4 Peter Jermihov - Narrative
"She to whom the realm of music is a spiritual home; he to whom, in his music-making, its language is its second–if not his native–tongue; she who understands music on hearing it like her mother-tongue: such a person has intrinsic musicality. Music makes his soul vibrate; it affects her/him as directly, almost, as any moving, edifying, shattering, uplifting actual emotional experience."
                            Bruno Walter

I was born on the Fourth of July, a fact that made subsequent birthday celebrations precariously loud. My entire childhood was immersed into the customs and traditions of a Russian community that found its new home in Chicago after World War II. My parents raised me in a religious home with great gatherings around a festive table, poetry readings, and, of course, music and singing late into the night. Weekly outings to Orchestra Hall included legendary performances by Anton Rubenstein, Sviatoslav Richter, Claudio Arrau, Nikolai Gedda (who sang next to me in church the morning after his triumphant appearance in Tosca at the Lyric Opera), Joan Sutherland, Rostislav Rostropovich, Leonid Kogan, the Vienna Boys Choir, the Don Cossack Choir under Sergei Jaroff, Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner, Osipov Balalaika Orchestra from Russia, and many other performing artists of the day. This ‘high culture’ was quite the contrast to the day-to-day mischiefs of the Latin King Pewees (a grammar-school-age, preparatory neighborhood gang), who were my daily peers and rulers of the Humbolt Park Kingdom. After a few bloody physical encounters at school, my mother stopped sending me to school in a sailor suit.

Piano lessons began at age six, and I first conducted a choir at age twelve. My piano teacher taught me to caress the score with the palm of my hand before practicing it (a ritual he performed while introducing a new piece); Professor Kulikovich was also a Russian immigrant and a graduate of the Moscow State Conservatory who had an eccentric personality and who decided to help my parents by teaching me gratis. The sound of the a cappella choir was as natural and necessary as breathing, and the best way to ‘get into’ that beloved sound was to stand in front of the choir and direct. Private tutors in Latin, Russian literature and geography complimented my regular studies of harmony, part-writing, score-reading in the old clefs, and the eight church tones. Epic poems by Derzhavin, Pushkin, and Lermontov were memorized weekly. From these Saturday morning lessons, I ran to my Little League baseball games to reclaim a ‘normal’ existence.

After singing in Mozart’s Requiem under David Zinman at the Grant Park Summer Concerts, there was no doubt in my mind that music was to become a full-time and lifetime pursuit (what ‘did me in’ was the Eb in the alto voice-part against the D in the tenor voice-part at the end of the quam olim Abrahae fugue; Abraham’s promise and the pain of a temporal existence found such perfect expression in that dissonance). I enrolled and, five years later, graduated from Chicago Musical College (currently the Chicago College of Performing Arts) of Roosevelt University with a major in theory. My studio teachers were Saul Dorfman and Goldie Golub for piano and Robert Long for voice; Joseph Urbinato immersed me into the solo song, and that endeavor was a sure path to the larger forms; these teachers’ foundational work is still with me. During one of the summers, I hitchhiked through Europe and ended up living in Germany for a year, studying piano with Germanic attention to phrasing and detail under Frau Ong of the Hochschüle für Musik in Stuttgart. The esteemed German conductor and Bach specialist, Helmuth Rilling, and the Gächinger Kantorei rehearsed next door to my abode–the Russische Kirche. Upon return to the States and before going on to graduate school, I studied conducting and score analysis under Richard Vikstrom, Music Director of the Rockefeller Chapel Choir and Giulio Favario, Chorus Master of the Chicago Lyric Opera. Observing rehearsals and singing under these conductors established a standard for professional music-making.

Graduate work was completed at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and paid for by the Foreign Language Area Studies Fellowship which, luckily, rewarded Russophiles with tuition and fee waivers and very hefty stipends. To receive the stipend, I conducted the Russian Choir alongside John Garvey and the Russian Folk Orchestra. As a choral conducting major, I also studied orchestral conducting with Paul Vermel–a sweet and disciplined man–who had firsthand knowledge of the French School of Conducting. He taught me the ‘fixed ictus,’ how to mark the conductor’s score, and how to conduct recitative and five different forms of the fermata. Summers were spent at the Oregon Bach Festival studying Bach, Baroque articulation, and score analysis under the very same Helmuth Rilling, guest-conducting Mozart’s Serenades (!) at the Classical Music Seminar in Eisenstadt, Austria under Don V Moses, and participating in conducting masterclasses under Eric Ericson. Graduate school was a blessing filled with lifelong lessons about everything under the sun from the brilliant musicologist–Alexander Ringer, about Stravinsky from Tom Fredrickson, about Renaissance music from Joseph Kellman, about operas from Nicholas Temperely, and about Dalcroze Eurhythmics from Robert M. Abramson, but also learning about people and their complexities, and self-discipline. The U of I was a fertile garden ready to blossom the inquisitive mind.

