“A Maestro Is a Master at Making Magic”: A Talk With Maestro Keri-Lynn Wilson
Reading Time: 8 minutes
First, a list of basic facts about conductors:
A conductor guides, or conducts, the orchestra.
A baton often comes into play, but not always.
The action cannot start until the conductor goes to the pit or stage.
A conductor might also be referred to as “maestro.”
Beyond that, the conductor is a bit of an enigmatic figure, particularly for those who are neither a conductor nor are conducted. A conductor might let her arms glide and swoop for Beethoven’s “Pastoral.” She might bounce a bit if she has caught Mendelssohn in a happy mood. For a fierce ending to the “Carmen” overture, her arms might come slicing down in a ninja-chop. What is more of a mystery is how these movements connect to the music created.
A few months ago, I had the privilege of speaking with the extraordinary Canadian conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson. Wilson has conducted some of the world’s most renowned orchestras, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, and she is also a celebrated conductor of operas at venues such as the Royal Opera House Covent Garden and the Bolshoi Theater.
The main thing we had set out to talk about, when we greeted each other from our Zoom boxes, was the mysterious nature of her art—what a conductor does, and how and why somebody might become one. But as we spoke, it became clear that we were edging towards a larger question: why classical music? It is not yet time to perform a requiem for classical music, but this question nevertheless comes at a time when 62 percent of the New York Philharmonic’s audience is over the age of 55.
Wilson had some ideas about how classical music might get its health and deserved glory back. Here is our conversation, cut down for clarity and length:
CS: I saw that you play an incredible number of instruments—the flute, the piano, and the violin. Yet it was to conducting that you ultimately turned. So what was it that drew you to conducting?
KLW: When I was a little girl, I grew up playing in the youth orchestra in Winnipeg, and the conductor was my father. So I had a conductor in my family whom I admired and was sitting literally under his nose as a flutist in the orchestra. I was enthralled by this magnanimous kind of profession. It’s a very difficult kind of career to describe, because what are they doing up there? Conductors are just moving their arms around, up in the air. How does that connect to the notes that we’re hearing? Anyway, I grew up loving playing almost every kind of instrument […] throughout my childhood, I did play the flute, violin, and piano. Then I went to the Juilliard school and because I excelled on the flute, that was my main instrument. And then, when I was at Juilliard, I was playing a lot in the orchestra, and I [have] loved the sound of the orchestra since I was a kid. It was always the sound of the orchestra that made me very passionate about music. Not opera—I hated opera as a kid. Because my sister was the singer. And whenever she sang, I would close my ears. Probably because I had no voice. Anyway, back to Juilliard—I loved playing in the orchestra, but I was also a very good flutist. I won the flute competition at Juilliard, which was quite an honor. I had my Carnegie Hall debut on the flute. But then, one day, [during] my last year of study on the flute, I decided I was terribly bored and I never wanted to play the flute again. I thought, why don’t I take the addition for the conducting program at Juilliard? I thought, “Why don’t I take the big step, take an addition to get into the Juilliard school as a conductor, and pursue another degree?” So I would get a second master’s in conducting. So for me, it was really an overnight decision. Somebody saw me following [the] conductors’ master class—I was still a flutist—and they said “Oh, are you taking the addition to get into Juilliard?” And I said, “No, no, no.” But then that night I thought, “That’s a great idea!” And I did.
CS: How would you describe the role of a conductor? What does a conductor do?
KLW: To sum it up, a conductor ultimately has to inspire. Has to inspire the entire orchestra, or opera company, to play together, to make music together, to play as one. That’s what a great teacher does—make everybody think as one, or aspire for something as a unit. Unified, a group. So a conductor has two visions. One is to technically put everything together, to be very precise. To fix things like a mechanic. So the technical aspect is balanced with the artistic. Your musicianship. How you make the phrasing. The difference between a conductor and a maestro, I would say, is that a conductor is good practically, you know putting it together. Very clear, everything is technically perfect. But perhaps a maestro is a master at making magic, and that magic comes from making the music alive. So that’s the part of the inspiration. How you do your gestures, you reflect the music in a way that is shaping the music and making the music come alive.
CS: I notice sometimes that conductors’ faces change as they conduct. Sometimes they look stormy, or they’ll look ecstatic or contemplative. And as I watch you conduct, I notice some of these changes happening. Do you really feel like you have to go through these changes emotionally as you conduct?
