Have you ever wanted to know just what a conductor does? Recently we had a chance to talk with Emil de Cou, who is regular in terms of being a guest conductor across the United States and will be in Toronto Feb 17th and 18th conducting The Wizard of Oz with a live orchestra while the audience can watch the movie at the same time.
So what was it that got you interested in being a conductor?
Emil: Well, it was after seeing Fantasia at a theatre that really sparked my interest. After seeing that movie I said ok, I want to work with orchestras, I want to conduct and there was really no turning back after that moment. I just threw myself into it one hundred percent which is kind of funny because I started in music so late, I started in high school to pursue a career in conducting and there are very little employment opportunities for conductors except in huge cities. However, my parents were very supportive and didn’t complain, in fact, no one did surprisingly, and I had a couple of lucky breaks and here I am.
Is it a competitive field to be in and what pushed you or motivated you to get better?
Emil: I don’t know, it’s just something that I wanted so much. I think you have to because, Toronto, San Francisco, Los Angeles, there are a handful of people who are professional conductors because it’s not just competitive, there are just very few outlets for it. I always tell people who want to do this, or a concert pianist or violinist, you have to ask yourself, is there anything else you want to do, anything at all and if they say yes I say well, do that. Even if you want it very, very badly the likelihood of it happening is very small and you don’t want to waste time and live with constant disappointment. For me, I didn’t know how difficult it would be when I started and I think has I known I might have done something else, but that’s the blissful ignorance when you’re young, you don’t think about things like that, you just throw yourself at it and I was one of the lucky ones
Anyone who has been to see a play, ballet or opera has seen a conductor in action. What exactly is the role of a conductor and his or her relationship with the musicians?
Emil: Well, it all depends what kind of conductor you are. With the orchestra in the engagement in Toronto, I’m conducting, this movie, which is a great film and a great score. I didn’t choose the program, I was invited as a guest, so sometimes that is one aspect of it. If you’re the music director of a symphony orchestra you’re of course planning the music you’re conducting. In ballet, theater, and opera the program is generally done by the head of the arts organization. My interaction with the orchestra, this film in specific, is we are coordinating two hours of music that was recorded a long time ago and not ever meant to be performed live. I’m communicating with the musicians, they can’t hear the movie, they might hear some sound effects but mostly they’re just listening to each other and watching the conductor. I think working with film and working with ballet is very similar because you’re accompanying something that is already happening on stage and you need to be with either the dancer or the film, to the second or quarter of a second. Part of it is also being totally prepared in everything you’re doing before you get to the first rehearsal. Much of what conductors do, much of what I do, is not so much interacting with people but sitting at my desk for hours and hours and weeks and weeks before you get to the first rehearsal. A lot of what you do is by yourself, it’s very solitary, really. You could spend an hour on one page of music, just looking at the harmonies and orchestration and seeing how they fit and what doesn’t. Then you have to get up there and, is some sense an orchestra is like a jury, you’re pleading your case to a hundred women and men with a hundred different opinions on how the piece of music should go and the conductors job is to persuade them, not just to tell them, to get them to believe that your way is a valid way, hopefully you can move on from there and build some trust between one another and then off you go.
I’ve been lucky enough to see some great movies with a live orchestra and the energy the audience brings is just amazing. As a conductor, what is that experience like as opposed to a more conventional piece like a play or a ballet?
Emil: With movies, especially with John Williams, who has helped revitalize orchestral concerts through these film programs which are relatively new, so when you have an audience watching Harry Potter, Jurassic Park or Raiders of the Lost Ark they’re coming with a whole bunch of emotional memories. With those programs, and the music is fantastic, it doesn’t get any better than John Williams, you have a lot of kids and families which is the audience you want to reach in a concert such as this. When we performed Jurassic Park last summer, we had a sold-out show of seven thousand people and even before the first downbeat the audience was about to jump out of its seat and they’re not realizing you’re here for a three-hour symphony concert basically, they’re just there to see Jurassic Park. The excitement of having the crowd, the live orchestra, a hundred people on stage playing this brilliant score, it’s like a dream because that’s exactly what you want.
You mentioned that you’re conducting the live orchestra with the movie The Wizard of Oz in Toronto this February. Is there something special about the score to this movie?
