An Interview with Kenneth Kiesler

EACH SUMMER, CONDUCTORS FROM AROUND THE COUNTRY gather in rural Maine to cultivate such skills at the Conductors Retreat at Medomak. Combining hands-on musical training with personal development, the retreat helps participants work on all aspects of the conducting experience.

Kenneth Kiesler, founder and director of the Conductors Retreat at Medomak, is a world-renowned conductor, having directed such orchestras as the National Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, the Jerusalem and Haifa symphony orchestras in Israel, the Osaka Philharmonic in Japan, the New Symphony in Sofia, Bulgaria, and the Pusan Symphony in Korea.

Kiesler was music director of the Illinois Symphony Orchestra for twenty years, becoming conductor laureate at the end of the 1999–2000 season, and is now music director of the New Hampshire Symphony Orchestra. Since 1995, he has held the positions of professor of conducting and director of university orchestras at the University of Michigan School of Music.

The Milken Archive interviewed Kiesler while he was at the 2004 Conductors Retreat.

Milken Archive: Tell us about the retreat.

Kenneth Kiesler: There are 40 conductors here from all over the world for 18 days every summer, ranging from people who have never conducted before to people who have been music directors for 20 or 30 years, and everybody in between. We're here 24 hours a day, living in cabins in a rustic environment, six people in a cabin. It's very intense—it's not simply conductor training, such as how to use your hands. It's a whole institute in relating to each other in the group, empowering each other, and discovering where you may have strong spots, or where you may have fears in your relationships with other people. So it's all about group living, as well as getting away to study music and reconnecting with the art instead of the business. And on concert Saturdays, each of the 40 conductors conducts a different piece for three-and-a-half minutes, one after the other. It's like a tag team or a relay race.

MA: When you were initially approached to conduct for the Milken Archive, what was your reaction?

KK: Well, I felt very privileged to have been asked to conduct because I spend a lot of my time conducting music that's neither from the Jewish tradition nor influenced by Jewish culture and Jewish history. So it was wonderful to have the opportunity to connect to the music from my roots, my history, my family background and my soul. Immediately I saw so many possibilities for a performance imbued with the depth and breadth of my whole being, instead of only my intellectual side.

I was also thrilled about it because I didn't know any of this music before. I had been on a quest to learn more about Jewish music and to do more music that was at least influenced by Jewish culture, if not written by Jewish composers. And so it's a great opportunity to learn new music as well.

MA: What do you remember about conducting Schoenfield's The Merchant and the Pauper?

Paul Schoenfield and Kenneth Kiesler

Composer Paul Schoenfield and Kenneth Kiesler at the Merchant and the Pauper recording session.

KK: The Merchant and the Pauper is very simple and, in its simplicity, very beautiful and touching. I remember in particular the aria that we recorded for mezzo-soprano that sounds very much like a folk song—even though it's original—and how beautiful and touching and powerful it was, and how moved everyone was in the sessions when we recorded the piece. In fact, all of The Merchant and the Pauper had that effect on the instrumentalists and the singers.

I must say that having the three opera composers there during those scenes—Abraham Ellstein is deceased, but David Schiff, David Amram, and Paul Schoenfield were there—that makes all the difference. We conductors like to think we understand composers and their music, but we always have questions. And the notation of music is such an inexact science that to have the composers there to help us with the technical details is very important.

But more important than that is to get to know the composer, to sense their character and spirit. And when the composer walks onstage, you can feel the effect he has on all the musicians and their sensitivity to the character and spirit of the piece. By the way, Paul Schoenfield spent a good deal of time with me coaching singers for The Merchant and the Pauper. It was a wonderful opportunity to connect with him because we were working on his music side by side.

MA: Would you say that it's much more complex to conduct an opera than a symphony with a chorus?

KK: I think that when an opera is staged, there are certain complexities that result from the distance the singers are from the musicians: the fact that the orchestra is in a pit, and it's difficult to hear the singers onstage. And the singers are acting, moving, sometimes dancing, dealing with props, looking at each other, playing to the audience—that complicates things. But in concert opera, those elements are removed and it's very similar to oratorio, where singers stand and sing. And so while you want to have all the same understanding of motivations and character development that you would have in a staged opera, you're doing it pretty much standing still, so many of those difficulties are removed.