After the full-time graduate studies came my first two jobs–sabbatical replacements in which I met working professionals: musicians, teachers of music, beginning young professionals like myself, and accomplished artists in their respective areas. It was inspiring to work with them and the talented and impressionable students who were only a few years younger than me; I was able to put into practice all that I had collected in my mind and heart! While on a retreat with a select touring choir in the Cascade Mountains, we rehearsed for hours Brahms ’ Nänie, a perfect setting of Schiller’s epic poem. The words, “Daß das Schöne vergeht, daß das Vollkommene stirbt. Auch ein Klagelied zu sein im Mund der Geliebten ist herrlich,” were especially moving. Beauty and perfection were “passing” right before us; the words, the poetic image, the music, and the moment were wondrously intertwined. That symbiotic moment was far more memorable and gratifying than any of our subsequent performances of the work.

The Russian theme in my life was, to be sure, present at every phase. But when, in 1985, I was awarded the International Research and Exchanges Board Scholarship for a two-year period of study in Russia, it surfaced with tutti strength. The purpose of my trip was to research the music of Georgy Sviridov (1915–1998) for my doctoral dissertation and to study orchestral conducting under the master teacher Il’ya Musin. A separate book can be written about this journey back to my roots. Here, in one paragraph, I can simply touch on this most intense and memorable experience of my life. The work included regular lessons in Musin’s class and ‘hands-on’ conducting exposure to a professional orchestra, and monthly sessions with Sviridov. The former launched my conducting career and the latter served as a basis for my doctoral dissertation. After the intellectual rigor of graduate school, here in Russia, I was immersed into the realm of emotion, imagery, literature, physical gesture, and monumental symphonic structures; I was allowed and encouraged, indeed expected, to ‘feel’ the music. Nothing I had seen, heard, or studied could compare with the depth and skill-level of this conducting ‘method’–here was the Russian School with what I think is certainly one of the most evolved conducting programs in the world. My first year ended with a recital that included Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, which I conducted in the very same hall of the St. Petersburg Conservatory where Piotr Il’yich premiered his Piano Concerto No. 1 (!); and my second year ended with a concert of Bach and Mendelssohn’s music in the St. Petersburg State Kappella leading the St. Petersburg State Academic Orchestra and St. Petersburg Chamber Choir. The sessions with Sviridov earned a doctoral degree, but much more importantly, helped bring the work of this monumental composer to light in the West. I also visited my father’s homeland in Petsery (now Estonia)–the house he built with his own hands, and met my beautiful wife, Irene–a choral conducting major at the Conservatory. We confessed our vows before Peter the Great’s Medniy Vsadnik (Bronze Horseman) and were married in a palace overseeing the Neva River. The trip to Russia was a journey home in every imaginable way.

My ‘adult’ career in music began when I returned to the States from Russia. Here ends a chronological account of the formative events in my life. Now comes the emergence of an approach to conducting and teaching. After the journey to the foothill, the lifelong climb begins.

Conducting is one form of music-making. As such, it deals with the technical challenges that any instrumentalist or solo performer must confront and overcome in order to attain a high level of artistry. But conducting has a unique dimension, peculiar to its form, mainly, its dependency on others for tone production. The conductor alone is mute; but with others playing or singing, she/he can begin to realize a vision of the score. This unique and sometimes daunting circumstance highlights the conductor’s dependency on emotional and psychological factors–human factors–that may seem unrelated to the music at hand. The conductor may be a fabulous musician but, at the same time, a poor communicator or an individual with a particularly unpleasant demeanor; the result of this unfortunate combination is often pathetically dull sounds or uninspired and average performances (let us not pursue the double negative). Conversely, the conductor may be a weak musician and/or conductor but possess charisma or good looks that motivate members of the ensemble with these extra-musical qualities, but the result of this combination often yields technically deficient performances. But what glorious results sound from the individual who possesses both attributes–superlative musicianship and unquestionable charisma, for example, from Lenny Bernstein!