KLW: Absolutely. And you know why? Because we’re like actors. Our bodies are reflective of what the mood is. So if the music is happy, you’re not going to be frowning like this. You have to exude the joy, or the happy, sort of uplifting type of spirit. If it’s a dark mood, your face is going to be much darker. We’re like choreographers with our arms, right? What you see in your arm should reflect what you’re hearing. And then your facial expressions, yes, that’s like being an actor. So when I was a kid, I was always doing skits with my friends and we didn’t have internet like we do today—TikTok and all that stuff—but we were always taping voice recorders. I would do comedy skits and all sorts of stuff. So I think that that helped a little. In an extroverted personality, one is better equipped to be a conductor, I think.
CS: How does being a woman shape your experience of being a conductor, if at all?
KLW: Not at all. None whatsoever. I’ve been in this profession [for] three decades now. Ever since I started out, all the journalists would say “What’s it like to be a female conductor?” And I’m like—ugh! I say, “I don’t know, because I don’t know what it’s like to be a male conductor.” But when I was a kid, I never thought that there was anything that wasn’t possible. I mean, sure I wanted to be everything—I wanted to be an instrumentalist, I wanted to be a president. It was like picking an instrument—I wanted to be the best at something. And just because I was a girl, I couldn’t? I never imagined that that would get in the way. So I just did what I did. And to this day I hate it when people say “Ah! It’s a female conductor!” What the heck is the difference? It’s a conductor! It’s exhausting, because all the time we spent in these interviews talking about women conductors, we could have talked about much more interesting things, like Mahler’s symphonies or Wagner or something. Why dwell on this issue?
CS: Why might someone find classical music appealing?
KLW: What I would do is I would sit [a person who hates classical music] down. And I would play for him ten of my favorite recordings, and I would see if he reacted to any of them. And I mean, the greatest moments in classical music. I’d put on Beethoven Five. I’d put on Mahler Five. I’d put on Shostakovich Five. I’d play Götterdämmerung in its loudest moments. I would put Tosca on. I would put Don Carlo. I would put Boris Godunov. And Mozart Requiem. And if he didn’t respond in a positive way to any of those, I’d throw him out the door and say “That’s hopeless.” But it would be interesting what he responded to. Because I think we all have individual tastes. The one thing I think is part of a problem in people’s perceptions, people who think they don’t like classical music, is they hear a Handel oboe concerto on the radio and that’s supposed to represent classical music. Some Baroque thing, maybe it’s a little out of tune, early instrument. And they think, “Ah, I don’t like that!” Or they hear [something] over and over again in a commercial, or on Bugs Bunny. It’s the way it’s presented that potentially is a problem. So when you sit them in a concert hall, or an opera house, and they listen to “bohème,” they see the sets, or they go sit in the best seat of the house at Carnegie Hall, and hear Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique,” they’ve got to be moved. That’s a much better way than hearing an oboe sonata of Handel in the elevator. It’s all about your experience. So I’m hopeful that as long as we educate—we have to educate the young and expose them to this great world of music. And I think that’s what good about the internet. You know, more and more, with Youtube, I think that’s helping. I’m hopeful.
CS: Have you noticed a difference between how other people in other parts of the world view classical music and how America does?
KLW: I think that there are differences, but the main difference is the culture. In America, classical music and opera are not at the forefront of everybody’s everyday life. That’s an understatement. Whereas in Germany, or in Austria or in Japan, in Russia, classical music is essential. It is worshipped. There’s only a smaller portion of Italy [that] still is so incredibly knowledgeable about every verismo tune. You know, I used to get into taxis, two decades ago, and older taxi men would be playing opera in the car. You don’t get that so much. But yes, certain countries are so passionate. In Moscow, at The Bolshoi, it’s always sold out. And it’s sold out by the locals. The Met gets sold out because of tourism as well. There aren’t enough people to fill the house every day in America. And it’s a matter of culture. Europe has always respected the arts. It’s been much more prominent, just in everyday society. It’s unfortunate, and it shouldn’t be that way, but in the New World, we’re a little behind.
And now, a game—Maestro Wilson has invited us to her house to test whether we really are all incurable philistines. She will sit us down near the grand piano, and then we will listen to all the most astounding pieces—Beethoven Five, Mahler Five, Shostakovich Five, Götterdämmerung, Tosca, Boris Gudonov, and Mozart’s Requiem. Perhaps none of it will click and we will return to our Handel-in-the-elevator lives disgruntled, but for now, there is still a chance to experience the beauty of this music. For now, there is time to listen.