Emil: Well this score, with this movie, is probably the one we’ve done the most in the past twenty years. The first time was with the National Symphony in 2006 and I’d performed some short bits of it before but no one had performed the entire movie before, so actually having the whole score played by one orchestra and one conductor, that had not been done before. The film, when it was recorded, was done with several different orchestras and conductors, so you have the cyclone sequence when the house is about to crash into Munchkin land, it’s a huge orchestra and scored over the course of a month. Then you have Somewhere Over the Rainbow, which is a relatively small orchestra, was recorded with Julia Garland singing in the studio live. Putting it all together for the first time was one of the most frightening things I’ve ever done, because it’s a really complicated score and you have to be spot on because it’s something everybody knows so if you mess up, you have many people who know that you’re messing up and it’s kind of embarrassing. I always look at the audience before the show starts and you infants, their siblings, parents and grandparents, and they might have seen this film in its first release or you might be seeing it for the first time but the movie is just brilliant, really an accidental masterpiece. The movie has not changed since it’s been filmed but you can watch it at any stage in life and it’s the same movie but it affects you differently and that really strikes me as being remarkable.
Do have specific personal guidelines in terms of the pieces you choose to conduct or do you just enjoy trying new things?
Emil: I like trying new things, being open because I think when you program things you want or don’t want to do it’s somewhat limiting, especially for ballet as I don’t choose the music I conduct. Years ago I was doing this piece by Philip Glass and at the time I thought I hate this music, it’s minimalist, it’s stupid but I still have to make this music and after studying it and slaving over it, figuring out all the details, towards the end of it I was like I love this piece. I would never have found that out if I wasn’t forced by my job to do it and make it work. I just like the variety, doing different things and I feel very fortunate to be able to do them because so much of what you do in conducting and music, you can get pigeonholed.
So what is a typical day like for you when preparing for a performance, and I guess we could use The Wizard of Oz as an example?
Emil: Well, The Wizard of Oz, that’s probably the film I’ve conducted the most, about twenty times now and I still have the score from the first performance. If it’s a new score, I’ll back up a couple of months, plan out how much time I need. I did the first two Harry Potter films last summer, those are gigantic books, three hours of non-stop music. For Jurassic Park, the whole T-Rex section, that big scene, it’s seven minutes with no music, which is amazing. With Harry Potter, there’s maybe thirty seconds at a time with no music, for the entire movie, it’s like a Wagner opera, start to finish it’s like non-stop music, so that took a tremendous amount of time to learn. I think it was late July, so I started that in early June and it’s not very interesting to a talk about but you basically start by looking at harmonies of each bar, the orchestration, the form, structure, that’s why each page can take quite a long time. You get to the end of act one doing that then you go back and do it all over again, adding more details, then you get to the film and look at the film and see how it coordinates. By the time I get, with Raiders or Wizard of Oz, to the orchestra, I’ve probably seen it about twenty or thirty times.
How many times do you prepare with the actual musicians before a performance?
Emil: That would be relatively short, I think for something like The Wizard of Oz we’ve scheduled two rehearsals, so we’ll probably have a rehearsal and a half to go through the music. The movie is about ninety minutes long with about an hour and twenty-five minutes of music, and it’s not hard to produce the notes, just hard to coordinate and to play that certain style. With John Williams, you don’t have to rehearse the style because everybody knows it, so if you’re doing anything by him, E.T., Raiders, Close Encounters, everybody knows how that music goes because we have a collective consciousness about it. When you’re doing music as old as The Wizard of Oz it slightly falls between the cracks of how you would play it in front of an orchestra and also how you’d play it as a piece of theater music. Also, that music was not meant to be performed live, it was meant to be performed in a studio so if you’re the Toronto Symphony, you’re used to playing with a big sounds to fill a whole room with acoustic instruments, so that’s just a different take on how you approach the music on the page.
So besides The Wizard of Oz in Toronto, what other projects do you have coming up?
Emil: Well, one of the other unusual things I do is I do a lot of work for NASA and I think we’ve had fourteen or fifteen collaborations with NASA headquarters and the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Wolf Trap. We have a concert June 1st and 2nd at the Kennedy Center, co-produced by NASA and Google in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the space agency. I’ve got a lot of performances in Seattle, we have Swan Lake, a tour of Paris in July and then Wolf Trap starts as soon as I get back.
I want to thank Emil for taking the time to talk with us