My approach to all music-making is that it's chamber music. If you have 105 people playing Mahler's Symphony No. 2 and you have 200 people in the chorus, you're really calling on all the chamber music skills and experiencing all the joys of chamber music, only in a large ensemble. And the conductor helps in different ways, depending on the size of the group, but still, in a way, as a silent chamber music partner.

MA: Every conductor has his or her own way of conveying a musical interpretation to the musicians. In working on Abraham Ellstein's The Golem, for example, how did you work with the musicians to arrive at that preferred interpretation?

Conductor Kenneth Kiesler with the University of Michigan Opera Theater.

Conductor Kenneth Kiesler with the University of Michigan Opera Theater.

KK: I think that when you work on a piece that has text, you constantly have to remind yourself that the composer began with the text, that there lay before the composer blank pages of score—and the text. So you enter into the process as if you were the composer. You read the text—more than once—and you begin to own it and memorize it and take it in and live your life with it. And from there, you go to the music. Then you try to open yourself up to the composer's reaction, the composer's specific, individual resonance with the text, which may be different from your own. You open yourself to the composer's view and the composer's take on the words.

And it's very important for instrumentalists to understand what's happening in the music that relates to the drama and to understand the spirit of the piece, as well as the specific dramatic moments. You also want the singers to open themselves up and take on the full spirit of the piece, to know each other's roles and motivations.

I think any time you're working with people on music, you have to remember that it's a privilege to be with those people, sharing the experience with each other, and it goes beyond simply getting the notes right. In certain environments, I would do a certain amount of talking—a lot of talking with my hands—but the rehearsals for The Golem and all the pieces I conducted for the Milken Archive were very efficient and we covered a lot of territory very quickly. So there wasn't room for a great deal of talking in terms of quantity but the right words at the right time in order to be effective.

MA: David Amram's The Final Ingredient is a very touching, very poignant piece. While David has his composition, the playwright Reginald Rose has his plot and the librettist Arnold Weinstein has his libretto, what part of The Final Ingredient would you say is yours?

KK:The Final Ingredient touched me from the first second that I opened the piece. Every word of it is touching. It's very powerful. I know what it feels like to have a seder, to be in a seder, to lead a seder, to have been the youngest at a seder. And to have the experience of doing that under the oppression of being in a concentration camp was immediately palpable to me. And the idea of trying to find the ingredients for a seder, and someone actually losing a life for having given an ingredient—that is extremely powerful for me and I think is a lesson for all mankind.

MA: Before conducting David Amram's Shir L'erev Shabbat (Friday Evening Service), had you ever conducted a prayer service? If so, how is conducting this type of music different from any other piece of music?

KK: I've conducted the Bloch sacred service before in concert—that's the only time I've ever conducted any kind of Jewish liturgical music. I've chanted it in synagogue, but I certainly haven't conducted much of it. So I can't compare it with conducting other settings of the same text.

If a conductor is indeed a conduit for the music that we conduct—the root of the words conduct and conduit is the same—then whatever the piece is, you open yourself up to it and become vulnerable to it. It gets inside you and affects you in a way that's unique for the kind of piece it is, for the specific millisecond. Every millisecond rings in you and resonates in you in a different way from any other piece, from any other moment.

Kenneth Kiesler


If you're truly responsive to the music, if you think of the musician a little bit as the concert hall and the music plays into you, the conductor, then you resonate with it the way a hall does. So if you're conducting Brahms or you're conducting Amram or you're conducting David Schiff or Abraham Ellstein, you resonate in different ways the way a hall would resonate to those same pieces.

MA: What was it like to record with the Milken Archive?

KK: To record for the Milken Archive is a very exciting thing. First of all, there's this sense of being part of a very important, significant project, and not being alone in this but having the support of an extraordinary group of people who have been doing extraordinary work in finding the music, preparing it, educating the performers about it, and working with extraordinary artists for this unique project. It was also very moving because of the nature of the music. And there's a sense of reaching across space and being one with the other performers I haven't even met who have also been involved in this project.

MA: What would you say is the value of the Milken Archive to the Jewish world, or to the general world of music lovers, for that matter?

KK: I think that the value of the Milken Archive to the world of music and to the world of Jewish music is immeasurable and unknowable and extraordinary. Much of this music was, prior to this time, unknown or relatively unknown. Most of it was not recorded before. I think that to bring this music to the attention of the music-loving public expands the horizons for all humankind. And I think it brings to Jewish people a renewed or expanded pride in our history and our heritage.


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