting with the music in a recreative way which makes it different every time.  So if you say,
I’m just a servant of the music, you’re not serving the music.  You need to inject your own flesh and blood into it. 


Frederik William Prausnitz
(August 26, 1920 in Cologne – November 12, 2004 in Lewes, Delaware) was a German-born American conductor and teacher. His grandfather, Wilhelm Prausnitz, was the dean of the medical school at Graz, as well as a Privy Counsellor. His family, of Lutheran background, emigrated from Cologne to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1937 because of deep disagreements with the Nazi regime.

Upon graduation from the Juilliard School he won a conducting competition sponsored by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 1943, taught at Juilliard for some twenty years in the 1950s and 1960s, took over as conductor of the New England Conservatory Orchestra in Boston, Massachusetts, and eventually moved to London where he was a staff conductor with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. After his return to the US he was the Music Director of the Syracuse Symphony for three years, then joined the faculty of the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, Maryland where he remained until his retirement in 1998.

Noted especially for his commitment to contemporary music, he was also a devoted exponent of the music of Gustav Mahler. He wrote a biography of Roger Sessions and a conducting textbook, Score and Podium. He adopted the unusual form of his first name after seeing an Italian concert poster with that misspelling.

Maurice Abravanel was a wonderful mentor, and he said,
Everyone’s trying to be unique.  Why don’t you just do your best to perform the music, and if you’re unique, it will come out unique.  There’s a great tendency now for people to do it uniquelyto have the slowest tempo, or have the longest performance of any symphony.

BD:   That sounds gimmicky.

Tamarkin:   It does, but it’s true.  If something’s unique, it is.  It doesn’t have to be, but it can be.

BD:   Are you looking forward to making some recordings?

Tamarkin:   Yes.  At this stage of my life, I would like to try and do recordings of pieces that need recording, and not just another Beethoven cycle... not that I wouldn’t want to do that, but I want to wait until I’m fifty or so.

BD:   Start out with some American composers!

Tamarkin:   Right, and music that’s gone out of the catalogue.  There’s music that was once recorded, but it’s now out of print... items by Virgil Thomson and John Alden Carpenter, for example.  There’s more pride in America now, in the sense that people want to know what their tradition is.  They really have a tradition, and it’s an amazing tradition.  Some of our early composers were also tinsmiths and lawyers, and agriculturists, and they were amazing.  Some of the pieces by William Billings show a very interesting history that we do have.  Being European is not always better, and that’s something important even with conductors.  It’s amazing in this country how difficult it is for the American conductor to make his or her way, because there’s still a feeling that somehow the European touch is ‘the right way’.  Of course, if all you play is European music, you can argue that.  On the other hand, having spent a little time in the Soviet Union, where everything that I heard seemed to have their interpretations go through a clearly Soviet filter.  It showed me that perhaps the American way is better because we have such a variety of styles, and a variety of heritage that we have an advantage.  We don’t just see it through one set of eyes... or shouldn’t view it that way.

BD:   The more we can bring to it, the better.

Tamarkin:   Yes.

BD:   Thank you for being a conductor, and for this conversation.

Tamarkin:   Thank you for having me.


========                ========                ========
----        ----        ----
========                ========                ========

© 1992 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on February 28, 1992.  This transcription was made in 2020, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.