What, then, are the conductor’s set of human factors, beyond physical appearance and separate from her/his rank as a musician, that motivate musicians of the ensemble to immerse themselves fully into tone production and sing or play with total mind, heart, and soul? Before I could answer this question as a young conductor, I persisted to conduct on the basis of a kinetic knowledge that ensembles simply accepted my leadership and that there were enough ‘magical ’ moments to justify a return to the podium (there were also moments that might send another less audacious personality to an alternate profession). But there was a pivotal awakening to the mystery and magic of the great conductors. I will direct the reader to the historic video production entitled The Art of Conducting and to the episode with my favorite conductor–Wilhelm Fürtwangler. It is a fairly long account, so I will summarize: Fürtwangler walked into the hall where the Berlin Philharmonic was rehearsing with a routine guest-conductor and sat down at the rear of the hall, and instantly, the orchestra acquired a new and brilliant sound. Just his presence transformed the sound of an entire orchestra! For me, the storyteller answered the initial question: Fürtwangler possessed an amazingly open demeanor, and this demeanor invited members of the orchestra into that same state of “openness.” With a more mature approach, I became fully dedicated to being or becoming “open” and “inviting” the musicians into that state, though one followed the other as a natural progression.

“First came the seen, then thus the palpable” (Pound, Canto 81). My conducting philosophy can be summarized in one word: preparation. Before I step on the podium, I prepare myself in three distinct ways. First, I learn the score. Second, I think through and practice the physical gestures to visually match the demands of the score; in essence choreograph the score. Third, I undertake a process in which, using Parker J. Palmer’s terminology from his landmark book–The Courage to Teach, I examine my “identity” and “integrity”: “identity lies in the intersection of diverse forces that make up my life, and integrity lies in relating to those forces in ways that bring me wholeness and life rather than fragmentation and death.” This is an examination of everything that converges on my ensuing work with an ensemble: the music at hand, facts and details about the performers, my frame of mind, my fears and expectations, the rehearsal and performance context, aspects of and insights into the composer’s life, etc. The result of this third phase of preparation must lead to a sense of absolute sincerity or, in Parker’s words: “becoming more real.” It is this sense of reality that makes me “open” to others, to the music, and to unforeseen circumstances (which invariably surface). It is this sense of reality that “invites” others to fully participate in the process. Many conductors and authors speak about respect for the singers and players and the need for democratic exchange of ideas between conductor and player; respect is a given, but no such joint participation will ever emerge if the conductor (or the player) is either a closed individual or has nothing substantive to share. On the other hand, Mariss Jansons (whom Simon Rattle recently proclaimed as the world’s leading conductor) speaks of a need for collaboration with the players and, indeed, his work and the testimonies of those ‘under’ his baton evidence a powerful synergetic process. He truly is open to collaboration and the players feel and acknowledge this openness and immerse themselves with energy and total commitment; the performance results are superlative.

I certainly advocate “preparation” and the desirability of an “open” environment in my teaching; I try to model these attributes. But a more comprehensive approach to teaching is formed by innate and acquired elements along the lines of “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” musicality described by Bruno Walter in his book–Of Music and Music-Making. By “innate,” I am referring to those characteristics that can be considered intuitive and inborn. My energy to teach comes from an innate love for music and music-making. I encourage my students to root themselves in their innate passion for music and, in some cases, first find that primal source within themselves. The “acquired” elements in my life are those layers of information and skills that were absorbed through observation and direct experience. In my formative years I had an insatiable hunger to watch acknowledged masters ‘do their thing,’ ‘spin their magic.’ I encourage my students to observe as many master musicians and conductors as possible and to immerse themselves into contexts that challenge their skill levels: analytic seminars, summer workshops, conducting seminars and competitions, music-making experiences under dynamic conductors, etc., and to read. My teaching philosophy is, thus, a balancing act between the intrinsic-innate, and extrinsic-acquired aspects of my own journey and of the student’s development. I am always searching for new and more efficient ways of gaining and imparting knowledge and skills. But my main concern is to present an image to the students of a man who knows his limitations, who is honest in his appraisal of himself and others, and who is constantly seeking ways of becoming a better musician and person. Awakening and nourishing a desire to examine and better oneself is the greatest gift a teacher can offer a student.
Dale M. Golden, E-mail: dgolden@dalegoldenlaw.com, Phone: 312.201.9730 © 2014 Peter Jermihov. All Rights Reserved.